Debate Vehicle Impound Yard

Police Chief Austin J. McGuire laid out reasons why the new impound yard was a necessity

Seeking support for its plan to use part of a 24-acre site off the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike in Southampton Town as an impound yard for vehicles seized by its Police Department, Sag Harbor Village dispatched Police Chief Austin J. McGuire and Charles Voorhis, an environmental consultant, to a public hearing before the town’s planning board last Thursday. At the same time, concerned citizens and representatives of conservation groups spoke out against the proposal, which they believe would endanger the neighboring Long Pond Greenbelt. 

Chief McGuire laid out reasons why the new impound yard, which would entail paving an 80-by-60-foot area for 20 parking spaces, was a necessity. The Police Department now keeps impounded cars in a lot shared with the village’s Department of Public Works. In addition to being overcrowded, the lot is not secured, he said. “On more than one occasion, the police have found that people whose cars have been impounded have gone back to their cars to retrieve items, which is a no-no.”

Using the Southampton Town impound yard, which is in Hampton Bays, would be impractical, he said, because it is too far away and would cost manpower, by taking an officer out of the village, and money because Sag Harbor does not own a tow truck and would have to hire a firm to move cars there. 

When asked by Jacqui Lofaro, a planning board member, whether it made more sense to reconfigure the current impound yard rather than build a new one, Mr. McGuire said, “There’s only so much we can do with that area.” 

Mr. Voorhis, the managing partner of Nelson, Pope, and Voorhis, an environmental planning firm, provided the board with details of a study it had done on the project. The site was found to have been disturbed since at least 1962. At one point it was a landfill, and more recently it was used as a dumping ground for leaves during seasonal cleanups as well as for temporary parking for PSEG Long Island vehicles. 

In a nod to concerns that impounded cars may leak fluids that would endanger the greenbelt ecosystem, Mr. Voorhis said his firm has recommended that a bioswale designed to contain runoff from the paved lot be added to the plans. He also said that vehicles would be inspected and “anything that has the potential to leak will be addressed prior to it being brought to the yard.” He added that there also would be “a spill kit on the site, to be deployed should there be any concerns.” 

Addressing the impact the project might have on the eastern tiger salamander, an endangered species that breeds in ponds in the greenbelt, Mr. Voorhis noted that he had talked about it with the State Department of Environmental Conservation and explained the department’s criteria for deciding whether a project would pose a threat to the salamander. The D.E.C. looks “to preserve 100 percent of the existing suitable habitat within 535 feet of a breeding pond,” he said. Given that the impound yard would be 625 feet away from the nearest breeding pond, he said that setback would be observed. 

Another D.E.C. guideline is that 50 percent of a suitable upland habitat be preserved within 1,000 feet of a breeding pond. “This property would fall within that area,” Mr. Voorhis acknowledged, “but the key terminology is ‘suitable upland habitat.’ If the area is disturbed, if the soils are compacted, if there’s continuous activity, that is not considered suitable habitat.” In future meetings with the D.E.C., Mr. Voorhis predicted his firm would demonstrate that the village’s proposal satisfied that criterion.

Mr. Voorhis also said worries that the impound yard would ruin the view from the greenbelt nature trail there were unfounded because the yard would be at lower elevation and contained within a smaller space than the area where PSEG trucks are now parked. He also said his firm had looked into whether there were other properties owned by the village that could be used for an impound yard and found that none fit the bill. They “don’t have sufficient area, they’re currently undisturbed, or they’re close to neighboring residential areas.”

Several members of the Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt attended the public hearing and spoke against the proposal. Peter Wilson, who is on the group’s board as well as a member of the Bridgehampton Citizens Advisory Committee, called the greenbelt “one of the jewels in the crown of the South Fork” and said the fact that it had been previously disturbed was not a justification for further impacting it. He read a letter from the citizens committee, which called the proposal a “highly inappropriate use for such a sensitive parcel” and “an eyesore for the main entrance to the village.”

Jean Dodds, the secretary-treasurer of Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt, read a letter from the Group for the East End, another conservation alliance, which called the village’s plan “reckless” and said the greenbelt should be protected in its entirety.  

Upon taking her turn at the podium, Dai Dayton, the president of the Friends, stated that she had reached out to Sagaponack Mayor Donald Louchheim to find out how that hamlet deals with impounded cars.

 “They have one town police officer and when they impound cars they take them to Southampton,” Ms. Dayton said. “It doesn’t seem to be a problem. They don’t feel they have to have their own paved impound yard.” Ms. Dayton, who cited a report from the Nature Conservancy that said the greenbelt had one of the highest concentrations of rare species and natural communities anywhere in New York State, asked the board to not only deny the village’s proposal but to buy the land for preservation.

Dennis Finnerty, the chairman of the planning board, had the final word. “This application was originally intended as an administrative walk-on to be rubber-stamped without any public input,” he said, noting that Ms. Dayton had alerted him and caused the board to take a closer look and to allow the public to weigh in.

 “I must say, Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt, your efforts are well organized. I can assure you that your message has been received.” That being said, however, Mr. Finnerty added that whether Southampton Town could prevent Sag Harbor Village from creating an impound yard on land it owns was debatable. “Our efforts may in fact be limited,” he said.