Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Environmentally Protected Sand Dune was Bulldozed and Hauled Away by a Billionaire, Lawyers say by Mark Harrington -- Newsday.com

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Ronald Baron's beachfront property on Further Lane in East Hampton. (Photo by Doug Kuntz / October 30, 2008)

The billionaire owner of the nation's priciest land parcel has suspended construction work on his beachfront Further Lane property after East Hampton Town last week investigated claims an environmentally protected sand dune had been bulldozed and hauled away.

Lawyers for financier Ronald Baron, who owns the property through a trust, said he agreed to suspend work as a courtesy to the town, even though nearly all of the excavation work is done, and a concrete retaining wall lies in place of the dune. The 40-acre waterfront parcel was sold last year to Baron, a Forbes-listed billionaire, for $103 million, a U.S. record.

On Friday, an attorney for Baron, Leonard Ackerman of East Hampton, disputed the notion that the dune was environmentally protected, calling it "a pile of dirt."

But Larry Penny, director of natural resources for East Hampton Town, begged to differ. He said the 100-yard-long, 15-foot-high dune was in fact a 3,000-year-old "fossil dune," which requires a natural resources special permit to change in any way.

"He can't touch that dune without a permit," Penny said Saturday, noting it is part of a 3.5-mile secondary dune that runs through oceanfront East Hampton.

"It was one of the first dunes to form in the double dunes area when that sand material came on shore 3,000 years ago," he said.

The excavation dispute was first reported in the East Hampton Star.

Even temporary structures on the dune require a special permit. Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, who lives nearby, is waiting for a permit to put up a tent on the dune temporarily, Penny noted.

Had Baron actually filed for a permit, Penny said, "they would not have let him remove everything. This guy just jumped the gun." Penny said he suspected the dune was removed to provide a better waterfront view. Ackerman disputed that claim.

Though construction was voluntarily halted, Penny said it should remain suspended "and they should be made to get a special permit." He'd also like to see mitigation work done to replace as much of the dune as possible.

Ackerman countered that no violation or permit is needed because "we believe we acted in an environmentally permissible way under the code." The material removed, he said, "would not qualify as a dune under the code."

But Penny said he sent Baron a letter a year ago warning him of the need for a special permit after he noted dune excavation of an adjacent, Baron-owned parcel in East Hampton Village, which does not require a permit. Penny said he's certain the recent removal was a "clear violation" of the town rule, though it's up to the town ordinance enforcer to render a judgment. Ackerman said no such violation or notice had been issued as of Friday. Fines associated with violations of the permits, Penny said, are "pittances" consisting of "a few hundred dollars."

Another meeting between Baron's lawyers and the town is planned for this week.