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Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoes bill expanding pine barrens area

A move to expand Long Island's pine barrens

A move to expand Long Island's pine barrens area, including this spot near the shuttered Shoreham nuclear power plant, was scuttled by the governor. April 18, 2017. Credit: Randee Daddona

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has vetoed a bill that would have expanded Long Island’s pine barrens area, citing the lack of public hearings and the potential to block a solar-energy proposal in Suffolk County.

“I am dedicated to preserving the Long Island pine barrens and other open space on Long Island. However, this bill, which passed without any public hearings or notice to the landowners, is not the appropriate avenue to accomplish that worthy goal,” the governor said in a veto message released Tuesday. “It unnecessarily pits land preservation against renewable energy, both of which are necessary to preserve the state’s environment and natural resources for future generations.”

The measure, approved by the State Legislature in June, would have expanded the core pine barrens designation to more than 1,000 acres in Shoreham and Mastic in Suffolk County. It would have shielded those lands from development.

But it also would have scuttled an energy company’s proposal to use some of the acreage to install thousands of solar panels to supply the state’s energy grid.

Cuomo said his administration sought to negotiate an amendment for the bill that included “taking tracts of land out of the bill, adding land elsewhere, swapping land with the private land owners” and other options. But talks failed.

“Unfortunately, a negotiated resolution proved unworkable,” the governor said. He added that his staff will continue talks with local groups and lawmakers to find a middle ground.

Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), one of the primary sponsors of the bill, vowed that lawmakers would take another stab at expanding the pine barrens in a new bill in 2018.

“It’s really disappointing,” Englebright said of Cuomo’s veto, “but we plan on revisiting this issue.”

“Up until late yesterday, there were extensive negotiations between the Town of Brookhaven, the developer of the Mastic Pine Barrens (or woods property), the governor’s office and the Legislature,” added Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), the other primary sponsor, who also decried the veto. “These lands are particularly critical for the ecology of the Forge River. Destroying the forest and the trees to install solar power just does not make sense at either the Mastic Woods or Shoreham Old Growth Coastal Forest properties.”

LaValle said he intends to “go right back at it” with one or perhaps two bills next year to revive the preservation effort.

Environmental groups that supported the bill said the Town of Brookhaven had offered to swap 75 acres so that Middle Island Solar, the company looking to build an array of solar panels in Suffolk County, could build on a new site while allowing the pine barrens expansion. The Long Island Pine Barrens Society and more than a dozen environmental and civic groups wrote to Cuomo asking him to sign the bill.

Richard Amper, executive director of the Pine Barrens Society, said he was “shocked and dismayed” by the veto.

In contrast, the New York League of Conservation Voters applauded the veto. “Preservation and renewable energy should not be pitted against each other and we were greatly concerned by legislation that would have done just that,” NYCLV President Marcia Bystryn said.

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