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Schneiderman goes to court over pine barrens parcel

The state Legislature passed the Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act in 1993 to limit development, protect drinking water supplies and preserve the ecosystem.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman on Jan.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman on Jan. 30, 2018. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Spencer Platt

The state Attorney General’s office filed a lawsuit Wednesday claiming a Middle Island man clear-cut, graded and excavated land in a protected part of the Central Pine Barrens without permission.

The lawsuit, filed in state Supreme Court, says John Gergela cut down vegetation and brush in violation of state law at a parcel he owns along East Bartlett Road in Middle Island and an adjacent property that is Suffolk County parkland.

“We’re aggressively seeking out violators,” said John Pavacic, executive director of the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission, which asked the state to intervene.

Pavacic said the clear-cutting was discovered by enforcement agents hired by the commission last year. Gergela acknowledged he had cleared the site using earth-moving equipment, and said he was hoping to install a pool and create better access to his property, Pavacic said.

In a news release announcing the court filing Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said his office would aggressively enforce environmental protection laws. In addition to fines of up to $25,000 for each of three allegations, penalties of up to $1,000 are sought, as are unspecified damages.

The lawsuit also seeks to stop Gergela from additional clearing or excavation work, and also the restoration of the properties to their “pre-violation” conditions.

“We hope that we’ll be able to get the property, particularly the county property, restored,” Pavacic said.

Gergela did not return a call for comment left at his home.

The state legislature passed the Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act in 1993 to limit development, protect drinking water supplies and preserve the ecosystem. The area encompasses more than 100,000 acres in the towns of Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton. In the core area, which is about 55,000 acres, development is generally prohibited on private and public property, unless approved by the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission.

State officials said the clearing happened on approximately 2 acres in the core preservation area and without a waiver.

Suffolk County authorized the AGs office to represent their interests and in a statement County Executive Steve Bellone applauded Schneiderman “for taking swift action to protect and preserve Long Island’s largest natural protected region.”

Dick Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, said the lawsuit was welcome but the Gergela case was small in comparison to other threats.

Amper and other environmentalists unsuccessfully tried to stop Middle Island Solar Farm from clear-cutting of up to 60 acres in Mastic this month. The parcel, while it has a pine barrens ecosystem, is not part of the protected pine barrens area. It would have been under a law passed last year but Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo vetoed the bill in December.

“At this point anything they can do to stop clear-cutting pine barrens is very much in order, but a day late and a dollar short,” Amper said.

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