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Montauk Land Buy Raises Questions

Thu, 11/10/2022 - 09:34

The East Hampton Town Board voted at its meeting last Thursday to acquire 18.8 acres of vacant land at 66 East Lake Drive in Montauk, but will do so with general municipal funds and not community preservation fund money, as initially intended. The change in funding source spurred an accusation, during a public hearing earlier in the meeting, of a “secretive town board plan” to construct a sewage treatment plant for the hamlet at the property.

Following a June 2 public hearing, the board voted on June 21 to acquire the property, which is near the southern end of Lake Montauk and abuts county parkland, from an entity called Highland Meadows using $4.25 million in C.P.F. money. The purpose was for preservation of open space.

The town code pertaining to the C.P.F. stipulates that its purpose is protecting and preserving open and undeveloped lands, protecting historic places and properties, and providing outdoor recreational opportunities. Rights or interests in property acquired with C.P.F. money “shall not be sold, leased, exchanged, donated, or otherwise disposed of or used for other than the purposes permitted” by the code without an act of the State Legislature, “which is required to provide for the substitution of other lands having equal environmental and fair market value and reasonably equivalent usefulness and location” to those being sold or disposed of.

On Oct. 20, the board scheduled the public hearing on amending the June 21 resolution. The amended resolution adds

“water quality” to preservation of open space as a purpose for the acquisition.

At the Oct. 20 meeting, David Buda, a Springs resident, told the board that it “owes a better explanation” to the public as to why it was changing the funding source for the purchase. He suggested that adding “water quality” as a purpose for the acquisition indicated that it might be used to site a sewage treatment system for the hamlet, but “I don’t know because you’re not telling us.”

A town committee has met regularly this year to identify a site large enough and that meets engineering needs for such a facility that would serve the hamlet’s downtown, where property size constraints limit on-site treatment options, and eventually expanding to serve other areas including the docks, Ditch Plain, and the area around the Long Island Railroad Station and Industrial Road. Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said in June that a site east of the former landfill in Montauk was “promising” as a potential location for a wastewater treatment plant.

The Coalition for Hither Woods, an organization of conservation groups that formed in 1982 to oppose proposals to develop that area of Montauk, regrouped as an incorporated not-for-profit to oppose the potential construction of a sewage treatment plant there. Last Thursday, Richard Whalen, an attorney and representative of the coalition, reiterated what he said is an undisclosed plan to construct a centralized sewage treatment plant.

In announcing the coalition’s opposition to the board amending the initial resolution, Mr. Whalen asserted that the board intends “to swap the Highland Meadows property for Suffolk County parkland in Hither Woods.” Such a scheme, he said, “will enable the town to build a huge sewage treatment plant on 14 or more acres of forest in the eastern part of Hither Woods,” the most expensive public works project in the town’s history “by far.” This, he said, would be “an environmental sell-out of the first degree, which will sacrifice public parkland to the perceived business interests of downtown Montauk property owners.”

While the coalition supports the acquisition of 66 East Lake Drive, he alleged that the board is treating the property “as a commodity, to be purchased and flipped to Suffolk County for what you really want — county land on which to site a sewage treatment plant.” There are better ways to improve ground and surface water quality than a sewer system, he said, and “an honestly prepared and objective environmental impact statement” should be issued to disclose them.

Following Mr. Whalen’s remarks, Mr. Buda again criticized the board. There has been “such a lack of disclosure as to what you’re doing,” he said, given the “extraordinary transaction” underway. He again asked for a full explanation. “Tell the public what you’re doing,” he said. “Why not?”

The purchase, and the method of purchase, “leaves the board with the greatest measure of flexibility,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “It’s unknown to us what the final disposition of this property will be,” he said of 66 East Lake Drive, “but what we are certain of is it will be preserved in perpetuity.” The purchase price, given the acreage, is “a very good deal for the community,” he said.

Mr. Whalen said on Monday that he is submitting freedom of information requests to the town, referring to information that is not yet publicly available but “proves what I said” at the meeting. “You don’t change the funding source from C.P.F. to general town funds except for one purpose: you want to trade the property,” he said.

Further, he said, the coalition “contest[s] the whole need for a sewage treatment plant,” adding his suspicion that the point of a sewage treatment plant in Montauk “is to promote development” in the downtown area, a move that he said would be “contrary to the whole town concept of coastal retreat and resiliency” as detailed in the Coastal Assessment Resiliency Plan, which the board adopted into the comprehensive plan in September.

A sewage treatment plant in Hither Woods would be “very close to the Paumanok Path, and no doubt you will see it from the trail,” Mr. Whalen said. “That itself would severely compromise the integrity of the Paumanok Path, the most important trail in the town.”

Mr. Van Scoyoc said in an email on Monday that the town has been seeking a location for a wastewater treatment plant serving Montauk for some time, “but to date we have no assurances of any location.” Options are few given the acreage needed for a facility and attendant setbacks and buffer zones, he said. A potential plan to build a plant on the west side of the former landfill won support from the hamlet’s Chamber of Commerce and its citizens advisory committee, but the town “found that there are covenants that would prevent use of that property.”

Residents will be informed if acquisition of another site is confirmed, he said, and at that time a thorough discussion and vetting under the State Environmental Quality Review Act would be conducted.


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