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Riverhead farmer angry over not being reappointed to town planning board

Lyle Wells, an 11th generation farmer, is seen

Lyle Wells, an 11th generation farmer, is seen on Apr. 20, 2011 on his farm in Aquebogue. Credit: Randee Daddona

A Riverhead farmer said he was blindsided by his removal from the town's planning board last week, and officials have offered varying reasons for the move.

Town board members voted 5-0 last Tuesday to replace Lyle Wells, a planning board member since 2002, with downtown business owner George Nunnaro. Wells, the only farmer on the board, said he had expected to be appointed to another five-year term.

Supervisor Sean Walter said Friday that Wells didn't reapply for his position. Wells said he was never told to reapply and believes he was removed for political reasons.

Councilman George Gabrielsen offered another explanation. He said in an interview Thursday that Wells was replaced for an alleged ethical infraction involving a farmland preservation program.

Riverhead's farm preservation law allows farmers who agree to not develop their land to sell "agricultural preservation credits" to developers seeking to build beyond regular zoning limits elsewhere in town.

Wells said he sold $325,000 in credits to Sabre Riverhead LLC, the developer of a shopping center on Route 58, in December 2012. He then voted on a resolution related to the company's application in March 2013, according to town records.

"I'm a farmer too, so this is not easy for me," Gabrielsen said. "We know each other, but I, for one, don't tolerate this stuff."

However, Assistant Town Attorney Bill Duffy, counsel to the planning board, said Friday that he didn't consider Wells' vote an ethical problem because the resolution simply clarified aspects of an already approved plan for the shopping center.

Wells, whose family has farmed on the North Fork since 1661, grows squash, asparagus and other vegetables on about 150 acres in Aquebogue. In an interview in the kitchen of his farmhouse Thursday, he called the conflict-of-interest allegation "ridiculous" and said he deserved better treatment by the town board for his work "preserving the agricultural heritage that we have here."

Wells said he abstained from all other votes regarding Sabre Riverhead, though he said he participated in some discussions about the project in 2012.

He said he sold the credits because he risked missing a loan payment after two tough seasons that began when Tropical Storm Irene destroyed his crop in 2011. "I lost everything I had," he said. "It all melted in the field."

Wells, an advocate of land preservation, said he believes he was not reappointed because town board members knew he was likely to criticize Walter's vision for developing an industrial park at the 2,900-acre Enterprise Park at Calverton.

But Walter, in an interview, said that was not the case.

"I'm 100-percent positive he knew he had to reapply," he said.

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