Forcing Environmentalist Larry Penny Out

Larry Penny has served as the East Hampton Town Natural Resources Department (NRD) Director since 1984, but his tenure may be at an end.

Last week, the East Hampton Town Board suspended Penny for 30 days without pay after Town Attorney John Jilnicki charged him with 16 counts of misconduct, insubordination and incompetence for, among other possible violations, storing animal carcasses without proper authorization in the basement of his office in the town complex at 300 Pantigo Place.

The Board also cited Penny’s use of the department budget and employees and his management of town tree clearing projects as reasons for the suspension.

Penny refused to say cutting his staff from three to just him wasn’t the cause of such problems but admitted, “Being short staffed didn’t help.” He said all reports of permits being late and so forth is pure politics by East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, who is reportedly upset that Penny would not retire. Even a charge of storing, in Penny’s words, “less than a full quart of formaldehyde solution improperly is sort of absurd. There was no danger. I am qualified.” According to reports, Penny has claimed to collect and store the carcasses to give to museums and for toxicology research.

Penny is considered—by scores of admirers—to have been years ahead of his time when it came to recognizing the importance of protecting the environment in East Hampton. Born in Mattituck in 1934, Penny was one of the first people ever to receive a degree in Wildlife Conservation from Cornell University. Penny received subsequent graduate degrees from San Francisco State, as well as the former Long Island University at Southampton.

Years back, in an interview in his office, I noted that there was an abundance of space filled with folders, boxes and all sorts of paraphernalia you might see in the back room of the science department of a well-financed high school. Now it seems his collection of dead local animals that he had preserved in freezers may lead to Penny’s dismissal. [expand]

Penny said that about four weeks ago, Supervisor Wilkinson, perhaps frustrated over the speed in which Penny was removing the animal carcasses in the basement took matters into his own hands and ordered an independent contractor to unceremoniously dump the collection. Now these materials will never reach the museums they were intended to benefit. Now at risk is the status of East Hampton’s top environmentalist.

The concept of instituting concern for the protection of the wetlands and the environments of East Hampton began back in 1984. Penny always mentions the contributions of Malcolm Hare and Richard Cummings. The idea Penny said back then was to, “Stop the bulldozers from filling in the wetlands,” it was Penny who ended up with the authority to issue, “Stop work orders.” Today there are major park areas such as Shadmoor, Hither Woods, the Grace Estate, Camp Hero and Barcelona that might be housing developments if Penny hadn’t personally stood up for the environment. He puts the numbers at about 1,000 homes not built, and 750 acres of wilderness preserved by his work.

Penny talked specifically about the Camp Hero situation in 1987, where he stopped a condo development and instead helped create a state park. He also was co-author of the long-range town comprehensive plan in 1984 that, to this day, is the cornerstone to the way East Hampton avoided overdevelopment.

On another front Penny’s zeal in protecting the Piping Plover (bird) has turned East Hampton into a place with in his words, “more Piping Plovers per mile of beach than anywhere in the United States.” Through the Open Marsh Water Management (OMWM) project, the NRD built small dams to help tackle a mosquito problem before it became unmanageable. Penny also has supervised the awarding of almost $1 million in grants, which has helped create hundreds of acres of sanctuaries. In addition, he is working to restore Oyster Pond in Montauk to its natural beauty. Partnering with the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), Penny’s office tests for coliform counts in the pond, which was closed to shell fishing in 1986 after the DEC recorded high coliform counts.

Even the lone tower on Napeague only exists because of Penny. As he tells the story, “In 1985, there were two towers there on Napeague. I went to Montauk one day and on the way back there was only one tower standing with the other about to be taken down. I pulled out my red tape and issued a stop work order. Today the saved tower that so many sailors use as a landmark is in active operation as a State Police Radio tower.” Penny smiles and said it was then he acquired the nickname, “tape man,” for taping off areas with his famous red tape due to environmental issues.

In 2004, Penny spearheaded efforts to use native plants verses foreign ones to help control and prevent flooding. As of now, the plan seems to be working and has been a model for other communities.

Now, at 76 years old and with an approximate $95,000 town salary, Penny has begun talking to a lawyer to defend himself from charges he said, “I first saw in the newspapers.” The East Hampton Supervisor’s office, when contacted, was polite in just stating the Supervisor’s requests/orders cannot be ignored without consequences. As the director of the Natural Resources Department, Penny has eight days to respond to the charges, and he has a right to a hearing. At the moment there is no official candidate to replace Penny. Penny believes the position may be terminated.

 

A SHAME

 

There are ways to end the career of a celebrated environmentalist who has done such wonderful things for this town. It is not this heavy-handed approach, more suitable to the way it might be done at a giant international corporation. If Penny should, when the time comes, retire, he should be retired with a dinner, a thank you for his service and some sort of wonderful plaque. A list of his achievements should be inscribed in the Town’s records.

Our reporter T. J. Clemente reports above on much that Penny has done. But he does not write about the recent history. Penny, in just the last five years, was responsible for the restoration of preserved land that some very prominent citizens did things to that appeared to Penny to be in violation of town laws. Billionaire Rob Baron built a retaining wall through 3,000 year old dunes on his property. Larry Penny insisted he remove it. P. Diddy took down some native vegetation and Penny, citing wetlands laws, caused these plants to be restored to how they had been before.

Penny’s work in this town has been steady, remarkable and extraordinary. He does not deserve what the town and its supervisor are doing to him, in my opinion.

– Dan Rattiner


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