Board Should Heed One Member’s Advice

With the pending $2.1-million purchase of a parcel of land on Three Mile Harbor, East Hampton Town is moving ahead to consolidate its shellfish hatcheries in a single location. Right now, the Montauk hatchery occupies a site on Fort Pond Bay, where water conditions are less than ideal for breeding clams, oysters, and scallops. An argument, too, is that a portion of each year’s crop of young shellfish dies while being transferred to grow-out spots; the Three Mile Harbor location, closer than Montauk to several seeding grounds, would result in lower mortality. 

In all, the project to consolidate the shellfish hatcheries would cost about $5 million, with about a fifth of the money coming from the town’s community preservation fund.

Bringing the shellfish program under one umbrella makes sense and would appear to be money well spent. However, Councilman Jeffrey Bragman argued recently that the project was moving ahead faster than advisable, given its sensitive environmental nature. If correct, Mr. Bragman points to a go-fast approach in Town Hall that extends not only to hatcheries but other things. According to Mr. Bragman, the project emerged fully formed from the backrooms without going through the usual planning hoops. Among them is the State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA, which requires detailed analysis before anything that can affect natural habitats goes ahead. He called the town board’s Aug. 2 approval of a grant application for the new hatchery “patently illegal.”

Once upon a time, East Hampton Town demanded strict SEQRA analysis, based on a set of specific criteria, for almost all large and midsize projects. While court decisions have whittled away at the law, it remains in effect and is binding — even on local governments. 

The State Environmental Quality Review Act was passed by the Legislature in 1975, during the height of the modern environmental movement and only a few years after the federal Clean Water Act went in to effect. The goal of SEQRA is simple — assuring that the probable effects on the natural world and drinking water supplies of any regulated activity be balanced with economic and social factors. But many town projects these days are improperly deemed of no significance, among these and most notably the downtown Montauk sandbag fiasco.

The town board cannot look past SEQRA, even if this particular project will in the end have salutary benefits for water quality. East Hampton residents are fortunate to have an experienced lawyer and proven environmental advocate on the town board in Mr. Bragman. The leaders with whom he shares the dais should begin paying a bit more attention.