A Smithtown couple whose gazebo sits partly on Arthur H. Kunz County Park would keep the roughly quarter-acre piece of land where they built and give up a slightly larger piece of land under a swap laid out in proposed legislation before county lawmakers.
Russell and Deana Galindo would give the county a .237-acre piece to the east of their Nadia Court home and take a .232-acre piece of Arthur H. Kunz County Park to the southeast. The Galindos said their gazebo, a substantial structure partly made of brick, intrudes about two feet onto that land now. They have removed a sand trap, artificial turf putting green and lights that also once occupied the land, they said.
The county cannot give up park land, even in trade, without authorization by New York State legislators and the governor. The Suffolk bill, introduced by Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) on Sept. 4 but not yet voted upon, would authorize county support for state legislation approving a trade.
“This isn’t Charles Manson here,” Trotta said. “It’s a guy who put a putting green on a flat piece of property next to his house.”
But there are complications. A bill sponsored by state Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) to authorize the trade found no Senate sponsor earlier this year. And, while Trotta and Fitzpatrick said they hoped a swap would help resolve a county lawsuit against the Galindos in Suffolk Supreme Court in 2016 alleging “illegal continued use of the subject property for personal purposes,” county officials said the proposed trade was unfair because land the Galindos would give up is already protected under a Town of Smithtown conservation easement.
“This is essentially selling out the taxpayers,” a high-ranking county environmental official said in an interview arranged by a county spokesman. “Neither bill points out the proposed swap land is already protected.” The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the pending lawsuit, also said the trade was unfair because the land going to county parks is unwooded, while the parkland going to the Galindos is or had been partially wooded.
An environmental organization, the Group for the East End, opposed Trotta's bill in a Sept. 20 letter to legislature Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory, writing that the county should "simply enforce its rights as a landowner and seek restoration of any areas that have been disturbed."
The swap laid out in Fitzpatrick’s bill would slightly increase park land but would decrease the amount of protected land, because the land the Galindos would receive would not be protected by an easement. In an interview, though, they said they were prepared to shrink their 1.01-acre property to 1 acre, giving the remaining land to the county. In a subsequent text message to Newsday, Russell Galindo said they would put most of the land they received in a trade under a new conservation easement to be negotiated with the county.
Aerial images of the Galindo property from the county’s Geographic Information System appear to show that most of both pieces of land to be swapped was covered by grass in 2016, the last year for which images were available. Much of the land appears to have been without trees since the 1940s. Tree coverage near the eastern portion of the Galindo property, which would go to the county in the proposed swap, appears to thin in images from 2010 and 2013. Vincent Trimarco, a lawyer for the Galindos, said his clients have never removed trees from land under easement or from county parkland.
“Had the park land been left undisturbed, it would have become mature oak woodlands, like the surrounding park land,” a county planner wrote in an email.
"I get it — it's their property, but this could have been resolved so much better," Russell Galindo said of the Galindos' encroachment on county land.
Trotta and Fitzpatrick said they did not know the Galindos before Trimarco approached them seeking help to resolve the dispute.