The court battle between the Peconic Land Trust and Randy Lerner over a partial parcel clearing in Amagansett continued in the courtroom of New York State Supreme Court Justice William Ford last week, with a blizzard of affidavits and motions flying back and forth between the two parties.
The land trust, which is asking for a minimum $1 million per tree cut down by the Bridgehampton landscaping company Marders, won a victory September 12 when Ford denied Lerner’s motion to reverse or modify the temporary restraining order issued in August. That instruction prohibited any more trees from being cleared on his recently-purchased Town Lane land.
Lerner bought the 5.9-acre property July 31, and almost immediately began clearing it. According to latest filings with the court, an estimated 125 trees have been destroyed, some of which were up to 125 years old and three feet in diameter.
According to the Peconic Land Trust, under the terms of the original subdivision, “the removal of trees, shrubs, or other vegetation from the agricultural reserved areas” is strictly prohibited, with a couple of exceptions, neither of which the property in question qualifies for. The value of the damage already done is estimated by the land trust in its complaint to be $100 million.
Lawyer Leonard Benowich wrote in an amended complaint filed August 28 the clearing “was undertaken with such wanton recklessness and dishonesty as to imply a criminal indifference” to Lerner’s obligations as the owner.
Meanwhile, Anthony Pasca, one of Lerner’s attorneys on the case, has asked the court to require the Peconic Land Trust put up a $1.5 million bond until the case is settled. Lerner, whose home is on a neighboring parcel, said in the affidavit that the larger plan is to ultimately add trees to the perimeter of the property. Lerner, who said he has been farming adjacent land for nearly 20 years, said the plan is to farm the recently-cleared land. He added he even farms land owned by the Peconic Land Trust.
In his written response to the complaint on behalf of Lerner, Pasca points to another clause in the conditions of the original subdivision’s conservation easement the property, which was created in 1995 as part of a subdivision of the over 69-acre Stony Hill Farm. Twelve buildable lots were created, covering roughly 26 acres, with the remaining acreage being divvied up for other uses.
“These areas shall be maintained in such a state that they remain forever available and suitable for agricultural use,” the easement says.
Peconic Land Trust was notified of the clearing by actor Alec Baldwin, who also lives on the subdivision. In a letter to The East Hampton Star, which is included in the trust’s complaint, Baldwin states he saw surveyors laying out string in the reserved area, and contacted one of Lerner’s representatives to address his concern. Baldwin said he was assured “no decisions has been made as to what plans were in the offing.”
“The following day, trucks from Marders and others were on the site, some of them true behemoths,” Baldwin said. “A burlap wall was rigged to prevent anyone from scrutinizing the work area. What was done here was wrong. Seriously wrong.”
Lerner’s net worth is estimated at over $1 billion, much of which he inherited from his father, Al Lerner. He also inherited the NFL team the Cleveland Browns, which he sold for a reported $1 billion. Lerner is also a successful financier, in his own right.
Justice Ford is still considering whether to issue a preliminary injunction, which would replace the TRO, against Lerner.