BETH YOUNG PHOTO
Freddie Wachsberger of Orient addressing the Trustees during Wednesday’s hearing.
A new water main could conceivably be under construction around Labor Day, an official for the Suffolk County Water Authority told a crowd of Orient residents before the Southold Town Trustees Wednesday night, despite assurances from the water authority and Congressman Tim Bishop last week that the project was dead.
After a meeting with Congressman Bishop in his Coram office last Tuesday, the water authority’s chairman, Jim Gaughran said in an interview that “it makes absolutely no sense for the town and the water authority to continue to fight over this.”
A vocal group of residents in Orient have waged battle against the utility company for allegedly misrepresenting the scope of the project to include just a small area known to have high nitrates in its private wells on Browns Hill Road, when an application for nearly $2 million in federal stimulus money stated that as many as 772 residents could sign on for the service. Residents also fear that with public water will come increased development.
But the utility still pushed forward with an application before the town trustees for a wetland permit that would allow the installation of the main in the road bed of Route 25. Orient residents packed the town hall meeting room through a more than four-hour meeting, whose last scheduled item was a public hearing on the water authority’s application, Wednesday night.
Though attorney E. Christopher Murray, who is representing a number of Orient residents opposed to the pipeline, said that the trustees could not accept an application that did not include a timeline for the project, the water authority’s general counsel, Tim Hopkins, was quick to jump to the podium with an answer. He said the project could be started as soon as Labor Day and be completed by October 31.
Bob DeLuca, the president of the Group for the East End and an East Marion resident, also raised concern because the water authority had already received an administrative permit from the trustees to put 400 feet of pipeline under Dam Pond. That action, he said, was a violation of the State Environmental Quality Review Act, which prohibits a process known as segmentation, when a large project is pushed through regulatory authorities in small pieces.
“The state says extension of utilities is growth inducement, you can decide that growth inducement is not there but you have to look at it,” he told the board. “If this is not real and there’s not going to be a pipe in the ground after Labor Day, you oughta know about it.”
“In 20 years of civic advocacy, I don’t think I have ever seen an agency so openly disregard the fears and concerns of the community it is commissioned to serve,” said Mr. DeLuca. “The water authority now seems so obsessed with winning it has ignored its responsibility to actually earn the support of its potential customers. In so doing, it has turned prospective advocates into enemies, made a mockery of our elected officials and thumbed its nose at our local laws.”
In an interview on Thursday, Jim Gaughran, chairman of the authority’s board of directors, retreated from comments he made last week regarding the fate of the project. The authority’s board, which next meets on July 27, “will have a full discussion of what our options are,” he said.
Last week the chairman said, “It’s been made pretty clear from the residents out there that they don’t want this. We get a lot of calls from people asking for the pipeline, but it makes absolutely no sense for the town and the water authority to continue to fight over this.”
Mr. Gaughran said the authority assumes that the Trustees will deny the permit, and rather than appeal to the State Supreme Court, the agency will then drop its pipeline bid. A lengthy lawsuit would likely lead to the authority’s losing the stimulus funds earmarked to offset the costs, said Mr. Gaughran, and the authority will not proceed without that revenue. But he would not rule out proceeding with the work if the permit is granted. He declined to comment on whether the authority would drop the project if it gets the permit and residents take the Trustees to court.
Supervisor Scott Russell, who participated in a recent water main summit held by Congressman Tim Bishop, accused the authority of reneging on comments made at that time.
“Doesn’t state DMV law require that you make a beeping sound when you back up that fast?,” he said. “It was clear from the outset that the pipeline was not going to be coming to Browns Hills. The congressman made that clear.”
Mr. Bishop’s spokesman agrees. “The congressman’s understanding was that the pipeline was dead,” said Jon Schneider. Following that premise, he added, the parties in the dispute are to meet in Southold on Friday, July 30, to map out strategies for providing water to Browns Hills in the post-SCWA era.
“A lot of people are confused,” said Mr. Schneider. “This has definitely taken a turn for the bizarre. The community has made it abundantly clear that they are opposed to this project, The notion that there will be some action on a pipeline by Labor Day seems quite flawed.”
It’s likely that a lawsuit would follow the approval of a Trustees permit, the spokesman said, and that would put the stimulus grant in jeopardy.
“Since the authority has said that it won’t go ahead with the project without stimulus money, and any way you slice it, it seems some combination of factors will delay this to take the stimulus money out of the picture, someone is going 100 miles an hour down a street with a big ‘dead end” sign on it.”
The board closed the public hearing and will accept written comments for two weeks.