New Option Surfaces at 11th Hour for Sag Harbor Police Impound Yard

Entry gate to Suffolk County Water Authority property off Division Street at Middle Line Highway. Peter Boody photo

With the Village of Sag Harbor poised to ignore a chorus of critics and begin building a vehicle impound lot for the Village Police on property it owns next to the environmentally sensitive Long Pond Greenbelt preserve, the CEO of the Suffolk County Water Authority has opened the door to considering a 12.5-acre water authority property on higher ground off Division Street as an alternative site.

A member of the Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt identified the site, which contains four water authority wells and includes a paved road and cyclone fencing topped by barbed wire, during a search of local vacant parcels, according to Dai Dayton, president of the Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt.

Through Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., the Friends contacted Water Authority CEO Jeffrey Szabo, who “expressed a definite willingness to discuss this matter with the village,” Ms. Dayton wrote members of the Sag Harbor Village Board in a letter dated January 20.

“Near the close of the public portion of the January 8 board meeting,” her letter begins, “Mayor Schroeder stated that if another property for the proposed impound yard could be found, the board would be willing to take it under consideration. We believe we have located a suitable site and urge you to give it your immediate attention.”

Mr. Szabo confirmed on Monday he had been contacted and was willing to hear more.

“The Water Authority has a long history of trying to work with local governments and community organizations,” he wrote in an email. “I am unsure of the exact nature of the proposal before the Village Board but at the request of Fred Thiele, my staff met with individuals from the Long Pond Greenbelt Association [sic] at the authority’s Division Street Pump Station. The authority has a total of four wells at this location, three of which are shallow. Naturally, I would need more specific information related to the proposal before commenting further.”

A skeptical Mayor Sandra Schroeder on Tuesday said in an interview she wouldn’t close the door on considering the site but raised a number of concerns: The village already has spent thousands of dollars and more than a year on the planning and the review process for the village-owned site off the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike, she said; the Water Authority site, which she said she has walked, is hilly and wooded and would require grading and tree-clearing; and any alternative  to the turnpike site “would have to be free,” she said, because the owns the turnpike property, the site of an old municipal dump.

Village Trustee Aidan Corish, the only member of the Village Board who has opposed the turnpike site for the impound lot, was upbeat when reached on Tuesday. “I would love to see us investigate this idea. It has merit,” he commented. The tucked-away Water Authority site, of which Mr. Corish said he’d been completely unaware despite his decades as a homeowner here, is off Middle Line Highway, a few hundred feet east of Division Street and within village limits. The route to it from Village Police headquarters is almost a straight line, and 1.1 miles — nearly half the 2.2-mile distance to the turnpike site and without any of its many required turns.

“I’m not going to get into whether or not it’s the right alternative,” said Mr. Thiele, a local resident and former Sag Harbor village attorney, “but it should be explored.”

Ms. Dayton said Tuesday she had received no response to her letter except from Mr. Corish.

The Village Police keep custody of up to 30 vehicles a year as a result of driver arrests and other police matters. At any one time, usually two or three vehicles are being kept behind Sag Harbor’s main firehouse on Brick Kiln Road. Officials have said there’s not enough room there for both the impounded vehicles and all the fire and highway department vehicles that may be parked there.

The village proposal is for a 60-by-80-foot paved rectangle with cyclone fencing and curbing containing 12 parking spaces on a 24.2-acre parcel owned by the village but in the Town of Southampton, well south of the village boundary.

The village is waiting only for a building permit from the Town of Southampton to begin work and is expecting to receive it any day, Mayor Schroeder acknowledged. She added that nothing will be happening for “the next two weeks,” however, allowing time for board members to decide whether or not to consider the water authority option.

Village Board members have mostly refrained from commenting on the proposal at the meetings at which they have approved various steps in the planning, review and financing process over the past year. But at the January 8 meeting, when the board voted 4-1 to hire DeLalio Coal & Stone Co. to pave, curb and fence the lot — facing a meeting room packed with protesters — the mayor and Trustees James Larocca and Kenneth O’Donnell defended the turnpike plan.

They noted the property has already been disturbed environmentally; the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has approved it and found no threat to the greenbelt; and its remote, village-owned location allows it to be properly secured in order to maintain the police department’s “chain of custody” over potential evidence. They said no alternative sites could meet all the village’s needs.

In a letter to the Southampton Town Planning Board, which approved the site plan for the lot in a 6-1 vote on June 28, 2018, Village Attorney Elizabeth E. Vail cited the finding of the village’s environmental consultant that “no other village-owned properties [were found] that could support the proposed impound yard. The other village-owned properties either do not have sufficient area, were purchased for preservation purposes, are not previously disturbed or are located in close proximity to neighboring residential homes.”

She wrote the “village police chief also explored alternative methods of providing an impound yard by reviewing the potential to share already existing impound areas owned and operated by neighboring municipalities,” the closest of which are in Wainscott and Hampton Bays. “The village doesn’t own its own tow-truck and the distance of the other impound yards from the village including the time it would take for a village police officer to search and catalogue the vehicle and its contents represents practical difficulties that the Sag Harbor Police Department cannot overcome.”

Mayor Schroeder said at the June 8 Village Board meeting that the Town of Southampton had declined to use Community Preservation Funds to purchase any of the village-owned site east of the turnpike. The village’s file on the impound lot includes an April 26, 2018, letter from Mary Wilson — who until January 31, 2019, when she retires, is the manager of the town’s Community Preservation Fund program — to the village to advise “that the town may have an interest in the southerly one-third” of the 24.1-acre property “as it is listed in the Community Preservation Fund project plan.”

A blank form was attached to the letter to be used by a property owner to express a willingness to allow the town to obtain an appraisal and consider a property for acquisition. There is no record in the file that the village filled out or sent a filled-out form.

Ms. Wilson, asked for comment by email, replied on January 22, “The town did review the parcel and part of the parcel for preservation but declined to proceed. That is the extent of information I have for you.”