Mystery Sub Keeps Dispute Afloat

Prank still drifts in East Hampton sump that pitted town against county
Randy Parsons, who keeps a close eye on East Hampton farmland from his office at the Nature Conservancy, saluted the simulated submarine conning tower that has floated in a drainage basin off Route 114 since the spring. Bella Lewis

No one has taken responsibility for a facsimile of a submarine conning tower that has floated in a manmade sump off Route 114 in East Hampton since April.

When the water level allows, the plywood, black-painted tower drifts in a drainage pit amid protected farmland that has been the center of a war of words between Suffolk County and East Hampton Town officials that began shortly after the hole was dug about two years ago.

A mock periscope, radio antenna, and a light sprouts from the top of the conning tower, and some who have seen it say it looks like a repurposed garden pathway fixture. Two horizontal “wings,” above which “114” is neatly painted, stick out from each side.

The tower is affixed to a float, which has begun to show signs of the elements. Its paint is wearing thin, and raw wood shows through at a wet spot around the base.

Peter Dankowski, who has farmed the land where the sump was dug since the 1980s, said he had no idea who might have been behind the prank. “It’s kind of nice,” he said. Randy Parsons, who is on the staff of the Nature Conservancy Center for Conservation, whose headquarters is in a large house next door, had no clues.

The sump in which the mysterious submarine remains was East Hampton Town’s ill-fated attempt to solve flooding problems on Route 114. Blindsided by the work, Suffolk officials were furious that those involved, led by then-Town Councilwoman Teresa Quigley and former Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, had failed to get their approval or that of the State Department of Environmental Conservation before going ahead.

The problem is that Suffolk bought the development rights to the property from the Town of East Hampton in 1987 under a program designed to keep it in agriculture. Under the terms of the agreement, formal approval would have been required before excavation was begun. Amid initial stonewalling from town officials after the sump was discovered, the county filed paperwork setting the stage for a possible lawsuit.

East Hampton Town Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc, who was not on the town board when the sump was dug, has been leading an effort at rapprochement with the county. “We did meet with the farmland committee and they tentatively approved our solution . . . a remediation of the hole to make it farmable,” he said. Like others, Mr. Van Scoyoc said he had no idea who might have built the conning tower. However, he said he considered the submarine “a statement that there’s clearly a huge flooding problem.”

It was Mr. Parsons who brought the unauthorized excavation to the county’s attention. While in conversation with a county official in the summer of 2012, he said, he mentioned in passing that “huge dump trucks loaded with top soil” were driving from the property day after day, which struck him as puzzling. County officials reacted with shock.

The Nature Conservancy Center, where Mr. Parsons works, is at one end of the preserved farmland, which, he said, has “some of the best top soil in the world.” He said an agricultural study conducted in the 1980s described the area as a “bread basket — it had the biggest chunk of prime agricultural soils” out of Wainscott, south Amagansett, and the north side of Amagansett.

In an interview this week, Elizabeth Fonseca, whose family trust owns the land, said this week that it was her first time on the South Fork since last year and she had yet to see the submarine. She recalled she had given permission to Ms. Quigley and Mr. Wilkinson to go ahead with the project, but said her understanding of what was intended differed from what eventually occurred.
“I didn’t think we made any major plans . . . that’s ridiculous.” Learning about the size of the sump, she said, “They should damn well close it up. I had no idea it was going to be a big hole. I think it’s an outrage.”

Jeffrey Bragman, an East Hampton lawyer representing the family, said they expected that fences with Suffolk officials would be mended and the land remediated. He said he had laughed when he saw the submarine, and had no idea who set it up.

Mr. Parsons said that Caio Fonseca and Isabel Fonseca, Mrs. Fonseca’s grandchildren, are also upset. “I’d say they were passionate about the issue, about the farm, and the preservation, and the beauty, and the violation.” As for the submarine, “I thought it was funny. I thought it was in the tradition of the bridges on 114. There have been different graffiti on these railroad bridges over the years and they were always good. They were always very creative,” he said.

As for the identity of the artist, he said, “It looks like somebody who has the saws to cut shapes. I mean, if we were like police, I’d be looking at cabinetmakers.”