Hole in the Ground: Town’s ‘Dirty’ Laundry

The hole is on what was top-quality farmland for which the development rights had been sold long ago to Suffolk County

   Like a missing tooth in a boxer’s smile, a gap in the notably verdant farmland along the Sag Harbor Road in East Hampton is a telling sight. This year’s potato crop is leafing out around the one-acre plot off Route 114 near Stephen Hand’s Path, but only a few weeds have sprouted in what is an abandoned and forlorn pit. Just how this hole came to be is no mystery: It was caused by a thoughtless road-drainage project. What is unacceptable and murky, however, is that nothing has been done to restore the site or to make amends for it.
    The hole is on what was top-quality farmland for which the development rights had been sold long ago to Suffolk County — a key and limiting point which was ignored when the East Hampton Town Board hired a contractor to dig a pit there to alleviate flooding. The problem came when county officials found out the work had been authorized without their consent. The project came to a halt, but not before the town’s contractor reportedly hauled away a layer of prime topsoil — a layer estimated at five feet deep which county taxpayers had already paid for — and sold it to a client.
    Suffolk officials learned what was happening in July, well after an engineer drafted the plan for the work, the town hired a contractor, and digging began. The county quickly served legal notice on the Town of East Hampton, reserving its right to sue, and demanded that the parcel be restored. Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone condemned the ham-handed project in a press release, saying a countywide referendum would have been required to authorize the dig had it gone through proper channels. East Hampton Town also would have been required to secure approvals from the state and Suffolk Farmland Commission, but they were never sought.
    Though she claimed that she was ignorant of the county’s purchase of the development rights on the Route 114 parcel, East Hampton Town Councilwoman Theresa Quigley, who spearheaded the project, apparently had been party to an e-mail in which that fact was pointed out. Indeed, the county’s partial ownership of the land was no secret; it bought the development rights in 1988, and the designation has appeared on official tax maps ever since. In response to criticism, Ms. Quigley said she could have been set up by someone within Town Hall eager to see her fail. But, even were the foregoing true, it would not excuse the fact that nothing has been done to correct the situation.
     After the county began making noise about the bungled affair, the contractor pulled out its equipment and left. For almost a year now the hole has been a daily reminder for many of those who pass it by every day of East Hampton Town officials’ intransigence and persistent refusal to admit mistakes. And while the town dithers, county taxpayers, who paid to keep the land in agriculture forever, should be demanding to know when farming there will return.