An Amagansett property owner caused at least $100 million in damages when he cut down about 100 trees last month on land that is protected for conservation, according to the Peconic Land Trust, which is suing him over the matter.
The land trust holds an agricultural easement on the property and is asking the court for $1 million per tree felled.
341 Town Lane LLC, whose principal is Randy Lerner, an investor and a former owner of the Cleveland Browns, purchased the property on July 31, according to court filings. Days later Lerner hired a landscaping company to remove 75 to 125 mature white oak, American beech, holly and sassafras trees, some of which were 100 feet tall, the land trust claims. Peconic Land Trust said the clearing, reported by several residents including Alec Baldwin, violates the conservation easement placed on the property in 1995. The agreement prohibits the removal of trees, shrubs and vegetation, although there are exceptions, such as the removal of dead trees.
“Defendant’s conduct was undertaken with such wanton recklessness and dishonesty as to imply a criminal indifference” to the obligations of the easement, reads an amended complaint electronically filed Aug. 28 in state Supreme Court.
Lerner, who according to Forbes has a net worth of $1.1 billion, does not dispute that he had the trees cut down. But his interpretation of the easement states that he was within his rights to do so because he was clearing the land for farming. He said in court filings he was preparing the land to potentially farm fruit trees, crops like corn and potatoes, cover crops and "horticultural specialties."
“We determined, prior to the purchase, that the property was protected by an agricultural use conservation easement, which would protect the LLC’s right to farm,” he stated in an affidavit.
Land trust officials disagreed.
“There is no provision of the Conservation Easement that allows Defendants to cut or remove these healthy, mature trees that have been on the Easement Property for decades,” a Peconic Land Trust staffer wrote in a supporting affidavit.
Peconic Land Trust won a temporary restraining order last month barring any additional work on the property. Lerner’s attorneys are asking that he at least be allowed to plant a cover crop and the land trust post a $1.5 million bond to cover damages relating to the farming project.
“No purpose . . . is served by leaving the land as a potential dust bowl,” Lerner’s Riverhead attorney, Anthony Pasca, wrote in a court filing.
The case is due back in court Thursday and Peconic Land Trust has vowed to continue the fight.
“We have always recognized our perpetual stewardship responsibilities to monitor and enforce conservation restrictions.” Peconic Land Trust president John v.H. Halsey said in a statement. “It is a daunting task but we are determined to assure that every parcel of protected land remains protected for future generations as set forth in the conservation easements that we hold.”