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Group sues to block ZBA approval of East Quogue luxury development in pine barrens

Plaintiffs, who include residents, civic activists and an assemblyman, accuse the board of violating a state law on a project formerly known as The Hills.

Environmentalists, civic leaders and a state assemblyman on Wednesday filed a joint lawsuit seeking to overturn a Southampton Town decision that makes way for an East Quogue luxury development and golf course in the pine barrens.

The Southampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals voted Nov. 15 that an 18-hole golf course could be considered an accessory use to a residential subdivision and could thus be built under current zoning. The court challenge, known as an Article 78 proceeding and filed in state Supreme Court in Riverhead, alleges the ZBA violated New York State Open Meetings Law for failing to debate the proposal before issuing its 5-2 decision in favor of the plan.

It also claims that an 18-hole golf course should be considered a commercial use and that the board failed to take into account the development’s location in the Aquifer Overlay Protection District in its ruling.

The suit asks that the decision be overturned and seeks any damages deemed proper by the court.

“The ZBA process has been broken for years; it violates the New York State Open Meetings Law by allowing ZBA members to vote privately on issues before them without public debate,” said Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, who, along with Assemb. Fred W. Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor), Group for the East End president Bob Deluca and East Quogue residents, are petitioners in the suit. “That’s preposterous. It’s also illegal.”

Arizona-based Discovery Land Co., which as the property owner is also named in the suit, wants to build the golf course and a 118-unit subdivision on 591 acres off Spinney Road in East Quogue. The project once known as The Hills has drawn attention for its environmentally sensitive location, which the lawsuit said provides “the greatest amount of groundwater recharge to the deepest part of the aquifer.”

A similar proposal failed to get supermajority approval from the town board last December, prompting the company to file the latest plans two weeks later under the name Lewis Road Planned Residential District. The developer sued the town in April over what it called an “unlawful and unconstitutional denial” of the proposal. The outcome of that suit is pending.

Southampton Town Attorney James Burke said the ZBA process, where an attorney drafts an opinion after privately polling board members shortly before a public vote, has withstood previous court challenges.

“It has been upheld over and over again that it has been proper,” he said.

Thiele, who as a former town attorney crafted Southampton’s open space and Aquifer Overlay Protection District laws, said he doesn’t usually get involved in town zoning matters, but made an exception in this case.

“I felt that this decision really undermines all the efforts the state has made for decades to protect the central pine barrens,” he said.

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