Conservationists, environmentalists and even New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. joined a rallying call for the preservation of a 24-acre site on the Sag Harbor-Bridgehampton Turnpike during a planning board hearing in Southampton on Thursday, May 24, while village officials continue to pursue approval to use a small portion of the municipally-owned land as an impound yard for vehicles seized by police.
This spring, the Sag Harbor Village Board of Trustees announced it would pursue plans to carve out an 80-by-60-foot area at the site for use an impound yard, fencing off an area just south of the recycling transfer station operated by Southampton Town. The Village of Sag Harbor owns the property, nestled on three sides by preserved land that is a part of the 800-acre Long Pond Greenbelt, and leases the portion that houses the recycling station to the town.
The concept quickly drew critics, who showed up in force during a public hearing last Thursday in front of the Southampton Town Planning Board.
“The Long Pond Greenbelt is one of the jewels in the crown of the South Fork and I think we should be looking to increase it rather than to continue to nibble away at the edges and continue to threaten its integrity,” said Peter Wilson, a Bridgehampton resident who is a member of that hamlet’s citizens advisory committee and is also on the board of the Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt. “It is a huge heritage for us, especially in the Bridgehampton and Sag Harbor community. I am certain alternatives can be worked out, perhaps working with the town to accommodate their very valid needs, but this is not the right place to do that — there is no question.”
During the meeting, Elizabeth Vail, an attorney representing the Village of Sag Harbor, argued the 4,800 square-foot impound yard comprises just .4 acres of the overall site, and is over 600 feet from the nearest wetland, and 1,200 feet from the nearest pond in the greenbelt. The property, she added, was a dump site as a pre-existing, non-conforming use that predates zoning.
“The village is a good steward of the environment,” said Ms. Vail, adding that other village properties were canvased as potential sites for the impound yard, but were not viable because of their proximity to residential neighborhoods, their size or because they are undisturbed or preserved lands. As a former dump site, the turnpike property is considered disturbed land.
Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Austin J. McGuire said his department is currently without a secure yard to hold vehicles it is required to impound in the event of certain crimes, let alone vehicles it needs to hold as evidence in a pending trial. Currently, impounded vehicles are kept in the highway department yard — property that is unsecured as members of the department enter and exit throughout the day, and land Mr. McGuire said is too small to accommodate both departments.
“It is a very active area with a lot of people working all day long,” he said during the planning board hearing. “They are in and out with trucks, machinery, etc. It is not a secure facility.”
Impounding vehicles to town police facilities in Wainscott or Hampton Bays, Mr. McGuire added, would leave the village down one of two police officers on duty at any given moment.
“The proposed area is perfect — an officer can be close to the village, they can stop what they are doing and come back in,” he said, adding that without its own tow truck, his department contracts with a private company, which would be a more expensive proposition when hauling vehicles to Hampton Bays or Wainscott.
Under the proposal, village officials would hold no more than 20 vehicles at a time on the site. On average, Mr. McGuire estimated he would need space for 12 to 15 vehicles, the length of stay dependent on the courts and the ability of owners to pay the impound fee.
Chick Voorhis, of Nelson, Pope & Voorhis, the village’s environmental planning consultants, agreed with Ms. Vail that the site has been used since the 1960s, including as a landfill. It is still used to dispose of leaves and brush, he said, and is currently housing PSEG vehicles performing storm-hardening work on the electrical grid for the next two or three months.
Mr. Voorhis said the village has proposed a bioswale buffer on the property to absorb any pollution created as a result of stormwater runoff on the site, with drainage able to contain two-inches of rainfall. He also said all vehicles taken to the site would be inspected and would not be brought to the property if there was leakage of motor oil or other fluids.
The wetland just over 600-feet from the proposed site is a breeding pond for the Eastern Tiger salamander, an endangered species. However, Mr. Voorhis said that New York State Department of Environmental Conservation guidelines only require a setback of 530-feet, and because the area is disturbed with compacted soils it is not considered a suitable habitat for burrowing salamanders. Regardless, if approved, the village would work with the DEC, he said, and would ensure proper grading and curbing for migrating salamanders and screening for hikers using the greenbelt trails.
Any expansion of the use of that property is too much of an expansion given the vulnerable and rare species that call the greenbelt home, was the response delivered by half a dozen residents.
“While the state has no authority over the matter, as a long-time advocate for the Long Pond Greenbelt I wholly support the dedication of the non-disturbed portion of the village parcel for open space and conservation use consistent with its location in the Long Pond Greenbelt,” said Assemblyman Thiele in a letter read by long-time environmental advocate and former East Hampton Town Natural Resources Director Larry Penny. “I also oppose any expansion of current uses or introduction of new uses on the property outside of what already exists (recycling center, leaf composting).”
“As we have written previously, the proposed action is highly inconsistent with the decades of community planning as well as extensive public and private investment dedicated to the protection of the unique and vulnerable natural resources comprised of the Long Pond Greenbelt,” wrote Group for the East End President Robert DeLuca in a letter read by Jean Dodds, a Bridgehampton resident and secretary of Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt.
Mr. DeLuca noted the property is in a groundwater protection area designated by the state and is listed as a critical environmental area by both the county and the town. He called for a full environmental review of the project before any approval is offered to the village.
“This property lies within the bounds of the Long Pond Greenbelt, a chain of environmentally sensitive coastal plain ponds described by the Nature Conservancy as ‘an eco-system supporting one of the highest concentrations of rare species and natural communities anywhere in New York State.’ Its preservation has been a priority for the Town of Southampton since 1968,” said Dai Dayton, president of the Friends.
“I ask you please to take a long-term view of what is good for the land, the rare plants and animals that live only here including the endangered Tiger salamander, certain turtle species and the vulnerable groundwater pools,” said Bridgehampton resident Barbara Bornstein. “What is at stake here extends far beyond any of us in this room. We are lucky to enjoy it now and we have a duty to protect it for future generations.”
Dennis Finnerty closed the hearing noting that originally the application was “intended to be an administrative walk-on to be rubber stamped without any public input.” He credited Ms. Dayton for reaching out and prompting the planning department to take a second look and call for a public hearing.
“I must say, Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt, your efforts are well-organized,” Mr. Finnerty said. “Some of your voices we have heard for decades and we regularly turn to your group along with the trails advisory board to assist us in environmental matters and I can assure you your message has been received.
“I would caution that the rights of one municipality over the land use of another municipality is in question,” he continued. “It is certainly open to debate. Our efforts may in fact be limited but you have certainly brought an important matter to this board.”
While the hearing was closed, the board will accept public comment through June 24.