Humongous and horrendous

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For Phil Cardinale, supervisor of Riverhead Town, it’s a windfall for his municipality: Riverhead Resorts has agreed to pay it $155 million for a major chunk of what used to be the site in Calverton where Grumman assembled and tested airplanes. The land was turned over to Riverhead Town by the Navy.

For William Lindsay, a retired electrical workers union leader who is now presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature, the proposed development would generate jobs. He recently called upon Governor David Paterson to help so that “this very important project can move forward without delay.”

And what Riverhead Resorts proposes is quite a project: a 360-foot-high “indoor ski mountain” that will be the tallest structure on Long Island and visible for miles. It will feature eight resort complexes each with its own hotel totaling 2,200 hotel rooms, a 100,000-square-foot convention center, 2,050 timeshare units and a 92-acre artificial lake. It will all be built on 755 acres at a cost of $1.5 billion to $2 billion.

But East End environmentalists and civic organizations in adjoining Brookhaven Town, among others, see the project in an entirely different light. They are labeling it as one of the biggest environmental and quality-of-life threats eastern Long Island has faced—and there has been plenty of competition through the years.

“Humongous and horrendous,” says naturalist Eric Salzman of the scheme. “It will do irreparable damage to the entire East End. The developers are openly talking about a resort that will rival Disneyland and they are hiring Disney developers to build it. The amount of traffic that it proposes to generate and the amount of waste that would go right into the watershed is staggering. This will impact not only the pine barrens, but the entire Peconic watershed and the entire East End, North and South forks included.

“They would build the ‘artificial ski mountain’ and ‘artificial lake’ right over the aquifer and on the Peconic watershed,” he continued. “It will require building roads and huge parking lots. The surrounding area will be horribly impacted by traffic.”

Moreover, says Mr. Salzman of East Quogue, a board member of the South Fork Natural History Society and a widely published nature columnist and blogger, a large portion of the property contains grasslands. The property contains “the last major grasslands left on Long Island and one of the best grasslands left in New York State. Grasslands are the most endangered habitat on the planet—more so than the Amazon rain forest.”

There is a “remarkable list” of birds on the property, he says, including the short-eared owl, which is on New York State’s Endangered Species List. There are four other kinds of owls as well. Bobwhites, a species that is “almost gone from New York State,” northern harriers, horned larks, meadowlarks and kestrels are also found there. In addition, there are “other species that are fast disappearing or already gone.” And tiger salamanders are in wetlands on the property.

“I don’t think the public has any real idea of the Frankenstein monster that is being proposed here and how it will affect everything,” Mr. Salzman said. “There is the impression that the ex-Grumman property is an industrial park so it doesn’t matter. But those grasslands and surrounding forests are in amazingly good shape, a gem of habitat.”

For MaryAnn Johnston, president of the Affiliated Brookhaven Civic Organization, which is composed of 46 civic groups, the project would have a “monumental impact.” And she is very concerned about the Town of Riverhead—considering its financial stake—being the lead agency in determining that impact under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA process. “A conflict of interest prevents the Town of Riverhead from carrying out that duty,” she said.

She notes that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation should serve as the lead agency and that Governor Paterson “should support DEC in its justified efforts to carry out the duties it has been empowered by law to do” in “protecting the environment and providing oversight on projects that clearly may pose an adverse impact on the environment.”

The DEC and Riverhead have been dueling over the situation. Earlier this month, the DEC issued a stop-work request covering the land to be used by Riverhead Resorts and all the former Grumman property.

Last month, Mitch Pally, an ex-vice president of the Long Island Association and now a lawyer for Riverhead Resorts, told a Suffolk Legislature committee on economic development that “the project will go forward no matter what.”

Here we go again!

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