The Riverhead Town Board yesterday tabled a resolution denying a permit application by Driftwood Family Farms seeking an agricultural exemption for the excavation and removal of 415,000 cubic yards of sand from a 46-acre site on Route 25 in Calverton.
Driftwood Family Farms proprietor Steve Mezynieski, who owns an excavating company in Southampton, says removing the 415,000 cubic yards is necessary to make the site, which is partially wooded and sloped, useful for profitable agricultural production. He is asking the town to both allow the excavation and waive the $2 per cubic yard fee assessed by the town for removal of excavated materials from sites within the town.
“My intention is not to turn this into a sand mine,” Mezynieski told the board, challenging the town to come up with a plan that will allow him to farm the whole property without removing that much soil.
“I don’t want to take $200,000 worth of sand out of there and destroy $3 million worth of property,” Mezynieski said.
The state Department of Agriculture and Markets last month issued an opinion letter stating that Mezynieski’s proposed excavation is not protected agricultural activity because it does not meet the criteria for exemption from the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s mining permit requirements. In order for the excavation and removal of soils to be exempt from the DEC’s mining permit requirements, it must be completed within 12 months and must be “directly related to improvements associated with ongoing or imminent agricultural activities,” wrote Robert Somers of the agricultural protection unit at the Department of Agriculture and Markets.
In response to a follow-up letter by Mezynieski’s attorney, Peter Danowski, Somers on Sept. 3 wrote a letter acknowledging that the site was located in an agricultural protection district, is assessed as an agricultural property, and is accordingly eligible for protections afforded to farm operations.
Mezynieski read from the Sept. 3 letter: “The department has protected the conversion of farm woodland to land suitable for agricultural production. The department has also protected the ability of a farmer to make minor modifications to the surface gradient to facilitate agricultural production activities.”
Councilman George Gabrielsen noted that the proposal couldn’t be considered “minor modifications” in his opinion.
Councilwoman Jodi Giglio took exception to Mezynieski’s May 17, 2013 DEC application which stated the 415,000 cubic yards of material “will be hauled off site for sale.”
“When you sat with us [at the town board’s May 9 work session] you told us you were going to use the material for your farm operation in Orient,” Giglio said.
At the May 9 work session, Danowski told the board much of the excavated soil would be brought to the family’s Orient farm for use in rebuilding dykes destroyed by Hurricane Sandy last year.
“We are — we were,” Mezynieski responded to the councilwoman yesterday.
“Then why does it say you’re selling it?” she asked.
“I didn’t write that. My attorneys did,” Mezynieski answered.
Danowski, who was present at yesterday’s meeting, did not address the board.
Only Councilman John Dunleavy expressed support for Mezynieski’s plan during yesterday’s board meeting. Dunleavy said regrading the site so that it can be used for farming and retaining the soil on site would “disrupt the drainage from the north.”
“If he raises it up three feet or two feet, he’s gonna block that drainage and it will back up on Route 25. We will have flooding on Route 25,” Dunleavy said.
“I dont’ think he’s gonna dig a big hole. I think — the last time we discussed this — he’s going to do it proportionately as he farms. He’s going to do one acre and then farm that acre, do another acre and then farm that acre,” Dunleavy said.
“I don’t like people from Albany writing letters when they don’t come down and look at what they’re writing about,” Dunleavy said. He said he personally inspected the site with the applicant. “I don’t know how many board members have been out to the farm. You drive out there, it’s six foot high,” Dunleavy said.
“I don’t think the town board has a problem with doing what you can do contained within that farm,” Gabrielsen said. Removing 415,000 cubic yard of sand from the site is the problem, he said. “That’s what we reacted to.”
Riverhead Neighborhood Preservation Coalition Dominique Mendez told board members to pay special attention to the fact that the agriculture and markets agency “is usually pretty liberal in what they consider farming” and “they seem pretty sure this isn’t necessarily farming.”
“You can’t really ignore ag and markets without putting yourself in a weak legal position,” Mendez said.
In addition to its agricultural heritage, “Riverhead also has a long history of sand mining,” Mendez said. Another nearby business was approved as a truck repair business, but is really a sand mining operation, she said.
The board would be naive to look at Mezynieski’s proposal as farming and not excavating, Mendez said.
“I hope this board won’t let something like that happen again.”
Board members decided they needed time to discuss the Sept. 3 letter from the agriculture and markets agency and to seek the advice of legal counsel as to its meaning in relation to Mezynieski’s application.
Photo credit: Steven M. Mezynieski Inc. website
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