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LIPA may revise lease for hiking trail

Denis Byrne walks on a hiking trail in

Denis Byrne walks on a hiking trail in Miller Place. (Feb. 1, 2011) Credit: James Carbone

An impasse between Suffolk County and the Long Island Power Authority has threatened to doom a proposed recreational trail linking Port Jefferson and Wading River, wasting a decade of planning and $9 million in available federal funding.

But following months of deadlock, there is a thin ray of hope. LIPA has agreed to consider revised language for a lease that would allow Suffolk to build the project on the utility's land.

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), whose office is working to keep the federal funding alive, said he would meet with the parties within a month "to find a way to move forward on something that the people want."

"It's an amazing turnaround," said Denis Byrne of Belle Terre, one of the trail planners. "Long Island doesn't have a lot of linear open space left that can be connected, so LIPA power line rights of way are the great hope for new trails to connect our open spaces."

The trail would run along a 13-mile LIPA right of way. And although the two parties had worked out an agreement to allow the county to construct and maintain the trail, the utility had insisted on a "reverter" clause in the agreement that would allow it to take the land back to construct future power lines if the need arises.

But federal law prohibits funding the project with that caveat in place. And after months of refusing to budge off its position, and several weeks of inquiries by Newsday, LIPA agreed to revisit the wording.

"If the county would like to provide us with alternative language . . . we will review it," Michael Deering, the utility's vice president for environmental affairs, said. He said the current language had been negotiated with the county and approved by LIPA's board in June, and the utility thought that had resolved the issue until Newsday inquired about the project.

But County Attorney Christine Malafi said she suggested in meetings, letters and e-mails with LIPA for more than a year that they find language that would fulfill its potential future needs without voiding the lease or the utility taking the land back. The county's idea would allow LIPA to work around, temporarily disrupt or even relocate the trail - at the county's expense - if necessary. The county provided Newsday with a letter to LIPA in January 2010 making that point.

The Federal Highway Administration, which would provide most or all of the funds needed for the gravel hiking and bike path, says it is prohibited by law from paying for projects not guaranteed to remain in place for at least 20 years. But agency spokesman Doug Hecox said, "We are continuing to work with the parties."

LIPA and the county worked out the other major issues over the past few years. LIPA agreed to provide a 25-year no-fee lease. The county agreed to assume liability for any injury or damage claims.

But until Tuesday, LIPA said inclusion of a reverter clause was non-negotiable. "If something happens within that 25-year period, we need to be able to use the property to provide safe and reliable power to our customers," LIPA spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter had said.

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