Federal Judge Accepts Long Island Pine Barrens Group Back in Court
The group of Pine Barrens core landowners led by Henry Dittmer is still fighting for their property rights in federal court on Long Island! On April 4, Federal District Judge Thomas C. Platt of the Eastern District of New York denied the defendants' motion for a summary judgement that would have kicked the property owners out. He ordered that the plaintiffs' requests for discovery move forward quickly. Several prominent officials have been named for discovery proceedings.
The small landowners in the core area sued almost five years ago after being denied all use of their property and after receiving unequal treatment by the government agencies with jurisdiction over the 50,000-acre Long Island Pine Barrens core area, which was delineated under the 1993 Pine Barrens Protection Act passed by the State Legislature. The Long Island Pine Barrens Commission, Suffolk County and the Towns of Riverhead and Southampton are among the named defendants.
About 600 property owners, left out of the planning process, joined the group that was ultimately incorporated as Civil Property Rights Associates (CPRA) under the leadership of Walter Olsen of Riverhead and Henry Dittmer of Brightwaters. When Henry Dittmer filed the lawsuit with CPRA President Walter Olsen on May 3, 1996, over 100 plaintiffs joined them. Henry Dittmer was the recipient of PRFA's first annual "New York State Property Rights Defender Award" that year.
Their lawsuit was hampered by various motions and complex rulings. The health of their original attorney, John J. O'Connell of New York City, who planned the ambitious lawsuit, declined. Mr. O'Connell will be remembered by members of the Property Rights Foundation of America for his address explaining the lawsuit in 1996 at the Second Annual New York Conference on Private Property Rights.
Last year, the group of landowners retained James E. Morgan of Galvin and Morgan, Delmar, to aggressively pursue the lawsuit. They requested discovery. On March 23, 2001, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment. The lawsuit also includes certain officials personally as defendants, Robert J. Gaffney, Ray E. Cowen, Vincent Connuscio, Felix Grucci, and James Stark.
Judge Platt denied the defendants' motion to dismiss and granted the landowners' request for discovery. He referred the matter to Magistrate Judge Arlene Lindsay for supervision and resolution of the plaintiffs' discovery demands.
Judge Platt ordered that the discovery process more forward quickly. Ruling from Central Islip in Suffolk County, he directed, "Judge Lindsay will monitor and supervise all of the requested discovery and, if necessary, will order the same to proceed on a day by day basis in order to ensure the completion thereof and will promptly make recommendations for sanctions if either party or their attorneys make any moves or efforts to protract the discovery or otherwise delay the proceedings."
In 1997, Judge Platt had issued an order to dismiss the case from federal court under the doctrine of abstention, considering that the issues were also being litigated in state court in the case W.J. Realty v. New York State, et al., (commenced in 1994) and because the landowners' case involved a state regulatory plan which he said that the state and local government were working hard at.
All these years the landowners have been continuing with their effort to be heard in court. Their property cannot be used, but their real estate taxes have not been reduced. Many property owners have given their land up through tax forfeiture. Compensation that the government offers the small landowners through a land trust intermediary is far less than the assessed value, and the "transferable development rights," or TDR's, that landowners can obtain through the Pine Barrens Credit Clearinghouse are a refined obfuscation of the unconstitutional taking of private property without just compensation.
- Carol W. LaGrasse