BETH YOUNG PHOTO
Freddie Wachsberger (at microphone) was one of many Orient residents to speak during last Wednesday’s Town Trustees hearing on the SCWA’s request for wetlands permit to install the contested water main. An authority spokesman said the work could start after Labor Day.
A water main for Orient could be under construction by around Labor Day, an official for the Suffolk County Water Authority told a crowd of Orient residents before the Southold Town Trustees last Wednesday, July 21, despite assurances from the water authority and Congressman Tim Bishop two weeks ago that the project was dead.
At a public hearing on the application before the Trustees on July 21, attorney E. Christopher Murray, who is representing a number of Orient residents opposed to the pipeline, said the board could not act on an application that did not include a time line for the project.
But 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 Oct. 31.
“I was with Congressman Tim Bishop in his office in Coram last Tuesday,” said Orient resident Venetia Hands at the hearing. “The first thing Congressman Bishop said was, ‘This project is dead.’ Three senior members of the Suffolk County Water Authority did not say, ‘That is not true.’ They said, ‘We do have an application. We do not expect it to go through.’ You have a right to demand honesty, integrity and consistency. Suffolk County Water Authority has a habit of saying one thing and doing another.”
Supervisor Scott Russell, who participated in the meeting with Congressman Bishop, on Thursday in an interview accused the authority of reneging on comments its officials had made at that meeting.
“Doesn’t state DMV law require that you make a beeping sound when you back up that fast?” he said.
“The congressman’s understanding was that the pipeline was dead,” said Mr. Bishop’s spokesman, Jon Schneider, also in an interview Thursday. “A lot of people are confused. 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.”
“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,” he added.
The Wednesday hearing was contentious from beginning to end, with the public insisting that they were misled into believing the project was dead and the Trustees attempting to keep order and insisting that they had little control over deciding whether or not the project required a formal environmental review.
In an interview the day after the Trustee hearing, SCWA chairman Jim Gaughran retreated from his previous comments suggesting the project was moribund. The authority’s board “will have a full discussion of what our options are” at its next meeting on July 27, he said.
Just last week, the chairman had 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.”
A vocal group of residents in Orient has opposed any water main extension to the rustic community, fearing it could encourage development by providing all the water large-scale subdivisions would need. Opponents thought they had won the fight when water authority officials declared recently that they would not push a project that the Southold Town Board and many Orient residents so adamantly opposed.
The authority had claimed the water main was intended to serve only a small area on Browns Hill Road, where 24 residents are known to have high nitrates in their private wells. But the authority’s application for nearly $2 million in federal stimulus money to pay for the project stated that as many as 772 residents could sign on for water service — nearly as many people as there are in all of Orient, according to the last census.
Even after announcing it would abandon the project in the face of local opposition, the utility pushed ahead with the application before the Trustees for a wetlands permit that would allow the installation of the main in the road bed of Route 25. The water authority already had received an administrative permit from the Trustees last July to bury 400 feet of pipe under Dam Pond.
Bob DeLuca, president of Group for the East End and an East Marion resident, said at the hearing that the water authority’s request for two permits for sections of the main was a violation of the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), which prohibits what’s known as “segmentation,” when a large project is pushed through regulatory authorities in pieces to obscure its overall scale.
A state Supreme Court justice ruled in May that the project did not require a full SEQRA review, and Trustee president Jill Doherty told the crowd that the Trustees were following state guidelines when they classified the project a SEQRA Type II action on July 21, which meant the water authority did not have to file an environmental impact statement.
Resident Freddie Wachsberger said at the hearing that the Trustees’ thinking on SEQRA had not gone far enough.
“We have documents showing that the whole project goes to Orient Point,” she said. “This is still an incomplete and segmented application under SEQRA.”
The board closed the public hearing without a decision and will accept written comments for two weeks.
Mr. Gaughran, in the interview Thursday, said the authority had assumed that the Trustees would deny the permit. If they do, the agency will then drop its pipeline bid rather than appeal to the State Supreme Court. A lengthy lawsuit would likely lead to the loss of stimulus funds, he said, and the authority would not proceed without it.
But he said he would not rule out proceeding with the work if the permit were 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.
His comments were in contradiction to a letter authority attorney Mr. Hopkins sent to the Trustees in June, which stated that, since 2001, the Trustees had asked the water authority for permits only when they drilled directly under a body of water.
“SCWA respectfully reserves its legal rights with respect to this application and the issue of jurisdiction over the project by the board of trustees,” he wrote.