Hole in the Ground; Sturm and Drang

    How could an effort begun by East Hampton Town in 2010 to construct a drainage system on Route 114 farmland that would resolve flooding in a nearby neighborhood, wind up in a gaping hole in the ground without anyone making sure that Suffolk County, which owns development rights to the protected land, had okayed the excavation? The East Hampton Town Board searched for answers at a meeting on Tuesday.
    The county warned late last month that, should the matter not be satisfactorily resolved, it might sue the town for violating its farmland preservation program. Its farmland committee had not been consulted, the county said, citing particular concern about the removal of prime agricultural soils from the site.
    The town did submit a permit application after the county issued a stop-work order in July, but county officials recently rejected it. Meetings continue in an effort to resolve the situation.
    Town Councilwoman Theresa Quigley discussed the episode in a Sept. 20 piece published on an online news site. Ms. Quigley, who until this year was the point person on the project, wrote that “Not only is the lawsuit startling, but the town’s failure in obtaining their approval to begin with is problematic. From my perspective, this failure is symptomatic of many issues in town government. These failures are constant and continual and they point out a system which cries out for reform, but which reform seems almost unattainable without laying down the political rhetoric and defensive postures and simply demanding accountability at all levels. It is time the system was turned on its head.”
    On Tuesday, Ms. Quigley released a 34-page record, dating to June 2010, that she had compiled, detailing the dates and times of e-mails between various parties involved in the drainage project. It included a summary, by the councilwoman, of the messages, and reflected, she said, an attempt to retrace just what went wrong.
    The record indicates that the question of the county’s involvement was raised in an April 20, 2011, communique to Ms. Quigley from John Jilnicki, the town attorney. “One question I want to ask is whether the county is on board with what we are doing, as a title review indicates they have an interest in the development rights on this parcel and I am hoping they will not be an impediment,” Mr. Jilnicki wrote.
    “The farm bureau is on board. Haven’t asked the county,” Ms. Quigley wrote, in part, in her reply. “What could possibly be taking so long? It has been many many months [sic] they gave their estimate for the cost,” she concluded.
    The question of county-owned development rights was apparently brought up again in September 2011 by Marguerite Wolfssohn, the town planning director, according to Ms. Quigley’s summary. It does not surface again in the comments included in her summary until July, after the county discovered the excavation, when Mr. Jilnicki expressed his belief that Ms. Quigley had spoken with the county. “Never spoke to them; had no idea they needed to be involved,” she wrote to Mr. Jilnicki on July 17. Shortly after sending that e-mail, the record indicates, she forwarded the correspondence to Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson with the comment “Now why would I know this?”
    On Tuesday, Mr. Wilkinson expressed his “disappointment at the appropriate vetting — or lack thereof — that was done, internal to the town.”
    “The board, in my opinion, should not be involved” in the process of submitting applications and securing required permits, he said. “That is for the board to direct and approve.”
    Board members’ responsibility, he said, is to assure that the taxpayers get “value for money . . . that, in this case, is performance of the staff. And I’m a little disappointed. And by the way, there isn’t, as far as I’m concerned, a non-guilty person.”
    And, he added, “I don’t have any problem saying that there is a political motivation behind this.”
    “We all bear some responsibility,” agreed Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc, who inherited responsibility for the project when he took office in January.  He said that despite his own questions about whether the town should be doing the work at all — sumps along state roads are usually constructed by the state — “I was compelled, by a lot of the work that had been done . . . to move forward” with the project. Looking back, he said, for example if he had made inquiries about county funding, “the development rights issue may have come out.”
    But, Mr. Van Scoyoc said, “I would like not to see this devolve into trying to point fingers. If we go down a situation of trying to place blame on individuals, we really don’t move forward.” The councilman, who met with county representatives last week, said there was an “openness and willingness on the part of the farm committee to entertain alternatives” to the sump design, and that the town should work with the county to come to an acceptable resolution.
    Mr. Wilkinson continued to press his point. “Unless we start to understand performance and accountability, we’re going to spin this way all the time. Performance has to be measured, and there are responsibilities,” he said.
    Ms. Quigley, too, addressed the question of responsibility, saying that people have been trying to lay it at her feet.
    “Even if I was responsible for getting county approval, who is responsible for ensuring that all the details are completed?” she asked. “There doesn’t seem to be anybody responsible for anything.”
    “We need to step up and start demanding accountability. We cannot allow this . . . to continue,” she said later in the meeting.
    “I’m not blaming anybody; I’m just saying, what the hell is wrong with the structure when this happens?” Board members set policy, she said, and should not have to oversee details.
    “We shouldn’t be involved in the managing, from day to day,” Mr. Van Scoyoc agreed. “But we do,” he told Ms. Quigley.
    “People say that I get involved in managing; I don’t get involved in any of the details,” she replied. “I was not involved in details, for the hundredth time,” she said later. “I sent e-mails saying, what is the status. I didn’t even know who was working on it. I’m only supposed to be kept abreast of what the process is.”
    Ms. Quigley said she believed that had she done more than that, it would, “quite frankly, be illegal. I don’t believe I’m allowed to step into those roles and start demanding what is done.”
    “Whose responsibility was it to find that the county had jurisdiction?” Mr. Wilkinson asked. “That’s a pretty interesting question,” Mr. Van Scoyoc replied. “It kind of goes back to, what is the role of the [town board member] liaison?”
    Various people involved in the project, Mr. Van Scoyoc noted, included the town attorneys, the Planning Department, the town engineer, and the Highway Department. But “Doesn’t it go back to the liaison?” he asked Ms. Quigley. “Because of your coordinating five departments, who’s the lead in those departments?”
    “Certainly not me,” Ms. Quigley replied. “I don’t understand, frankly, why we’re paying $3 million to our attorney and our Planning Department [and other departments] . . . if I’m doing the work.”
    “If they brought it back to Theresa, I’m sure Theresa would have said, go get county approval,” Mr. Wilkinson said.
    “Actually, I did get an e-mail that said, ‘Theresa, did you talk to the county,’ and I said no. Period. Period,” Ms. Quigley said.
    In her own online piece, published on Sept. 21, Sarah Lansdale, the county’s Director of Planning, made her own points.
    “What is beyond dispute is that the Town of East Hampton blatantly caused extensive damage to farmland, that was preserved by Suffolk County taxpayers, by removing large quantities of valuable topsoil,” she wrote. “This is the first time in memory that a municipality has unlawfully violated a piece of preserved property. To make matters worse, not only did the Town of East Hampton allow a contractor to excavate the soil, but further permitted him to sell the soil, considered the finest agricultural soil in New York — the ‘Cadillac’ of soil.  Rather than enriching the farm with the soil, the town chose to enrich someone’s pockets.”
    “This is the only instance anyone at the county can remember in the entire history of the 37-year Purchase of Development Rights program where a municipality blatantly violated the program and then asked the county to turn a blind eye to the law and retroactively approve an illegal action,” she continued. “Such approval will not be forthcoming.”
    “Ironically, the fact that the Town of East Hampton has responded to our notice of claim in such a hostile manner, rather than viewing it as an opportunity to find a compromise, demonstrates the very behavior that necessitated the notice in the first place.” Nonetheless, she concluded: “The county stands ready to work with the Town to find a legal solution that maintains the integrity of the program and relieves flooding faced by homeowners of Hansom Hills. I look forward [to] the Supervisor’s return call.”