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Jul 25, 2008 4:54 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Planning Board stalls on Woodfield Gables decision following lawsuit threat

Jul 25, 2008 4:54 PM

The developer looking to build a 57-lot subdivision atop a plume of contaminated groundwater in Speonk this week threatened to sue the Southampton Town Planning Board, prompting members to hold off on a vote to rescind their 2006 ruling that allowed the project to move forward without the need for an extensive environmental review.

However, it was not only Garden City attorney Andrew Campanelli’s threat to sue the board, claiming that members were violating his client’s constitutional rights, but the need to examine an additional 92 samples of vapors from the soil located under the proposed subdivision that kept the Planning Board from acting last Thursday, July 24.

Board members did not take action on the project and referred the new soil vapor data to their environmental consultants. Woodfield Gables is next scheduled to be discussed by the Planning Board on Thursday, August 7.

Tom Datre, who has been attempting to develop the 160-acre Woodfield Gables property for more than a decade and claims to have spent $2.5 million to ensure the safety of potential homeowners, told the board that he would pay for an independent review of his environmental consultant’s latest samples. Mr. Datre then added that he would not spend another dime to convince them that the property is safe enough to build upon.

Mr. Datre’s consultant, Theresa Elkowitz, said the contamination is coming from off-site sources and that Mr. Datre proposed installing vapor barriers under his houses to protect residents from potential fumes before anybody else had suggested it.

“The vapor barrier will be purely precautionary. We decided to put it in,” she said, adding that the board’s own environmental consultants had also said that the barrier would be acceptable.

After hearing three weeks ago that the Planning Board would rescind the negative declaration, Ms. Elkowitz’s firm, the Freudenthal & Elkowitz Consulting Group, took an additional 92 soil vapor samples of the site, from 46 different locations.

Board members had been concerned that there were only four on-site samples of soil vapor, while high levels of chloroform were found in some samples to the south of the Woodfield Gables property.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is currently undergoing an active investigation of the source and extent of the plume, which contains four toxic solvents that are found both deep in the groundwater and in the soil vapor.

Ms. Elkowitz said that none of the new soil vapor concentrations were higher than those already identified by the state health department.

The Planning Board issued its decision that the project did not require an extensive environmental impact statement, known to planners as a “negative declaration,” before its members were aware of the plume and the state investigation.

“It is not appropriate to rescind the neg dec,” said Ms. Elkowitz. “It has to be related to a significant adverse impact. I have been studying the property since 1996, and I have yet to see a significant adverse impact caused by this project.”

Mr. Campanelli also stated this week that his client’s property rights would be violated by the Planning Board if it decides to rescind the negative declaration and require a full environmental study.

“This project has been held up by the town for 12 years,” Mr. Campanelli said, adding that the board has never documented evidence showing that the project itself—and not the contamination—would cause a significant environmental impact.

The Planning Board’s attorney, Elizabeth Vail, and several of the board’s members said that their primary concern was that the plume was first brought to the board’s attention after it issued the negative declaration—a fact that would require them to rescind their original ruling.

Planning Board Vice Chairman John Blaney said he was not sure how much information, beyond the data they already possess, the board would receive if Mr. Datre was forced to prepare an environmental impact statement. “I’m trying to look at this from a practical point of view,” he said.

Planning Board member Jacqui Lofaro cautioned Mr. Datre’s representatives that the DEC’s investigation was ongoing, and that experts still do not know the source, extent or potential dangers associated with the contamination, dubbed the Speonk Solvent Plume.

“Soil vapor is a new area [of study],” Ms. Lofaro added. “We do not know the impact of people living in homes on this property.”

Her comments prompted Mr. Blaney to ask a question: “So if we say we think that people who live here will develop respiratory problems?”

“Let’s pretend it’s not this,” said Ms. Elkowitz, who asked Mr. Blaney to envision what would happen if a project had been designed to be hooked up to public water and, later, some catastrophic event had made the public water unsafe. That, she said, would be a significant environmental impact.

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