The Peconic Baykeeper Inc. filed a lawsuit against Suffolk County in early December over the county’s adoption of its Comprehensive Master Plan this summer without undergoing an extensive environmental review.
The Article 78 proceeding, brought in State Supreme Court Dec. 9, alleges the county circumvented the State Environmental Quality Review Act by in June deeming the plan a Type II Action under SEQRA, paving the way for it to be approved without the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement. It asks that the county’s adoption of the plan be annulled.
According to a statement issued by the Peconic Baykeeper organization, “the County’s Comprehensive Plan allows for increased residential and commercial development, transit development and wastewater management activities. These actions have and will continue to cumulatively impact the environment in Suffolk County, specifically, but not limited to, ground and surface water resources.”
The drafting of the “Suffolk County Comprehensive Master Plan 2035” took place over several administrations, but it was pushed along in the final phase by the Suffolk County Planning Commission, chaired by David Calone, who is currently seeking the Democratic nomination to run for Lee Zeldin’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, the county began working on a plan designed to build back after the storm, focusing on six areas of concern: economic development, energy, environmental protection, housing diversity, transportation and public safety.
The plan includes a project called “Connect Long Island,” a call to build transit-friendly development hubs in neighborhoods surrounding Long Island Rail Road stations, which would be tied into expanded bus and alternative transportation networks.
It also calls on the county to establish goals for watershed nitrogen reduction and to develop advanced on-site wastewater treatment options, along with financial incentives to replace and upgrade septic systems. It also calls on the county to upgrade or replace the Bergen Point outfall pipe in West Babylon on the Great South Bay.
The full text of the plan is online here.
The Baykeeper suit alleges the that the county in 2014 “unilaterally and illegally planned the route of a pressure sewer line to run from Ronkonkoma Hub (one of the Connect Long Island hubs) to a sewage treatment plant in Central Islip, despite the fact that the Ronkonkoma Hub project was initially approved with a new, dedicated on-site sewage treatment plant.”
According to the lawsuit, Brookhaven Town was the lead agency on the initial proposal with the on-site sewage treatment plan, which had undergone a full Final Generic Environmental Impact Statement over the course of eight years.
The suit also alleges that the county improperly designated both the Ronkonkoma pressure line and an expansion of the Bergen Point plant “unlisted actions” under SEQRA, paving the way for both projects to not undergo extensive environmental review.
County Executive Spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter said Dec. 17 that the county does not comment on pending litigation, but the minutes of county meetings show the process involved with the June 17 deliberations of the county’s Council on Environmental Quality, which made the decision to deem the plan a Type II action.
According to the minutes, the Council on Environmental Quality “found that based on the nature and content of the Suffolk County Comprehensive Master Plan 2035 it does not represent “a municipality’s land use plan”, “a comprehensive resource management plan”, “a municipality’s comprehensive zoning regulations” or any of the other Type I actions listed. The CEQ also reviewed the Type II Actions and found that it did represent the adoption of an action consisting of “concurrent environmental, engineering, economic, feasibility and other studies and preliminary planning and budgetary processes necessary to the formulation of a proposal for action, provided those activities do not commit the agency to commence, engage in or approve such action.”
The Baykeeper lawsuit alleges that the master plan does, in fact, commit the county to a definite course of future decisions on these issues.
After the CEQ’s discussion, according to the June 17 minutes, CEQ Chairwoman Gloria Russo made a motion to recommend the plan be classified a Type II Action, after which the committee added the following caveat to their resolution adopting their recommendation: “that any future specific projects that may result from the broad framework contained within the Suffolk County Comprehensive Master Plan 2035 will be required to be reviewed under SEQRA by the appropriate governmental agency (local, county, or state).”
Peconic Baykeeper, Inc. legal spokesman Joel Barkin, of the law firm The Roffe Group, said the county’s decision to allow the “future specific projects” to be reviewed individually amounted to “segmentation,” which is not allowed under SEQRA law.
“The Comprehensive Plan has been referred to as a “blueprint for development.” As such, it has the potential to significantly impact both ground (drinking water) and surface water,” he added. “The region’s water quality impacts are directly tied to decades of unsustainable development practices. That is why PBK has focused on the comprehensive plan. While aspects of the plan have been characterized by the county as “environmentally forward-thinking” the purpose of SEQRA is to analyze potential impacts of government actions. In this case, the county failed to even consider the impacts associated with its comprehensive plan. The county has chosen to misclassify its comprehensive plan as a feasibility study. This is inconsistent with SEQRA, sound planning practice and the title of the document.”
The Peconic Baykeeper has been working without a public spokesman since Baykeeper Brady Wilkins resigned in April. Mr. Wilkins had been appointed in October of 2014 to fill the shoes of longtime Peconic Baykeeper Kevin McAllister, who was fired under mysterious circumstances in March 2014. Mr. McAllister has since formed a new organization, Defend H2O, which focuses on East End water quality and coastal issues.
The Baykeeper’s lawsuit against the county lists the petitioner as Daniel Gulizio, a Huntington resident who serves as the Executive Director of Peconic Baykeeper, Inc., who, according to the lawsuit, “patrols the waters and shores of the Peconic Bay and other surface and coastal waters of Suffolk County on a seasonal basis, evaluating signs of the health of the Peconic and South Shore Estuary systems and these other surface and coastal waters.”
Mr. Gulizio is a former planning director for the towns of Islip and Brookhaven, who revamped Brookhaven’s planning code during his time in office there. He is also an attorney.
The parties to the lawsuit are due back in court Jan. 15.