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Jul 2, 2008 1:26 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Planning Board agrees to rescind earlier decision for Woodfield Gables

Jul 2, 2008 1:26 PM

The Southampton Town Planning Board is expected to begin today the process of rescinding its original ruling that the proposed Woodfield Gables subdivision in Speonk, which sits on top of a plume of contaminated groundwater, did not require an extensive environmental review.

Board members agreed to start their new proceedings on the 160-acre parcel, located at the corner of Speonk-Riverhead and Old Country roads in Speonk, at the close of their meeting on Thursday, June 26.

In the fall of 2006—before the Planning Board knew about the groundwater contamination—board members decided that the project would only need a minor environmental review under the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). If the board’s earlier negative declaration is reversed, the project must be given a stringent environmental review before it can move forward in the planning process.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has just begun an in-depth investigation into the source and extent of the plume, which contains at least four different toxic chemicals. It is not clear how long it will take the DEC to pinpoint a source of the pollution, or when it will begin to clean up the contamination.

“I think we were mistaken,” Planning Board Chairman Dennis Finnerty said later of the board’s original decision to give the property a negative declaration. “We need to look a little closer. They don’t know where the source is.”

Three local hydrogeologists, who are members of the Speonk/Remsenburg Civic Association and have been examining the pollution on their own, have repeatedly stated that they are concerned that if the contamination did originate on Mr. Datre’s property, it is possible that the future homeowners could be liable for financing the cleanup. Such a project is expected to cost millions of dollars.

Mr. Finnerty noted that many banks and finance companies advise potential home buyers to purchase insurance that will cover them if a groundwater plume is found to originate beneath their properties. He also noted that such insurance is relatively inexpensive.

In response to environmental concerns, developer Tom Datre has agreed to provide public water for the proposed 57-home development. He has also promised to install barriers under the homes to prevent chemicals in the soil vapor from entering through the foundations, a fix that experts said would protect future residents.

Mr. Datre, a Ronkonkoma-based builder, was traveling this week and was unavailable for comment.

Mr. Finnerty, who had previously stated that he believed the board had done “extraordinary due diligence” in its review of the Woodfield Gables project, has apparently changed his opinion.

“We’re all in agreement,” he said during last week’s meeting, after polling the rest of the board about rescinding the negative declaration.

The board will need an extensive list of findings to justify its action and protect itself from a potential lawsuit. A resolution to rescind the negative declaration, which could be approved as early as today, July 3, is only the beginning of that process.

Planning Board member Jacqui Lofaro said last week that she had hoped to have the resolution to rescind the negative declaration on the agenda sooner, adding that she was very concerned about the unknown aspects of the groundwater plume.

“A lead agency must rescind the negative dec when new information is found,” said Planning Board member Alma Hyman. She added that the unknown factors associated with the plume are troubling.

Elizabeth Vail, the attorney for the Planning Board, cautioned that the board would need to involve both Mr. Datre and all involved government agencies in the process of rescinding the negative declaration. “I understand the urgency, but we need to allow the applicant a reasonable amount of time,” Ms. Vail said.

Mr. Finnerty noted later that while the board is unanimously in favor of rescinding its earlier position, that does not necessarily mean that the project will receive a positive declaration. Such a ruling would require that Mr. Datre complete an extensive and expensive environmental study of his property.

The contamination, dubbed the Speonk Solvent Plume, runs for at least 1.5 miles, north to south, and contains elevated levels of the solvents tetrachloroethylene, carbon tetrachloride and trichloroethylene, as well as chloroform. It is unclear at this point where the plume ends because additional groundwater samples have not yet been taken. Some have speculated that the plume, which could predate World War II, might have already reached Moriches Bay.

Mr. Finnerty explained that if the Planning Board rescinds its earlier decision in the next few weeks, Mr. Datre will need to submit an amended environmental assessment form that contains data on the groundwater plume that was missing in the original application.

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