Misplaced skepticism marred a meeting this week about an East Hampton Town effort to draft a wastewater management plan. Critics suggested, wrongly, that it was a clandestine effort to force scores of property owners to undertake expensive, unnecessary improvements to their septic systems, perhaps even one sold by a business with which a town consultant has a professional relationship. They also questioned whether further protecting the health of the aquifers, which we rely on for drinking water, and of surface waters, such as bays, ponds, and harbors, was something the town even should be considering without asking the public ahead of time.
The first point is hardly worth addressing, except to say that dark, conspiratorial phantoms are simply that, and the conflict of interest issue has been addressed. As to the second, it is unfortunate to have to remind the critics of a little document called the East Hampton Town Comprehensive Plan.
We tend to forget now, but work on the plan took years and involved contributions from many, many residents and outside experts. Following that, it was the subject of extensive public hearings, and a few scattered outbursts of litigation, before becoming both law and a statement about how, collectively, we envisioned the future of our town.
Unfortunately, even a carefully constructed plan, like this, is only as good as the people who are supposed to enforce it, and it was shunted to the dustbin by the imperious East Hampton Town supervisor, Bill Wilkinson, who said he viewed it as little more than a “snapshot” in time. To invert a famous phrase, “Avant moi, le deluge!” has seemed to be the mantra at the Town Hall executive suite for four long years as far as work of preceding administrations is concerned.
Reading this week through the comprehensive plan, which was completed in 2005, one notices again and again references to water quality. These include encouraging statements like “The harbors and bays are among the cleanest in the state,” and top recommendations such as “Take forceful measures to protect and restore the environment, particularly groundwater.” There was no mystery then, as now, that this subject was — and is — extremely important.
Awareness of the inherent value of water quality has been known for decades here. A seminal federal study of the South Fork’s groundwater was completed in 1982. Five years later, New York State created nine groundwater protection areas on Long Island, two of which were within East Hampton Town. And, looking back at the earliest days of zoning here, water concerns were among the basic, and clearly legitimate, reasons for limiting development.
A degree of urgency arises when one considers that several East Hampton waterways are seasonally closed to shellfishing or have been declared “impaired” by state authorities. This underscores the worrisome fact that we simply do not know if protection measures in the town code now are sufficient and will be adequate to cope with increased growth.
It is the same story with drinking water, especially from private wells. What data planners can use to gauge present and future needs is outdated and should be re-evaluated. The experts now working on the town’s new plan are taking all this into consideration and have excellent credentials to produce a meaningful report.
Opposition to the new town effort to identify and manage impacts to groundwater is largely political and should be viewed that way. Residents are fortunate that there is a majority on the East Hampton Town Board willing to duck the barbs and baseless fears to move forward with this detailed review.