Water main fight taken to the top

A group of Orient residents opened a new front Monday in their battle against the Suffolk County Water Authority’s plan to build a three-mile water main between East Marion and Orient’s Brown’s Hills community.

Taking their fight right to the top, eight Orienters unloaded their anger and frustration for more than an hour on the SCWA board of directors at its monthly meeting at authority headquarters in Oakdale. Board members, who let the residents do most of the talking, got an earful.

The residents, who fear the new mains could spur unwanted development and divert water from Orient to other parts of SCWA’s service territory, complained that the authority had repeatedly betrayed their trust on such matters as the cost of homeowner hookups and the potential number of houses to be served by the pipeline.

“You folks made yourselves so obnoxious,” MaryAnn Liberatore, president-elect of the Orient Association, told the authority’s five directors. She said that residents’ initial attitude about the water main was “let’s look at the pipeline.” But, she added, “You now have got Orient to the point of ‘Hell, no!’â”

Venetia Hands, a Brown’s Hills homeowner, said longtime Orient residents have told her they’ve never seen the community so united in opposing the pipeline. Another Orient resident, Sandra Sinclair, said more than 200 signatures opposing the project have been collected there.

“Why try to ram this down our throats?” demanded Ms. Sinclair.

Bob DeLuca of East Marion, president of the environmental organization Group for the East End, struck a somewhat more hopeful tone, suggesting that the SCWA might still regain the community’s trust. Still, he said, the authority’s effort to promote its project “has gone about as badly as this can go.”

SCWA chairman Michael LoGrande, a resident of Cutchogue, seemed sympathetic to Orient residents’ concerns that the project could trigger development. “You’re not satisfied with the protections in place,” he told them, adding, “If there was a way to control growth, you’d say, ‘Why would we block public water?’â”

Mr. LoGrande urged Southold to impose a moratorium on development in Orient.

Many opponents of the water main have speculated that unless there were a big economic payoff, the SCWA wouldn’t be willing to spend $3.8 million on a large (12-inch-diameter) water main just to serve the 24 homes in Brown’s Hills and potentially 100 more along the pipeline’s right of way. But Mr. LoGrande dismissed the notion that the project would be financially lucrative.

“If you ever looked at the economics of it,” he said, “Orient would probably be the last place,” except for Shelter Island, where the SCWA would invest in a new pipeline.

Mr. LoGrande said the authority was undertaking the project because of the degraded quality of drinking water in the area. Water quality there is compromised by the presence of agricultural chemicals and other contaminants.

“The state and county {health departments} asked us to go to Brown’s Hills,” said Mr. LoGrande. “I didn’t even know where Brown’s Hills was.”

Ms. Hands blasted as “disingenuous” Mr. LoGrande’s assertion that the SCWA “didn’t pick the Orient project; the project was picked by the State of New York.” He then acknowledged that the pipeline was one of several candidates for federal stimulus funds that the authority submitted to the state.

Although authority CEO Stephen Jones said during an April 6 hearing on the project at Southold Town Hall that the SCWA would proceed with the water main with or without the $1.9 million in stimulus money awarded to the project, Mr. LoGrande said in a brief interview Monday that the board has never passed a resolution to that effect.

The stimulus funds were unavailable to the authority pending the outcome of a lawsuit seeking a full environmental review for the project. That suit was dismissed in state Supreme Court yesterday (Wednesday).