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A private club's interests vs. the public trust

If Suffolk County extends its lease of 260

If Suffolk County extends its lease of 260 acres to the Peconic River Sportsman's Club for another 25 years, it will prevent county residents from freely accessing publicly owned parkland for 86 years. Credit: James Carbone

Imagine this scenario: You take your family to Smith Point County Park for a fun day in the sun. But as you pull up to the booth you learn that to plant your umbrella in the sand, you need permission from a private beach club which has been given control over the park. The club gets to decide whether you can visit the park, depending on what its plans are for the day.

Far-fetched? No. This scenario is currently playing out at another county park property. How? Through Suffolk’s recent extension of a lease of 260 acres of county parkland to a private party, the Peconic River Sportsman’s Club.

This public parkland, which stretches across part of the Peconic River in the heart of the pine barrens, has been essentially off-limits to Suffolk County residents for 57 years. By the end of this new 25-year lease extension, county residents will have been prohibited from freely accessing publicly-owned parkland for 86 years!

In response to concerns over Suffolk's lease approval, a capitulation to the club and law enforcement agencies that use the facility for arms training, it is to the minimal credit of the Bellone administration and a few county legislators that Suffolk's parks department has included a provision in the lease that could, potentially, allow for some public use such as kayaking, hiking, and birding. However, this access requires the explicit approval of the Sportsman’s Club. It is clear that even with this effort to make "lemonade from a lemon," the public’s interest in its own publicly owned land takes a backseat to the private interests of the club. This is upside down and backward. And wrong.

This lease likely violates the public trust doctrine, a legal tenet which has long protected the public’s right to access and benefit from property established as parkland. There is a formal process for such "alienation" that requires permission from the public, through our representatives in the State Legislature. This requirement of expressed approval at the state level ensures transparency and accountability in the use and disposition of parkland. It is a measure to safeguard parks from the whims of municipalities and the pressures of favoritism, politics and public finances.

It has been reported that the club needs to control access to the county land as a buffer to its shooting activities. This rationale is belied, however, by aerial photographs showing that participants shoot away from and not toward county parkland. And if a buffer is so important, why does Suffolk operate a shooting range within Southaven County Park with little to no surrounding buffer?

Lease proponents have argued the Sportsman’s Club is no different from public golf courses operated by private vendors. But privately run public golf courses are unconditionally open to any member of the public who wants to schedule a tee time, pay the greens fee, visit the pro shop, or eat lunch in the clubhouse.

The county says the lease "has been vetted six ways to Sunday." If so much vetting took place, why didn’t a single public servant make certain the public’s interest was protected by ensuring public access in the first place? Attorney General Letitia James, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, and state parks Commissioner Erik Kulleseid must investigate to determine whether the county has violated the public trust doctrine.

Our precious public parkland belongs to the public. We shouldn't have to get permission from a private club to use what legally is ours.

This guest essay reflects the views of John L. Turner, founder of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society and a conservationist at the Seatuck Environmental Association.