A group of Springs property owners sued the Town of East Hampton last week over a plan to relocate the town’s shellfish hatchery from Fort Pond Bay in Montauk to 36 Gann Road, a residential site adjacent to the commercial dock there.
The ad hoc group, the Three Mile Harbor Protection and Access Committee, together with Mark Mendelman, an owner of Seacoast Enterprises, which operates marinas and boatyards on the harbor, filed its lawsuit in State Supreme Court, complaining of the town board’s conclusion last year that the relocation would have no significant detrimental environmental impact. Not only did that decision not involve the town planning board, the plaintiffs say, but it was made in haste, before the completion of a final design and site plan review, simply to meet a state deadline to apply for a grant to fund the project.
The town “has consistently equivocated as to whether it regards itself as bound by its own zoning code and whether it plans ever to submit the project to the planning board,” according to a filing by Jonathan Wallace, the plaintiffs’ attorney. The plaintiffs believe that the town board “is worried that the planning board . . . might recommend the revocation of the rushed and arbitrary negative declaration” of environmental impact.
Mr. Mendelman reiterated yesterday the plaintiffs’ complaint about the town’s “failure to follow the process of a site plan application to the planning board” and the lack of a “true” review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act. The town board “had a public work session on July 16, where people were invited to speak in favor of the project,” he said, “but not a public hearing associated with a site plan application for a new hatchery. You can’t take the action of committing to fund a project unless you’ve completed everything required under SEQRA.”
The hatchery is at present housed in a World War II-era warehouse designed for use by the Navy. The site is at high risk for flooding, and the oceanic waters of Fort Pond Bay do not support shellfish grow-out, as was initially hoped. Transporting juvenile shellfish from Montauk to Three Mile Harbor stresses the filter-feeding bivalves and leads to high mortality, as much as 45 percent in the case of scallops, Councilman David Lys said last year, echoing earlier comments to the board by Barley Dunne, the hatchery’s director. Mr. Dunne is in favor of consolidating operations at the Gann Road site, which the town acquired for $2.1 million in 2018 with community preservation fund money.
This loss represents almost two billion fewer gallons of water filtering by the bivalves per year, Mr. Lys said, hence the impetus to consolidate the hatchery and an existing nursery at Three Mile Harbor. Fuel and labor costs would also be saved by consolidation, he said.
The board’s plans call for constructing a building to house the hatchery. An existing 2,500-square-foot house on the site could house an aquaculture classroom and meeting space, Mr. Lys proposed last year. The town was awarded a $400,000 Empire State Development grant, which the board agreed would be allocated toward design, permitting, and preliminary construction costs for the new facility, at an estimated total of $2.65 million.
Councilman Jeff Bragman, however, raised multiple objections to what he called the board’s rush to build the new hatchery, after Mr. Lys had presented a scale model of the site. “They disregarded his input, and then they broke the law,” Mr. Mendelman said of Mr. Bragman’s board colleagues.
The town applied to the state for a $2 million grant for construction last year. It was denied, after which board members participated in a debriefing session with the State Department of State and the Long Island Regional Economic Council. Mr. Lys said last month that planning will continue based on input received from those entities as well as from neighbors of the proposed hatchery.
Mr. Lys had said last year that the board had engaged engineering and architecture firms as well as town planners, the Natural Resources Department, Marine Patrol, neighborhood residents, and fishermen who used the commercial dock at the end of Gann Road. On Tuesday, he said he has spoken with Mr. Mendelman about the project, and “we are continuing to take neighbors’ remarks, as far as any adaptation,” to plans he called conceptual. “Even up until the lawsuit, as I had always requested, anyone can contact me or Barley. No one ever has.”
Mr. Lys disagrees with the lawsuit’s claim that the board’s SEQRA declaration is invalid and its further contention that the project would not benefit the town. “I do believe the environmental conditions of this project are minimal and have been addressed,” he said.
Ira Barocas, a neighbor of the proposed site and a member of the Three Mile Harbor Protection and Access Committee, had a different view. “If they’re so interested in public opinion,” he said on Tuesday, “how come they’ve been trying to stick this project down our throat, but have yet to engage with the people most directly affected?” The project, he charged, “would not improve water quality, it doesn’t create jobs. It doesn’t do anything for anything, just vanity.”