Entrance to the Peconic River Sportsman's Club on Connecticut Avenue...

Entrance to the Peconic River Sportsman's Club on Connecticut Avenue in Calverton on Oct. 8, 2021. Credit: James Carbone

Questions about the "viability" of Suffolk County's exclusive lease arrangement for more than 265 acres of wooded parkland to a Manorville sportsmen’s club are the focus of County Comptroller John Kennedy’s inquiry into the transaction, records show.

The comptroller's review, begun in October, centers on Suffolk's recently signed 25-year agreement to lease the undeveloped woodland, including more than a mile on the Peconic River, to the Peconic River Sportsman's Club for an initial fee of $9,030 a year, amounting to about $750 a month. The lease, which was approved by the Suffolk County Legislature and signed by the Bellone administration in September, will increase in cost at a rate of 3% a year.

In a Dec. 1 letter obtained by Newsday, Kennedy asked Suffolk County Attorney Dennis Cohen for all material used in "assessing the viability of the lease," as well as documents that would show the county was in "compliance with state and local requirements associated with alienation" of the parkland. Alienation refers to a government entity's decision to sell, lease or discontinue use of owned parkland to a nonpublic entity.

Kennedy also asked for documents relating to "any review" done by the county "regarding determination of the annual lease payments."

Kennedy and the county declined to comment on the letter. An attorney for the Peconic River Sportsman's Club, John Aramentano, said, "We weren't a part of any of that," referring to valuation issues that determined the lease payments. "Nor would we be," he added.

An existing lease for the property granting the club exclusive access doesn’t expire until 2025, but the county approved the new lease in September at the urging of the club and its lobbyist, Jon Schneider, a former deputy county executive who now works for the firm McBride Consulting & Business Development Group. Former County Legis. Tom Cilmi, who voted in favor of the lease, is now a senior executive consultant for McBride.

Cilmi said this week that he never did lobbying work for McBride while he was in the legislature, after receiving an ethics board opinion on the matter, and added, "No one ever told me Peconic [River Sportsman's Club] was a client. I had no reason to think they were."

Separately last month, the county parks department, in response to a Newsday Freedom of Information Law request in November asking for all records relating to an assessment of the land before the lease's approval, said it "had no records responsive to your request," which suggests the county did not assess the value of the lease before signing it. A spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The lease drew attention after John Turner, a Setauket conservationist, objected to its terms as the county legislature prepared to vote on the transaction in September. Turner complained that no other lease in the county’s history granted such exclusive use to a parcel.

The property is fenced with no trespassing signs. The club has said it would consider allowing visitors after the hunting season, which ends Jan. 31.

Ed Walden, president of the club, in an email to Newsday, noted the group's long support of breast cancer fundraisers and other charitable events and organizations that provide access to the property and tens of thousands of dollars in support to local groups. "Each year we raise between $25,000 and $30,000 in a single day to financially assist three local breast cancer support groups," he said.

The county land includes around a mile of the Peconic River that is currently off limits to those other than club members and their invited guests. Turner noted under the past and future lease terms, average citizens could be excluded from visiting that portion of the river and parkland for more than 87 years.

Turner in December wrote letters to the state comptroller, attorney general and state parks department, asking that they investigate the land alienation. Only the state comptroller’s office has responded to Newsday’s request for comment, saying it was "reviewing" Turner’s request.

In addition to questioning whether the county sought a fair-market value assessment, Turner’s letter also questioned whether the county subjected the lease to a competitive bid process "to determine if other entities were interested in submitting an application that might have offered greater annual payments than those required of the Peconic River Sportsman’s Club."

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