At a Town Board work session on Thursday, Mr. Schiavoni withdrew his application for a moratorium. Although he did not provide an explanation for his move, he said, “there are few things more important than the aquifer.”
The newest member of the Southampton Town Board is leading a charge to curb development that could harm the South Fork’s underground drinking water reservoir.
Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni has filed a resolution to enact a six-month moratorium on development within the town’s aquifer protection overlay districts, environmentally sensitive areas above the deepwater recharge sole-source aquifer, much like the Central Pine Barrens to the west, from which much of the area’s drinking water is taken.
The measure will be introduced for a vote on July 24, with tentative plans for a public hearing on August 14.
The moratorium would put a temporary halt on all development within the districts, which make up a large portion of the town, to allow a newly formed committee to review laws, studies and plans that focus on the protective zone, including the town’s master plan and sustainability plan, and to come up with recommendations for new, tighter regulations.
Mr. Schiavoni said his ultimate goal is to find a way to protect clean water for future generations.
“I think we need to be protective of our efforts to secure fresh drinking water,” he said on Monday. “This is about the health of drinking water in the town.”
But not everyone on Town Board is in favor of the moratorium.
Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said he is worried that a moratorium could have negative ramifications when it comes to a $100 million lawsuit that was filed against the town by Discovery Land Corporation earlier this year over the board’s rejection of a planned development district proposal in East Quogue, called “The Hills at Southampton,” which called for a 118-home subdivision and golf course, that would have been within the aquifer.
The project is back with a pre-application filed with the Town Planning Board, seeking approval of a planned residential development under existing zoning.
“We are in litigation,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “This would stop the Planning Board from making their decision on The Hills, which is a subject within the courts. There is a real question about whether the Town Board can consider this moratorium request.”
The aquifer protection overlay district was designed to encompass the deepest and greatest groundwater recharge areas in the town. Known as water catchment regions, the town chose to strictly regulate activities within them, aiming to reduce the use of fertilizers and to protect natural vegetation. Density of development also is restricted in an effort to protect the aquifer and water quality.
Two areas in particular were set up as aquifer protection overlay districts: one to the west of the Shinnecock Canal, which covers a swath of land from Northampton to Flanders, and the other area to the east of the canal, including parts of North Sea, Water Mill, Sagaponack, Sag Harbor and Noyac.
Mr. Schiavoni said if the board chooses to enact the six-month moratorium within the aquifer protection overlay districts, he would push for the creation of an advisory board that would review the current town code and provide recommendations to increase protections in the districts.
Mr. Schiavoni said he was concerned that the existing restrictions are 30 years old, and issues like the percentage of a parcel that a property owner can clear should be re-evaluated, as should restrictions on fertilized vegetation. The town also should update protection of well heads and limits on pesticides that property owners can use to combat pests. “It all goes into our water,” he said.
According to Mr. Schiavoni, the temporary moratorium would affect only new applications or current applications in the first phase of the State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA, review process, within the aquifer overlay districts.
He noted that the aquifer that provides drinking water to the town is vulnerable, and he wants to try and get restrictions in place that will avoid contamination from pesticides and fertilizers for the future.
There are seven projects within the town that would be stalled by the moratorium, Mr. Schiavoni said he was told by town officials, although he could not name them in interviews on Monday and Tuesday.
Mr. Schiavoni said the moratorium had nothing to do with work being proposed by Discovery Land, which proposes a luxury golf course resort community in East Quogue. Since its rejection, Discovery Land has filed a $100 million lawsuit against the town and board members Julie Lofstad and John Bouvier. The company has also filed a new application to build the project under current zoning, claiming that the golf course, if restricted to residents of the development, could be considered an accessory recreational use. The Planning Board is reviewing the claim, with the Zoning Board of Appeals, to determine if the developer should be permitted the golf course under existing zoning rules, which would not need Town Board approval.
Although the town has done a great job studying the aquifer, Mr. Schneiderman said, many of the problems being seen in the water source are from perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs, which have been identified as potentially causing health risks to humans.
Still, the supervisor said the issue of PFCs are secondary to whether the town can take action on the moratorium without creating significant liability to the town—specifically, with the Discovery Land lawsuit.
“I’m the chief fiscal operator of the town,” he said. “My job is to protect the interest of the town.”
Mr. Schiavoni disagreed.
“I don’t think we, as legislators, should take lawsuits into consideration when making decisions for the town,” he said. “We have a fiduciary responsibility to our posterity to make good law.”
Discovery Land aside, Bob DeLuca, president of the environmental advocacy organization Group for the East End, said the moratorium has been needed for a while. He said he supports the measure because the town’s drinking water is jeopardized, and if the town can put rules and regulations in place to ensure 50 more years of clean water, that is what it needs to do.
“Look at all projects, not just The Hills,” Mr. DeLuca said. “Half of the town’s problems don’t relate to Sand Land or The Hills.”
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