Threat to Hither Woods

The spectacular parkland assemblage known as Hither Hills / Hither Woods has been intact since the last major land additions were made in 2000.  Perhaps things were too good to be remain that way.  In April 2022 East Hampton Town officials made a presentation to the local citizens advisory committee for Montauk, in which the Town stated its intention to create a sewer district for Downtown Montauk, and later for outlying areas of Montauk.  This would be the first sewers ever created in the Town of East Hampton, except for a sewer system administered by the Incorporated Village of Sag Harbor.

Alarmingly, the Town proposed that sewage from the new sewer district be pumped uphill from Downtown Montauk, into a sewage treatment plant to be built on what is now Suffolk County parkland adjoining the former Montauk sanitary landfill, which has been closed and capped since the early 1990s.  At first the Town proposed to acquire seven acres of County parkland for the sewage treatment plant (STP).  Later the amount of parkland needed was increased to 14 acres and the proposed STP location was shifted from the Lee E. Koppelman County Nature Preserve, west of the former landfill, to Laurel Canyon County Park, east of the one-time landfill.

East Hampton’s proposed sewage treatment plant is a nearly existential threat to Hither Woods, which is the largest contiguous block of public parkland to be found east of the Shinnecock Canal.  Few things are more incompatible with a wilderness area than a sewage treatment plant.  The Town proposes to run an access road through the former Montauk landfill site, which is now an area of high rolling grassland that must be accounted as one of the most scenic places to be found anywhere on Eastern Long Island.  (Don’t believe us?  Look at some of the photos of this area, known as Panorama, on this website.)

In this County parkland (or former parkland), the Town would clear-cut nearly all 14 acres of forest and (we expect) will enclose the area with a chain-link perimeter “security fence.” According to the Town’s consulting engineers, within this cleared area the Town would at first build a 22,500 square feet (more than 1/2 acre) building to treat the sewage waste.  That building would be surrounded on all four sides by pavement and parking areas.  Space would be left for a second building, to be used for administrative and maintenance purposes.  Most of the cleared land would be graded and used to install 146 individual leaching pools (basically, cesspool rings) 10’ wide by 12’ deep, with associated piping and driveways.  The leaching pools would be employed to discharge up to 550,000 gallons per day of treated sewage effluent, which is the maximum amount that can be accommodated on 14 acres of land.

The impacts of the sewage treatment plant and its associated buildings and structures on Hither Woods will be enormous.  The STP will punch a 14-acre hole in the forest.  One of Hither Woods’ most important environmental qualities is its nearly intact tree canopy.  Despite grassland openings in some places around the edges, Hither Woods is mostly deep forest.  Some birds and animals can only survive in this type of habitat.

The 14 acres of cleared land, even apart from the places to be occupied by buildings and pavement, will become wasteland.  Nothing of consequence will be allowed to grow there, in order to not interfere with the leaching pools, piping, and access driveways. The dramatic forest edge now visible from Panorama will presumably be replaced by a chain-link fence.  The bulldozed area of woods will extend almost 800 feet east into Laurel Canyon Park.  The Town claims the STP won’t adversely affect trails.  The Town apparently means that the STP won’t directly obliterate the Laurel Canyon Trail, which is an element of the Paumanok Path.  The sewage plant will, however, destroy ancillary trails - such as part of the Upland Road trail - and the land around the STP will be cleared and fenced in some places within 50 feet of the Laurel Canyon Trail.  That is not exactly the absence of “adverse impact.”

In addition, even modern sewage treatment plants are not odor-free.  In the woods around the STP, future park users will have to live with the smells emanating from the STP.

Finally, the Town clearly has grandiose plans for its Montauk sewage system.  For those of us who want to protect Hither Woods in perpetuity, there will always remain the possibility of future threats associated with East Hampton’s sewage treatment plant.  If future “growth and development” means more sewage is generated, won’t the Town will seek to enlarge its 14-acre STP facility some day?  That possibility will always exist.  So, too, will the danger remain that the Town, other governmental bodies, or utility companies, will in the future seek to put their own facilities in Hither Woods.  There are few things less park-like than a sewage treatment plant.  Once there is an STP in Hither Woods there are bound to be be future proposals to locate all sorts of things next door, for which no other politically acceptable location could be found.

In order for East Hampton Town to obtain 14 acres of Suffolk County parkland, the Town has to convince the County to give them that land.  And pursuant to State law, the Town must offer in exchange land of approximately equal or greater value as parkland.  In December 2022 the Town Board used the Town’s general fund to buy 18.8 acres of land on East Lake Drive, Montauk, which it is offering to Suffolk County in a swap for the 14 acres of land the Town wants in Laurel Canyon County Park.  The property on East Lake Drive is adjacent to Montauk County Park.  The 18.8 acres purchased by the Town on East Lake Drive were acquired, according to the Town Board’s resolution, for “open space purposes.”  So the Town isn’t free to back-track and sell or develop that land.  It has already been preserved, whether the Town owns it or the County owns it. 

There are still significant obstacles in the Town’s path.  East Hampton needs to obtain approval of the proposed land swap from the Suffolk County Parks Trustees, then from the Suffolk County Legislature.  The Suffolk County Executive needs to send a “home-rule” message supporting the divestment of 14 acres at Laurel Canyon Park to the State Legislature.  Finally, and most daunting, the Town Board needs to find legislative sponsors to shepherd a “Parkland Alienation Bill” through the New York State Legislature.  Under the common law of New York State, no parkland, whether owned by a city, county, town, or village within the State, can be sold, conveyed, exchanged, or converted (developed) to a non-park purpose without approval of the State Legislature.  Such activities are deemed to be the “alienation” of parkland.  All parkland alienations require State Legislative approval.

One might ask: has the Town explored alternatives for wastewater treatment that don’t involve a sewer district, or at least a sewage treatment plant on public parkland?  The answer is: “Not really.”

The Town claims it has done basic analyses of alternatives and has not come up with any that would work.  First, these “alternatives studies” were all done “behind the scenes,” with no opportunity for public inquiry or rebuttal.  Second, as of the end of 2022 the Town Board had not yet begun a formal review of the sewage treatment plant proposal under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA).  SEQRA requires that the proponent of any important action undertake a formal review of the potential adverse environmental impacts of the proposed action.  If even one potentially significant adverse impact is identified, the proponent of the action must prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).  The EIS must analyze and consider alternatives to the proposed action.  It should be obvious to anyone that bulldozing 14 acres of parkland on Hither Woods, and building an STP there, might have potentially significant adverse environmental impacts.  Therefore, an EIS is mandatory, as is a full and forthright examination of alternatives.

As 2022 ended, the Coalition for Hither Woods was still waiting for the East Hampton Town Board to take the obvious and necessary steps under SEQRA.

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