It’s a no to public water bid

Southold’s water supply map will not be amended to permit the Suffolk County Water Authority to run three miles of new water mains into Orient.

The water authority says it will proceed with the project anyway.

After months of community meetings on the much-contested proposal, the Town Board refused, by a unanimous vote Tuesday, to add Orient to the water map, which has long served as a guide for the expansion of public water throughout Southold.

Town officials have long maintained that the water map must be amended to include that area before the water authority can proceed with the $3.8 million project. The authority disagrees and has said it will proceed with the installation with or without town approval.

Supervisor Scott Russell said that, because the authority never canvassed Orient’s 700 homeowners to gauge the level of support for the project, and because he “could not find a core sense of support out there,” he had no choice but to vote down the amendment.

“It’s not our place to subject the people of Orient to the will of a nondescript authority, to bring water to a place where it is not wanted,” he said. “I don’t know what their fascination is with Orient.”

Project supporters say the federally funded pipeline would bring a source of clean water to an area where private wells carry traces of agricultural chemicals and other contaminants. Opponents argue that bad water can be treated with individual home treatment systems and that public water would open the door to denser residential development.

Stephen Jones, the water company’s CEO, has maintained since first proposing the extension last year that the mains would serve only 24 homes in Browns Hills that currently have private wells with contaminated water.

Orient resident Freddie Wachsberger, who has been outspoken against the water main project since the SCWA first proposed it, said at the meeting that she was “shocked at the disregard for environmental law” on the part of the water authority.

“In the process of learning and digging and researching, the more we uncover … There are federal protections,” she said, adding that, as of Tuesday, the SCWA had not applied to the Army Corps of Engineers for a permit to dig the trench to place the mains.

“The idea that they can apply for stimulus funds, shovel ready, without proper permits and without addressing environmental issues, is shocking,” said Ms. Wachsberger.

Representatives of the water authority held two informational sessions in Southold about their intentions for Orient on Friday and Monday. But some who attended said they left the sessions with more questions than answers.

“The more we get into it, the more puzzling it gets,” said Browns Hills resident Venetia Hands. “Why are they so adamant about coming into Orient? It’s like, what is going on? They tell us that Orient has the worst water in the world, but really, we’re talking about a few bad wells.”

“If Suffolk County Water Authority really is a public benefit corporation, why don’t they do anything for people with private wells?” echoed Benja Schwartz of Cutchogue. “Why don’t they invest in doing something about the road runoff issue? There is only one water supply, and we use it and reuse it and reuse it. Let’s take care of it instead of pumping more water in.”

Councilman Chris Talbot said that one of the reasons he voted against amending the water map is that, normally, the Suffolk County Water Authority will not move forward on a project unless at least 50 percent of the neighborhood approves of it. In Orient, he said, suddenly that policy does not apply.

Mr. Russell added that it is not the job of the Town Board to say yes or no to a proposed project such as the water mains but to make sure that there is communication from the water authority to residents and vice-versa.

“It took us a year of kicking and screaming to drag them into a public hearing,” Mr. Russell said. “And we’ve seen that there is simply no consensus that shows support” for the water mains.

Orient Point resident Bill Gibbons, who spoke to the board about the dismal state of his well water at a public hearing two weeks ago, questioned why the board would deny him his right to clean water by blocking the water authority in this way. Mr. Russell said the resolution was not a matter of denying anyone the right to clean water.

“If it’s the will of the community to have public water, then we will bring in public water,” Mr. Russell said. “We would certainly entertain any future application for an amendment from them for this area. However, they need to show us a community consensus that wants it. We did our job and held a hearing and looked to that community for support. There was none forthcoming.”

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