A Manorville sportsmen’s club can withhold access to 265 acres of Suffolk County-owned woodlands it controls until 2025, according to a recent letter from the club’s lawyer, but the club says it may open access sooner after an inquiry by Newsday.
Conservationist John Turner said he was notified last month by the Peconic River Sportsman’s Club that he’d have to wait until 2025 to visit the site owned by the county.
Suffolk agreed to a new 25-year lease at just over $9,000 a year in September.
Turner, of the Seatuck Environmental Association, called the wait “unconscionable,” and criticized Suffolk’s deal as “the worst of both worlds.”
But after Newsday raised the issue with a lawyer for the club last week, the group said it would consider allowing public access after the current hunting season, which is going on now.
“The club will provide reasonable access to members of the public outside active hunting season(s) and other club uses/events,” club attorney John Armentano said in an email to Newsday on Friday.
Under terms of the lease, public access to the more than 265 acres, which include a mile-plus stretch of the Peconic River that most county residents have never seen, doesn’t technically have to begin until May 22, 2025, when new lease terms take effect, according to Armentano’s recent correspondence with Turner.
Ordinary residents who are not members of the club still must request access in writing, and it’s ultimately the club’s decision whether or not to grant access.
For decades, the club has had the exclusive right to use the property for private shooting, fishing and other sporting events.
In September, the Suffolk County Legislature unanimously approved legislation containing lease terms. County Executive Steve Bellone, who wrote the resolution with Suffolk County Legis. Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), signed the measure.
In a letter to Turner last week, Armentano noted provisions of the renewed lease terms “do not come into effect until the commencement date of May 22, 2025.”
Armentano, of the Hauppauge law firm Farrell Fritz, had asked Turner to “please contact the PRSC in 2025, concerning public access” to the land, “and we will accommodate that request.”
Armentano originally told Newsday the club planned to “follow the lease,” in terms of public access, but it also had an “interest in being a good neighbor” and could grant public access before 2025, though not during hunting season.
In a subsequent email to Newsday, Armentano said the club “will accommodate Mr. Turner‘s request for access, however due to the active hunting season right now the first opportunity for Mr. Turner to access the … property will be in February 2022.”
Armentano noted that former Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, in 1996 signed legislation that paved the way for Suffolk to renew a lease that year.
Supporting documents with the bill indicated backing from various state and local lawmakers and municipalities.
But according to documents from the period reviewed by Newsday, the state Department of Environmental Conservation expressed “concerns” about the “potential impact of this legislation on public access to this land.”
In a letter to counsel to Pataki, Assistant DEC Commissioner Gavin Donohue noted the arrangement would allow for leasing, “with a private individual or entity who could eliminate public access” to the land.
“Limited or no access to this parcel would run contrary to the legislative intent of Environmental Conservation Law,” Donohue wrote. “The lease envisioned by this legislation should contain provisions preserving the public uses of this land.” In the end, the DEC didn’t recommend for or against the bill.
Armentano told Newsday the DEC statement “appears to be inaccurate” because the club in 1996 was “exclusively using the property under terms of the original … lease and there was no public access then.”
The 1996 lease with Suffolk County restricted public access and gave the Peconic River Sportsman’s Club exclusive use of the land.
While that exclusive lease doesn’t expire until 2025, the club earlier this year approached Suffolk to renegotiate it early because it schedules events well in advance.
The club does provide its facility for use by law enforcement and some other groups.
Previously unreported state documents show the National Rifle Association, an affiliate of the Peconic River Sportsman’s Club, “strongly endorsed” the 1996 bill.
NRA lobbyist Christopher McGrath wrote Pataki urging him to sign the legislation, which was sponsored by Sen. Owen Johnson (R-West Babylon) and Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst).
Johnson has since died, and Sweeney has left political office.
Former Suffolk County Executive Robert Gaffney, a Republican, also wrote a letter supporting the lease.
McGrath told Pataki that both Johnson and Sweeney were “intimately aware of the contributions” the club has made to “the quality of life for sports persons in Nassau and Suffolk Counties.”
Newsday has reported that former Suffolk Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider, who works for the Melville firm McBride Consulting & Business Development Group, lobbied for the new lease in order to “improve community relations.”
McBride’s yearlong contract with the sportsmen’s club is valued at $4,000 a month, or $48,000 a year — more than five times the club’s first-year lease payment to Suffolk of just over $9,000.
Suffolk County spokesmen did not respond to requests seeking comment.
Suffolk County Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr., after Newsday reports of the new lease agreement, said he planned to review it.
Bellone’s office has defended the deal, noting the land came encumbered by a lease agreement following passage of the state law in 1996.
Kennedy last week said he had asked Suffolk County Attorney Dennis Cohen for an evaluation of the lease.
Kennedy also said he was reviewing the 1963 resolution that first alienated the land for the club, and “requesting copy of the deed.”
State Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) said he had found “a lot of deficiencies” in the 1996 state law that provided for conveyance of the land for the club’s use.
Englebright noted the law mentions neither the sportsmen’s club, nor the fact that hunting would take place on the property.
“It would make sense for us to revisit this issue and review it from a state legislative standpoint,” he said.
Noting language in the bill that mandates keeping the property as “open or green space and buffer area,” he said, the bill “authorized a passive use and what we see is active use including extraction of resources” by hunting and other activities.