Despite Preservation, Thiele Says Water Quality Remains At Risk

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Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. speaks to members of the Bridgehampton Citizens Advisory Committee Monday. Peter Boody photo

“Water quality has become the biggest environmental issue out here,” Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. told members of the Bridgehampton Citizens Advisory Committee Monday evening during a freewheeling hour-long talk about how state law and prerogatives can affect local decision-making.

The assemblyman, a former Southampton Town supervisor, county legislator and Sag Harbor village attorney, who has won reelection to the Assembly 11 times since 1996, also talked about school consolidation and boundary changes; how the Board of Regents works independently of the legislature and governor; state guidelines for zoning board decisions; plans for a new Stony Brook Southampton hospital building at Stony Brook University’s Southampton’s campus; and how the legislature had to amend state tax law in response to President Donald J. Trump and the GOP’s tax reform law.

Mr. Thiele said the legislature had to act to keep New York taxpayers from having to pay an additional $1.5 billion in taxes this year, which he said would have been the price-tag if the state’s tax law “had not been decoupled from the federal tax code.”

On the broad topic of water quality, Mr. Thiele said that the state legislature this year modified its legislation authorizing the Community Preservation Fund — which allows each of the five East End towns to impose a 2-percent tax on real estate transactions and use the money for environmental protection — to be tapped for loans for homeowners to replace old septic systems with modern nitrogen-reducing systems. The loans, which would supplement grants that are already offered by the state, county and town, will be paid back over 10 years through a surcharge on the homeowner’s tax bill.

Mr. Thiele said the legislature also has authorized CPF money to be used to fund public water main extensions into areas where private wells have been found to be contaminated, such as an area of Wainscott and Sagaponack where chemicals known as PFOs and PFOAs have been detected. The money provides a source for the local funds that are required to match a state grant that will help fund the Wainscott extension, Mr. Thiele said. That legislation has yet to be signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

In light of concerns about reported groundwater pollution at the Sand Land mine off Mitchell Road in Noyac, Mr. Thiele noted that towns are “generally precluded from regulating” mines anywhere in the state. But this year, the legislature agreed to allow towns to require groundwater monitoring at mines in another bill yet to be signed by the governor.

Hailing the Community Preservation Fund as a “successful program that has been copied across the state, mostly in the Hudson Valley,” Mr. Thiele said it was believed when it was first enacted in 1998 that protecting land from development would protect groundwater quality. Even though much of the open space targeted 20 years ago has been preserved, he said, groundwater pollution is a growing concern with hotspots emerging around the region.

“That is why we put a proposition on the ballot” in 2016 “to extend the CPF to 2050 and use up to 20 percent of the revenues for water quality projects,” he said, adding that 80 percent of the voters in Southampton Town said “yes” to the proposal.

Mr. Thiele noted that $1.3 billion has been raised by the five East End towns through their individual CPF programs over the past 20 years and more than 10,000 acres have been preserved.

The Bridgehampton School did not seem to be far from some CAC members’ minds. Pivoting from Mr. Thiele’s concerns about water quality, Rich Cachion asked about school consolidation and, later, Shira Kalish asked about the locating of the school district’s western boundary decades ago to the east of the Bridgehampton Commons mall site, which she noted kept the Bridgehampton School District from receiving any tax revenues from that development.

Mr. Theile said moving a district boundary was similar to district-to-district consolidation, in that all districts involved have to give their approval. Wealthier districts generally oppose consolidation because their taxpayers face a higher tax rate.

On plans for a new hospital campus in Shinnecock Hills, Mr. Thiele said the legislature this year passed legislation that cleared the way for Stony Brook University to lease part of its campus there — a former soccer field where the Hamptons Collegiate baseball league plays its games in the summer — to be the future hospital site. He noted that the campus has been active as a graduate center with about 600 students enrolled and will remain in operation even as the hospital is constructed.

He said that $250 million must be privately raised to fund the hospital’s move from Southampton Village to Shinnecock Hills and that “shovels in the ground” are anticipated in five years.

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Peter Boody is news editor of The Sag Harbor Express. Previously he was the editor of the Southampton Press for many years and also edited several other papers, including the Shelter Island Reporter and the East Hampton Press, of which he was founding editor. He was a regular correspondent for the New York Times Long Island section and wrote the novel “Thomas Jefferson, Rachel & Me.”