Flooding Fix Could Put Town In Hot Water

Drainage basin on ag land lacked proper permits
Work on a drainage basin being built by East Hampton Town was halted when Suffolk officials learned the work was being done on farmland over which the county owns development rights. David E. Rattray

    Excavation for a stormwater drainage basin being built by the town off Route 114 in East Hampton to alleviate severe flooding in a nearby neighborhood was halted this week when it was discovered that the property is agricultural land for which the county owns the development rights.
    The project lacks Suffolk County and State Department of Environmental Conservation permits and should have been reviewed by the county farmland committee, which discussed the situation at a meeting on Tuesday night.
    A “big concern,” according to Katherine Stark, the chief of staff for Suffolk Legislator Jay Schneiderman, who attended the meeting, was the disposition of the topsoil being dug up — prime, highly rated agricultural soils, Mr. Schneiderman said Tuesday. Besides permission from the farmland committee, Ms. Stark said, the town should have obtained a D.E.C. mining permit for excavation of the amount of soil that has been removed. In addition, before approving such a project, the committee, which includes a member from the county soil and water conservation district, would have examined the proposed placement of the sump in terms of potential erosion.
    The county could assess penalties of up to $5,000 a day, but, Mr. Schneiderman said, “I don’t think that’s going to occur in this case.” County officials could, however, require the town to replace the soils and restore the property to its original condition or ask the town to deed an equivalent property to the county, “because you have an area that the taxpayers paid to preserve as farmland that’s not going to be used as farmland,” the legislator said.
    No determination was made at the committee meeting Monday night. Among those who attended were John Jilnicki, the town attorney, Tom Talmage, the town engineer, and representatives of Sidney B. Bowne and Son, an engineering company that was paid $35,100 to design the project, prepare and review bids, and obtain permits.
    The project was spearheaded by Councilwoman Theresa Quigley. Keith Grimes, the contracter hired by the town for the project, has been digging the hole at the site, which has now been abandoned.
    According to a May resolution hiring Mr. Grimes, he was to be paid $293,000 for the work. That bid, the lowest of “at least five” from different companies, according to the town purchasing agent, included Mr. Grimes taking the topsoil, and was chosen over a $321,000 option that called for spreading the excavated soil at the property.
    Last September, Elizabeth Fonseca granted the town a drainage easement on the property. However, Ms. Stark said that Real Property Tax Service Agency records show the owner of record as the Richard Cornuelle 2010 Marital Trust. Nonetheless, the previous property owner, J. Kaplan, had sold the development rights to the county in 1985, precluding any future grants of easements. The county has ordered an examination into the chain of title to the underlying ownership of the property, Ms. Stark said.
    “The homeowners in Hansom Hills have been suffering for years with the massive flooding destroying their homes, flooding their streets, basements and pools,” Ms. Quigley said in an e-mail yesterday. “The farmers have been losing prime agriculture soil as it has washed across the highway with the surging waters, and all of us who drive along Route 114 have been impacted by the hazardous conditions caused by the waters flooding the road.”
    “The recharge basin has been contemplated since at least 2001, and after all these years, it is finally almost a possibility due to the generosity of the landowner who unquestioningly signed off on allowing the town to install a recharge basin,” she wrote. “The fact that the process has been delayed yet again is disappointing, but I hope only a delay and not a permanent obstacle to seeing this much needed and long overdue fix to a hazardous and damaging situation,” Ms. Quigley said.
    Randy Parsons, a former town councilman, said Tuesday that he had noticed the excavation as he went to and from his office at the Nature Conservancy headquarters close to the site. “We drive by it every day,” he said. “The construction started, and in the back of my mind I was kind of thinking about the county agricultural review board.” He also thought, he said, about provisions in the town code requiring excavation permits and barring the removal of prime agricultural soils from farmland.
    “I saw huge quantities of topsoil being trucked away,” Mr. Parsons said. “They kept digging deeper, taking more topsoil out,” Mr. Parsons said.
    He said that in the course of other business with a county contact, he asked about the final design of the sump. “And that was when they said, ‘What sump?’ “ he said.
    “I think it’s important that these programs are respected,” Mr. Parsons said of the development rights purchase program, through which the county and other municipal entities pay property owners to eliminate the potential to develop agricultural land, preserving it as farmland. “It’s public money. It’s important that the public investment and development rights restrictions are respected,” he said.
    Mr. Schneiderman said Tuesday that he supports the idea of a sump to provide a solution to the flooding in the area, which regularly fills the Hansom Hills subdivision across Route 114 and surrounding areas with deep water, something he said he remembers well from his days as town supervisor. Officials have been seeking a solution to the problem since then.
    The water runs across the farm fields stretching all the way from Long Lane, he said. “I don’t think it’s a bad solution,” he said of a recharge basin at the site in question.
    Both Ms. Quigley and Mr. Schneiderman said that the recharge basin, by stemming flooding, would help to prevent runoff and soil loss.
    “At the end of the day I don’t think anyone’s acting in bad faith,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “They’re trying to solve a really perplexing drainage problem.”
    “The county was made aware of this issue last week and we are in the process of reviewing the details. We are working with members of the farmland committee to investigate this issue thoroughly,” Sarah Lansdale, the county director of planning, said through Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s press office. 
      The town has been asked to submit an application to the county farmland committee, which will then begin to address the issues raised by the project, Ms. Stark said. The subject will be on the agenda at the committee’s next meeting on Sept. 25.