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Possible Land Swap Slammed as ‘Environmental Sellout’

Tue, 11/22/2022 - 17:09

Ire at possible land swap for Hither Woods sewage plant

The East Hampton Town Board’s vote this month to acquire 18.8 acres of vacant land at 66 East Lake Drive in Montauk with general municipal funds, and not community preservation fund money as initially intended, has prompted both suspicion that the land will be swapped with Suffolk County for property in Hither Woods to build a wastewater treatment plant, and, more recently, one accuser’s resignation from an advisory committee on which he has sat for more than a decade.

In a Nov. 10 letter to the town board, Richard Whalen, chairman of the town’s nature preserve committee, submitted his resignation, effective Dec. 31. The letter came one week after he asserted that the board intends to swap the East Lake Drive property for Suffolk County parkland in Hither Woods. The purpose, he charged, “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,” which he said would be the most expensive public works project in the town’s history by far. He called the alleged plan “an environmental sell-out of the first degree, which will sacrifice public parkland to the perceived business interests of downtown Montauk property owners.”

The town board’s “recent moves toward putting a sewage treatment plant in Hither Woods, Montauk, have caused me to reevaluate my priorities,” he wrote in announcing his resignation. “I intend to be active in fighting the Hither Woods sewage plant, as a member of the Coalition for Hither Woods, and I need to free up time for that fight. Also, the very fact that the town board would consider sacrificing public parkland in the town’s largest open space reserve, for something as expensive and dubious as a sewage treatment plant, demonstrates that the board has far less regard for open space preservation than I do. That is a philosophical difference that makes my continued membership on the Nature Preserve Committee — not to mention my chairmanship of the N.P.C. — an impossibility.”

In remarks during his liaison report during the town board’s Nov. 15 meeting, Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc spoke insistently of the need for a wastewater treatment plant to serve Montauk’s downtown, where “over 400,000 gallons a day of waste is untreated, dumped into the ground on that narrow strip of land between Fort Pond and the ocean. For both environmental reasons and public health reasons, this needs to be remedied.”

A town committee has met regularly this year to identify a site large enough and that meets engineering needs for such a facility, which would serve the hamlet’s downtown, where property size constraints limit on-site treatment options, and eventually expanding to serve other areas including Ditch Plain, the docks, and the area around the Long Island Rail Road Station and Industrial Road. The committee had met the previous week, Mr. Van Scoyoc said on Nov. 15.

The town has hired a consultant, H2M Architects + Engineers of Melville, to work on a design and develop a map and plan, a requirement for creating a sewer district. “Key to that is to locate a piece of property that could accommodate a plant,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. A parcel to the west of the recycling center, the site of a former landfill, was vetted and supported by the hamlet’s citizens advisory committee and the Montauk Chamber of Commerce, “but it turned out that property to the west had certain covenants and restrictions on it and could not be used.” Options are very limited due to various constraints, such as the acreage needed or proximity to residences, he said.

He acknowledged that the board is “trying to work out a land swap” for siting a wastewater treatment plant, and said that the board’s decision not to use C.P.F. money for the East Lake Drive property, which would preclude its transfer, was made “to keep our options open,” but added that “when you do things in a way that leave your options open, sometimes it leaves a vacuum and people come up with all sort of bizarre conspiracies as to what we have planned.”

No site, parcel, or boundaries have been confirmed, Mr. Van Scoyoc said, “but we are seeking to do that and we could potentially use the property that we’ve acquired as a swap.” Should a site be identified, he said, the public will be notified and an environmental review conducted. “Montauk has grown up through the years in development,” he said, “and there was never any provision for dealing with the waste.”

The East Lake Drive property will be preserved in perpetuity, he said.

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