East Hampton Town officials, after sending a contractor to dig a drainage basin off Route 114 in East Hampton without first checking the ownership of the farmland, are now seeking a solution that will mollify the county, which owns development rights there and is upset about the loss of agricultural soils. At the same time, the town would like to avoid having to ditch the project and forfeit some $135,000 spent so far.
The easiest solution, Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc suggested at a town board meeting on Tuesday, would be a land swap, giving the county title to the development rights on a similar area of farmland in return for taking possession of the site where the unauthorized work was begun.
The project was undertaken as a long-sought fix to severe flooding in adjacent neighborhoods from water running off the farm fields, which stretch between Route 114 and Long Lane.
County officials, Mr. Van Scoyoc said, “feel this has been intrusive to the goal of preserving farmland,” with protected soils now disturbed by the excavation. A swap would resolve that issue, he said.
Councilwoman Theresa Quigley, who organized the original project, said that she and Mr. Van Scoyoc had met with county representatives to discuss the situation. The county suggested a drainage basin of a different design, one which would be more expensive and, Ms. Quigley said, “more disruptive to farmers.”
“My question about that is, who pays?” she said, pointing out that people whose houses were continually damaged by floods from the fields had sued and won, and were awarded damages. “The county didn’t pay,” Ms. Quigley said. “The town paid. The county is either a partner in this with us or not.”
“While I recognize that we should have reached out to them, that’s a different issue,” she said.
Another suggestion that had come up at the meeting, Mr. Van Scoyoc said, was to move the recharge basin to a town-owned property just to the west of the county’s lot. That soil, however, is fertile and is being farmed, he said, unlike the drainage-basin area, which is fallow because of the continual flooding.
“The choice is to accept a swap, and the property becomes ours and we don’t have to deal with the county’s decision, or perception, about what is the proper drainage system there,” or to proceed with an application to the county for a special permit, Ms. Quigley said. Town attorneys and planners have been asked to begin preparing an application, she said.
Keith Grimes, the contractor, has been paid $69,140 of a $293,000 contract for work already done. The town has also spent $35,000 on engineering fees. Stopping the project, returning the soils, and restarting the work would add an additional $25,000. “So clearly, trying to find a path forward would save us some money,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said.
“One of the things the county has demanded is that we return the soil,” Ms. Quigley said. (The soils dug out were given to Mr. Grimes, pursuant to his contract with the town.) “We all know that I can get a bit irritated,” she added, and “I got irritated with that suggestion. Yes, it’s farm soil, but it’s not farmed,” she said, because the flooding stripped the soil.
“It’s ironic, because, though the farm soils have been removed from the site, [the drainage project] will inevitably increase the farmable soils,” said Mr. Van Scoyoc.
“They’re just frustrated that they purchased the development rights, and we took the soil away. I get that,” Ms. Quigley said.
“So my suggestion would be that we swap a commensurate amount of land,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. The area in question, he said, is about 300 by 300 square feet.
“I never knew, personally, that the county was involved at all,” Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson said. “I don’t think any of us knew.”
“We are at a standstill,” said the supervisor. “We have stopped work at this particular sump area. I am — to tell the public — pretty frustrated; to tell you the truth, pretty disappointed with the county. This town gives a lot of money to the county, and doesn’t get it back in services.” The county, he said, looked at the situation “purely as an exercise that the county had a right to that particular property, and we violated it.”