East Hampton Environmental Debate Delivers One-Two Punches
By Peter Boody
Both sides touted their environmental chops and took a jabs at their opponents at an environmental forum featuring the Republican and Democratic candidates for East Hampton Town Board last week.
With one-two punches delivered by council candidates Jerry Larsen and Paul Giardina — leaving supervisor candidate Manny Vilar to be the good cop — the Republicans blamed the incumbent Democrats who control the board with inaction, delay and showmanship during election years.
The Democrats, with incumbent councilman and supervisor candidate Peter Van Scoyoc leading the charge, parried the allegations and touted the board’s achievements. Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, who is seeking a second four-year term, and local attorney Jeff Bragman, candidate for a council seat who is making his first bid for office, joined him on the panel.
The Concerned Citizens of Montauk (CCOM) and the New York League of Conservation Voters (NYLCV) hosted the event on October 12 at Scoville Hall in Amagansett. The League’s senior vice president, Joshua Klainberg, moderated.
Mr. Giardina, who said he had “45 years experience as an environmental leader and engineer” working for the EPA, charged that “in the last four years, all the data tell us water quality is deteriorating in East Hampton and many places rapidly. He promised to improve the record.
Hinting at the option of using shore-hardening structures to hold back erosion, he questioned current Army Corps of Engineers plans for Montauk “to maybe hold the line with geotextile tubes. The question I have is that solution … best for us?”
He called the town’s new water quality program that uses 20-percent of Community Preservation Fund (CPF) revenues to give rebates to people who voluntarily upgrade their septic systems “a poor use of money … when there is a $2.2 billion” state-managed EPA fund “to address every septic waste problem we have here.”
“We think the use of CPF funding has gone astray and, in fact, frankly, I’ve had one sitting town councilman saying the 20-percent CPF takeoff is nothing but a slush fund.”
Mr. Giardina has proposed that the town inspect all septic systems installed before 1995, identify faulty systems and require homeowners to improve them with loans from the fund “for an amortized cost less than your cable bill,” he said, about $60 a month for 30 years.
Solar energy, he said, is “the only available option” that will allow the town to meet its goal of using only renewable energy sources for its electrical needs by 2020. He said the GOP opposes the offshore wind farm proposed by Deepwater Wind to serve the South Fork “simply because you’re not going to make it by 2020.”
“Use the right renewable,” he said. “The town stopped looking at solar as soon as the windmills came up,” right after Governor Cuomo’s “campaign funds got replenished by Deepwater.”
He charged that the town has failed to inspect all septic systems every three years, as required by town code, and complained there’s “no professional engineer on staff to handle our septic problems.”
Jerry Larsen, the retired East Hampton Village Police chief who runs a security and property management service with his wife, also came out swinging. “East Hampton is in serious need of leadership that will listen to all its residents, businesses and employees,” he said.
He phoned the Army Corps of Engineers, he said, and found “they have not decided to come” and do any work erosion control or beach restoration work in Montauk “and if they do it’s not until 2020.” The town needs to reach out to Congress to make “this more of a priority,” he said.
He described Mr. Giardina’s plan to upgrade septic system “a great plan because it fixes a large amount” of systems “at one time instead of in little, little pieces. We can do it in one big shot and we can reduce nitrogen levels and make real progress.”
He charged the town has done nothing to implement its renewable energy goal, adopted in 2014. “The town went even further,” creating an East Hampton Climate Action Plan in 2015, “another election year,” with “hundreds of potential future actions,” and yet “very little has been done by this Town Board.”
“Has the town reduced its carbon footprint?” he asked. “I don’t think so. Just comparing the fuel expenses from year to year” shows they have risen, not declined. “So what are we doing? We have a plan,” he said, turning the floor over to Mr. Giardina, who argued that solar energy will be “the only available option that will be on line by 2020.”
Mr. Larsen said he could not support the Deepwater Wind project “until we find the right place to put these windmills and we have to work with the fishermen” who opposite it.
Sixty lots in Amagansett have “been identified to the Town Board,” he charged, to acquire for watershed protection “and they’ve done nothing.”
Supervisor candidate Manny Vilar, a senior sergeant with the New York State Park Police and president of state PBA, declared, “I have a rooted, fundamental, long-time career in environmental protection.”
He said he “personally” is “not a fan of hard structures on the beach … but we do need to see how best to mitigate” erosion threats.
He called the town’s CPF-fund septic rebate program a $5 million “drop in the bucket” to address a problem that will cost up to $150 million to fix. “We need to do something now. We can’t wait 30 years to fix this,” he said.
The way to energy sustainability “is to be behind the leader not in front of the leader,” he said, “not being a user but a provider … each and every one of you being a provider.”
On the Deepwater Wind proposal, he said, “We have to remember there is, below the water line, there is an ecosystem” and that the project was not “economically sound” on the Coxes Ledge fishing grounds.
New York State’s “very aggressive” sand pumping and replenishment program for its public beaches in western Long Island is “exactly what we need to do,” Mr. Vilar said.
“I know I’m not the smartest guy in the room,” he said, but the town has “lots of people who are truly experts in their fields” who can be tapped to work in, or volunteer for service, in town government to help the Town Board stay on top of environmental concerns and policies.
He recalled “many years ago,” in upstate New York, he first heard of the term “perc test” (or percolation test) when a friend with land in the New York City “reservoir area” was required to conduct one. The technology to check groundwater flow has been “out there many years” but “unfortunately we didn’t adopt it” because “it’s not on anybody’s radar.”
Over his six years on the Town Board, supervisor candidate Peter Van Scoyoc said, the town has preserved “hundreds of acres of open space” and set the “highest standards in Suffolk County for septic waste.”
He said he had “completely supported the voter-approved plan to use 20 percent of CPF revenues for water quality projects, “unlike Mr. Giardina,” who “is the only person I ever saw speak publically against” the plan. “He thinks we should borrow the money from the federal government.”
“Another problem with the Republican [septic] plan” is it identifies “only pre-1995” systems that are faulty, he added. “In fact, every single system in the town has failed with regard to nitrogen reduction,” he said.
“I’m surprised they don’t know the science on that,” he said of his challengers.
On the topic of renewable energy goals, he described the town’s 2020 deadline as “extremely ambitious”” but “if you don’t set the bar high you’re not going to get very far.”
The town has a lease with SunEdison, signed in 2014, to install solar energy projects at three public sites “and they are paying the lease,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “However, that company at the moment is not able to do that installation.”
The town has conducted an energy audit on all its properties and it has replaced lighting in downtown Montauk that has paid for itself with a 40-percent reduction in energy use, he said.
“We have more stringent energy standards than the New York State Building Code,” he asserted, adding the town offers free energy audits to give “people the chance” to find more effective ways to use energy.
The Coxes Ledge lease site for the Deepwater Wind project covers 250 square miles, he said. “They have maps so they know where the catches are,” allowing Deepwater to site the turbines away from those areas, he added. “Deepwater says it is actively seeking to engage with fishermen,” he said, adding “it’s my view” the wind farm’s delivery cable should not arrive via the bayside but via the ocean shore because “the bottomland” in the bay “is too precious.”
Calling watershed protection a top priority for the town, Mr. Van Scoyoc noted that his opponents had said the town is using CPF money to buy watershed land for “taking down houses. Most of those houses should never have been built. They were sitting in marshland,” he said.
Beach restoration in Montauk, which Mr. Van Scoyoc said the town favors over the “beach build” the Army Corps of Engineers initially planned, may require creating an erosion control district.The town, Mr. Van Scoyoc noted, has earmarked $435,000 for a Coastal Assessment Resiliency Plan (CARP) to study erosion rates and identify areas “most heavily impacted and at risk” from sea level rise and increasingly powerful storms.
He took exception to the comment that the town “doesn’t have the staff capable of handling the job … I think we have an incredible staff” in the Natural Resources Department.
The Town Board already has 62 committees, he said in response to the idea of creating a new environmental advisory committee. The Town Board already engaged with the environmental community “very well,” he said.
“We believe” both surface and aquifer “water quality is the most pressing issue for the town and all of its residents,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. The town has made “great strides preserving land but that doesn’t solve the water quality problem.” He called for greater public awareness that what’s done on the land “can impact drinking water for years to come.”
He said the “downtown Montauk community waste system” proposal is “at the top of the list” for obtaining state funding. “We’ve identified sites” and have “a strategic plan.” About “Mr. Larsen’s comment” that the board gets work done only in campaign years, he added, “we get work done every year.”
Ms. Burke-Gonzalez touted the Town Board’s record of having boosted its Moody’s bond rating to Triple A and listed protecting water, managing coastal erosion, promoting clean energy and “meaningful relief from aircraft noise” as the board’s priorities.
The Natural Resources Department, she said, has found $650,000 in grant money for watershed projects to protect Pussy’s Pond, Accabonac Harbor and Three Mile Harbor. The town hatchery has obtained a $400,000 state grant to grow more shellfish, “which act as filters” to clean water. “I’d like to see laws with clover in them,” she said, so homeowners would have no need for “pesticides.”
She noted that Beach Lane in Wainscott is one of the possible landing sites for Deepwater Wind’s delivery cable and that the company has come to the Wainscott Citizens Advisory Committee, to which she is the Town Board’s liaison, to answer questions. “It’s going to be a good community project,” she said.
She reported that CPF money has been used to preserve 30 parcels around Lake Montauk and 38 parcels in Springs. She set up three new committees to help her as the board’s liaison to the airport, she noted, and they have been “invaluable.”
The town has demonstrated that it can “work well” with Albany officials. Noting the town’s opposition to the state’s “Love NY” signs, she said, “Governor Cuomo knows where we are … We don’t fall short there.”
“East Hampton is my home and I want to protect it,” said Jeff Bragman, who touted his record as an attorney helping residents oppose “inappropriate development.”
Praising the CARP public informational meeting held in May, he said, “We’re not going to give in to apathy and we’re not going to give in to fear. We’re going to use real science and make decisions based on real science.”
He said he opposed “shore hardening” and that Mr. Giardina favored it.
Mr. Bragman said he preferred a “variety of approaches that are small” to water quality problems and called the GOP septic plan “a little bit fuzzy. I like small town approaches.”
He praised the state’s Environmental Quality Review Act for providing a “useful forum” for the public to review and debate development in a way that makes “everyone calmer.” He also praised the town’s various review panels that make “hard decisions based on facts.”
Citing newly discovered groundwater pollution found in Wainscott south of the airport, he said it’s affecting a deep recharge area “that is a last-chance, failsafe aquifer we cannot contaminate.”