A newly submitted report, researched by one of the East End’s most well-respected water quality experts, challenges the science used and conclusions reached in the draft environmental impact statement filed by the Arizona developer pushing for a zoning change that would permit the construction of a luxury golf resort in East Quogue.
In his highly anticipated report filed last month with Southampton Town, Dr. Chris Gobler, a marine science professor at Stony Brook Southampton, also states that the proposed 118-home, 18-hole private golf course being pursued by Discovery Land Company—dubbed “The Hills at Southampton”—would add more nitrogen to the environment than if the firm was allowed to develop the nearly 600 acres according to its current zoning. The land owned by Discovery Land currently carries 5-acre residential zoning, the most restrictive in the municipality.
His 16-page report makes it clear that he thinks the proposed project would further damage already compromised groundwater in the hamlet—pollution that would, in turn, further undermine the quality of water in Weesuck Creek and nearby Shinnecock Bay.
When reached this week, Dr. Gobler, who lives in East Quogue, and whose wife, Dianna, serves on the hamlet’s Board of Education, declined to state that his report means that he opposes Discovery Land’s request for a change of zone, called a planned development district.
“That’s not my decision to make …” said Dr. Gobler, who was asked by the town to complete the report and did so pro bono. “I gave my best scientific opinion with how [the development] lines up with the different scenarios. Now it’s up to the policy-makers to decide.”
Still, his report makes it clear that the zoning change, if approved by the Town Board, would result in the introduction of an estimated 3,600 pounds of nitrogen a year to the hamlet’s groundwater. In comparison, he wrote that one as-of-right alternative—which calls for 118 residential units but no golf course—would yield between 1,600 and 3,500 pounds of nitrogen annually, depending on the intensity of development, and whether or not the homes would be clustered on the property. A clustered development would most likely produce less nitrogen.
When reached this week, Dr. Gobler said he thinks the total amount of nitrogen generated from the development, if Discovery Land had to build under current zoning restrictions, would be closer to the lower end of his estimates. “I gave a range just to be fair,” he said. “I’m just using their numbers and doing my own assessment.”
In his report, he notes that current conditions—sections of the property are already disturbed, while other portions have preexisting pollution, some of which can be traced back to a working farm—yield, on average, about 1,200 pounds of nitrogen annually. “Calculations demonstrated that the lowest nitrogen loading rates are associated with current conditions, whereas the PDD yielded the highest nitrogen loading rates between these extremes,” Dr. Gobler wrote in his report.
His estimates include nitrogen loading from various sources, including fertilizers that would be used on the proposed golf course and septic systems serving the homes. Discovery Land has proposed installing the most modern sewage treatment facility possible if the town were to approve the zoning change. While the proposed treatment plan would help mitigate the nitrogen, it still wouldn’t completely reverse the problem, according to Dr. Gobler.
Mark Hissey, Discovery Land’s vice president and who has been leading efforts to get the PDD approved, said this week that he has reviewed Dr. Gobler’s report and that his team will review the document and rely on it to improve the draft environmental impact statement, or DEIS, once they receive approval from the town to prepare the final environmental impact statement, or FEIS.
“We have to—there is no question about it,” Mr. Hissey said when reached on Tuesday. “All of the agronomic, the hydrologic, and the marine biology issues must be addressed in the FEIS. I’m compelled to update it, actually.”
Dr. Gobler, who met twice with Discovery Land’s scientists before filing his study with the town, points out in his report that they used different models when calculating their estimations in terms of current conditions and the project’s potential impact on the environment. In other places, he said the developer relied on older and, in his opinion, outdated or inaccurate figures.
For example, the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan—designed to reduce the amount of nitrogen in surface waters and groundwater across Long Island—is still being developed and, therefore, was not finished when the town deemed Discovery Land’s DEIS complete six months ago. Though the state plan is still preliminary, some of its recommendations are now available on the DEC website, dec.ny.gov, though that information and recommendations were not included in the current version of the DEIS.
Additionally, Dr. Gobler’s report notes that Discovery Land’s estimates related to the fertigation process—the injection of fertilizers and other water-soluble products into an irrigation system—are unreliable, because the process itself is still experimental, meaning there is no concrete data that attests to the effectiveness of such a practice. As part of its proposal, the developer is offering to capture nitrogen-rich groundwater and using it to irrigate the golf course—and then capturing some of that water through the installation of liners.
Though he describes the suggestion as a “novel” idea and an “innovative approach for mitigation nitrogen on the property,” Dr. Gobler warns that Discovery Land’s estimation that such a practice would remove some 2,500 pounds of nitrogen from the ground annually represents “a significant overestimate.” Additionally, he wrote that there “are questions with regard to how the turf will respond to the constant dosing of high nitrogen groundwater.”
While he likes the concept of recycling already contaminated water, Dr. Gobler said that, as a scientist, he needs to know more about the success of the fertigation process before supporting such an experimental measure. “I love the idea, frankly,” Dr. Gobler said. “I just don’t see how you can begin to count that. You can’t rely on that if it’s totally unknown and an experiment. It’s theoretical.”
Dr. Gobler said he has been studying the massive DEIS, which totals 473 pages, ever since the first version was submitted to the town in December 2015; the Town Board did not approve the draft report until September, after it underwent multiple revisions. Dr. Gobler did not publicly share his concerns about the document until a January public hearing hosted by the town.
In his report filed late last month, Dr. Gobler also warns of future threats through the introduction of additional nitrogen to the groundwater in East Quogue, pointing to western Shinnecock Bay which, in 2010, was deemed an impaired body of water by the DEC. He also wrote that any increase in nitrogen loading could potentially increase the intensity and toxicity of future algal blooms and further undermine the quality of both the bay and already compromised Weesuck Creek, resulting in more frequent shellfish bed closures.
He also warns of the potential threat to drinking water supplies: “Enhanced nitrogen loading will push already high nitrate levels in public and water supply wells for East Quogue closer to [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] federal limit for drinking water.”
The public comment period on the DEIS was closed on April 1, after the town requested an extension due to the sheer volume of written opinions filed regarding the project. Now that the comment period is closed, Discovery Land has 45 days to file its FEIS with the town. It is unclear when the Town Board could vote on the PDD itself, though a super-majority—or four of five board members—must sign off for it to be approved.
For now, Dr. Gobler said the ball is in Discovery Land’s court to update the DEIS with more reliable information.
“They were receptive, which I think was positive …” he said, referring to the developer’s representatives. “I don’t think we have full agreement on everything, but we’re putting some numbers on the table.”