The Suffolk County Legislature last month voted to renew a 25-year lease for a private Calverton club’s use of more than 260 acres of county-owned land and a mile-long stretch of the Peconic River for private shooting, fishing and other sporting events. But critics are crying foul.
The Peconic River Sportsman’s Club, which had previously been granted a lease by the county in 1998, has enjoyed use of the property for decades. Signs on county-owned land enclosed in a fence around the property warn visitors that "trespassing for any purpose is strictly forbidden," but the county asserts the group doesn't have "exclusive" use of the facility because "the group provides many opportunities for the public to participate in programs at the site," including shooting "matches and competitions, fishing events, charity events."
Leg. Al Krupski (D-Southold), who co-sponsored the measure with Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, said the group had approached him to expedite the lease approval four years before it expired so that it could continue to plan longer-term events.
Suffolk has owned the property since 1963, according to the board resolution, and later "assigned" it to the former Babylon Rod and Gun Club, which renamed itself the Peconic River Sportsman’s Club in 1977. The approved legislation says it "shall be maintained, operated and managed by the Club as open or green space and a buffer area."
"It’s really a neat place," Krupski said Wednesday. The resolution touts the property’s use for hunting, fishing, nature photography, canoeing, hiking and nature study. But unless they are expressly invited, ordinary county residents wouldn’t know the land was county-owned park land, much less have access to it, said John Turner, a conservationist at the Seatuck Environmental Association.
"I don’t know of anything like this [lease arrangement] anywhere," Turner said.
During a recent visit to the land, he said he pointed out the no-trespassing signs at the fenced boundary of the property warning would-be visitors to keep out. "That sign is clearly misleading," he said. "The land is owned by you and me."
State Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Seatauket) questioned the legality of the county entering into the exclusive contract as well as the fenced access to a more than one-mile stretch of the Peconic River inside the preserve.
"In each instance, it appears to me there is a violation of the public trust and possibly the law as it relates to the alienation of park land, and the rights of the public to access public water and land," he said.
Dick Amper, executive director for the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, a preservation group, said the county lease "never should have been. It excludes the public benefit of the value of this property. This should not be in the hands of a private club."
Turner recently wrote to County Parks Commissioner Jason Smagin to urge him to "look out for the interests" of county taxpayers by including a provision in the final lease that "ensures the general public with meaningful and regular access to the property so they may be able to enjoy the property they collectively own." He noted that by the time the new lease expires, Suffolk residents will have been locked out of access to the parkland for "86 straight years."
Emily Lauri, director of community relations for the Parks Department, said the Peconic River Sportsman's Club pays the county an annual fee of $9,301.48 with a yearly 3% increase for use of the land. The agreement precludes the club from making "alterations" without the department's OK. The club must also conduct lead remediation every five years or less, and maintain fire lanes and fencing. Turner, noting that six-foot high fencing essentially encloses the park, said that's problematic for the free movement of wildlife.
Krupski argued that the sportsmen’s arrangement is no different from other county concessions such as the Indian Island golf course in which an outside vendor manages and operates the property on behalf of the county. Hikers, he noted, can’t simply walk onto the golf course.
But visitors can’t access the Peconic River Sportsman’s Club without an invitation. The facility has key-card locked gates on Connecticut Avenue and on River Road across from the former Grumman site in Calverton. The group’s website, while touting its use by federal and local law enforcement for arms training and charitable events, doesn’t provide any information for how county residents can access the area or join the group, which collects $628,000 a year in dues, according to Guidestar.org. It’s annual revenues in 2020 were just under $1 million, with assets valued at just under $3.2 million. Lauri said the group doesn't charge outside groups for use of the site, and said no Bellone or county officials are members.
A club member who answered the facility’s phone Wednesday declined to comment, and calls to the club weren't returned.
Turner said he was able to speak to Smagin this week to request that the county carve out an agreement in the new lease that would make the county portion of the land accessible to the public at times it’s not being used for shooting events.
The property features a man-made pond created decades ago by a dam on the Peconic River, which runs through the property.
Turner said a last-minute proposal under consideration by the Parks Department would let the sportsman’s club determine when access is granted to nonmembers, a plan that he called "not appropriate."
Krupski said he had asked during the legislative session whether the public was seeking access to the property. Smagin, he said, "hadn’t heard of any demand of its use."
Turner said that is likely because no one knows about the property, much less that they collectively own it.
"I don’t know of any other analogous situation to this anywhere, on or off Long Island," he said. "This seems to me to be a unique set of circumstances. It’s very troubling. Why would the public want to support spending money" on the land purchase if they can’t visit the property?
Lauri indicated county residents have ample alternatives to the sportsman's club.
"The county owns thousands of acres in the surrounding area to this property which allows for regular use by the public, but if this agreement didn’t exist, there would be a tremendous amount of additional financial and staff resources needed to provide these recreational opportunities to the public," she wrote. "This organization and agreement allows for activities and maintenance of the property that the county does not and would be unable to provide."