Four years after Southampton Town went to court to force Sand Land, the Noyac sand mine and recycling facility, to stop processing vegetative waste and construction and demolition debris, it has received the preliminary injunction it sought.
“Our position was affirmed,” Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said. “The court clearly said activities that are not part of sand mining can’t continue.”
With a growing chorus of neighbors charging that the operation was polluting the groundwater, the town has been seeking to rein in activity at the site for most of the past decade. Now, town officials say, they have the authority to get tough.
Town Attorney James Burke said Supreme Court Justice Denise F. Molia’s ruling would help the town ramp up its enforcement efforts.
“We have more teeth,” he said. “If they do things in violation of the injunction, they can be held in contempt of court. They are no longer dealing with a town matter at the justice court level. A judge can find them in contempt of court and fine them or threaten them with jail time.”
Although the town has repeatedly fined Sand Land and taken it to court over activities that go beyond its established use as a sand mining operation, Mr. Schneiderman said until now it appeared the company, which is operated by Wainscott Sand and Gravel, looked at fines issued at the local level as “a cost of doing business.”
The supervisor, while declining to give specifics, said town officials were “definitely working on ways to strengthen our enforcement” at the site.
Sand Land has long denied that its operations pose a threat to the groundwater and has pointed to permits it has received from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation as the legal authority to continue its operations. In a statement issued Wednesday morning, Brian Matthews, the company’s attorney, said, “With regards to the recent injunction decision, it must first be made clear that the recent decision addresses neither of the recent permits issued by the NYDEC and was not based on any finding of adverse environmental impacts.”
Sand Land began to run afoul of neighbors and the town about two decades ago, after the long-overlooked Noyac hills began to attract higher end real estate speculation and the beleaguered Bridgehampton Race Circuit was redeveloped as the Bridge, an exclusive golf club.
Neighbors complained that the company, which in the language of zoning codes is a preexisting, nonconforming use, had illegally expanded its business from simply mining the sand that is an essential ingredient in concrete and used in other construction applications.
Instead, they said, Sand Land was focusing more on profitable side businesses like taking in stumps, brush, and other materials that could be ground into mulch and top soil and resold, or recycling old brick, concrete, and other construction debris for use as a base for driveways.
The matter came to a head in 2012 when the Southampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals ruled that Sand Land, while still a legal sand mine that could take in some vegetative waste to be used to reclaim disturbed areas, could no longer engage in the side businesses.
But rather than quietly fold his tent, Sand Land’s owner, John Tintle, sued the town over the ZBA ruling, with the town ultimately winning that case. Mr. Tintle also lost a second case to the town over his company’s right to process construction and demolition debris.
Meanwhile, public opposition continued to mount, with the Noyac Civic Council taking an active role in the fight and environmental groups, including the Group for the East End and the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, lending their support.
With court victories in hand, the town in the spring of 2016 began to ticket Sand Land for running the mulching business and sought a temporary restraining order. Although that request was denied, the court agreed to take up the town’s request for the injunction.
“The wheels of justice grind slower than those that grind stumps, apparently,” said New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., long a critic of Sand Land, of the slow speed at which the court handled the town’s request.
“This decision essentially says what they have been doing is illegal, all the prior cases have determined it is illegal, and the town now has the full authority of the court to go in there and shutter the place if they want to,” said Bob DeLuca, the president of the Group for the East End.
But the matter has been complicated by the DEC, which has authority to regulate mines.
In October 2018, a year after water tests conducted by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services found high levels of iron, manganese, and other contaminants, the DEC announced that it would not renew Sand Land’s sand mining permit, which was due to expire at the end of that month.
That decision was cheered by Sand Land’s opponents, but their happiness did not last long because the company appealed the DEC decision and won an eight-year extension of the permit in the spring of 2019. Earlier this year, it won a modification of its permit to allow it to process construction and demolition debris again, although Mr. Burke said the DEC conditioned that permit upon Sand Land getting local approval — approval, he said, that would not be forthcoming.
Mr. Thiele said Sand Land has been told by numerous authorities, from the town building inspector to judges in the Appellate Division of New York State Supreme Court, that what they are doing is illegal.
“Despite all of them saying, ‘No, you can’t do this,’ they are still doing it,” he said. “That gets us to the sand mining operation: You have an operator that has engaged in illegal conduct time and time again, and the DEC has done nothing but reward them.”
Both Mr. Thiele and Mr. DeLuca say the DEC is asleep at the switch and not taking seriously its duties to oversee mining activities on Long Island.
But Mr. Matthews said a press release issued this week by Mr. Thiele falsely claimed mining operations at Sand Land were posing a threat to the environment and drinking water.
He said the DEC has found “there is no scientific support” for the claim that the mine is threatening the aquifer and that the DEC has questioned “the integrity, accuracy, and reliability” of the county’s water tests. Furthermore, he said sampling done by Sand Land as a condition to receive its DEC permit “confirmed the lack of any groundwater contamination.” He added the federal Environmental Protection Agency had recently concluded that elevated levels of iron and manganese found in the groundwater were naturally occurring and did not cause a risk.
Although he pledged to put a stop to the activities the town says are illegal, Mr. Schneiderman said Sand Land has a valid sand mining permit that is good for another seven years. “That is a legal use, even if people are not happy with it,” he said. “What we don’t want is mulching combined with sand mining.”