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Jan 20, 2009 6:30 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Archaelogical findings prevent man from building

Jan 20, 2009 6:30 PM

In January 2007, Montauk resident Charles DeSousa planned to build a modest house for his mother to retire in, on her brushy parcel of slightly less than an acre on Essex Street near the Fort Hill cemetery. He applied for a Town Natural Resources special permit because the property contained freshwater wetlands. He was told he had to conduct an archaeological survey of the lot before the Town Board of Zoning Appeals would grant him the permit, so Mr. DeSousa hired the board-recommended archaeologist Alfred Cammisa.

Two years and two “stages” of archaeological surveys later, at a cost of $8,800 to Mr. DeSousa, Mr. Cammisa has reported so far that the small lot, just under an acre, was a base camp for hunters and gatherers during two time periods, the Middle Archaic period, 5,000 years ago, and the Late Woodland period, 1,000 years ago.

In his “first stage” review, he found indications that the site could contain Native American artifacts. That prompted the Appeals Board to require a “stage two” review during which Mr. Cammisa dug test holes on the property.

He has reported finding a fire pit and rare prehistoric artifacts. Now, if Mr. DeSousa wants to build a house on the land, according to the Board of Zoning Appeals, he must again hire an archaeologist to do a complete excavation of the artifacts, a process called a “stage three archaeological survey” under the state environmental review law. It can cost $100,000 or more.

Mr. DeSousa says he cannot afford such a sum. “Considering the economy, it’s awful that they won’t let me just build,” Mr. DeSousa said in an interview last week. “What they basically found were rocks, a couple pieces of clay and a fire pit.”

His only hope is that the town will buy the land from him for preservation or swap it for another parcel. He suggested that to Councilwoman Julia Prince of Montauk, who said she had passed the idea to Land Acquisitions Director Scott Wilson for review. But usually, Ms. Prince said, the Community Preservation Fund is used to buy larger properties.

“It’s quite a position to be in,” said Town Attorney John Jilnicki of Mr. DeSousa’s dilemma. “Usually the archaeology isn’t that burdensome. Usually they’re able to avoid this.”

Legally, if a government says a person cannot build on his land, the government must compensate the landowner. What, if anything, the town will do for Mr. DeSousa is yet to be seen.

Mr. DeSousa is not the first person in East Hampton whose building plans were stalled by ancient deer hide scrapers, arrowheads and fire-cracked rock. Any time a landowner applies for a Natural Resources special permit, if the property falls within the archaeologically sensitive areas shown on a map produced by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the town requires the landowner to pay for an archeological survey to see what clues to the past might lie buried beneath the ground if it has never been developed before.

“Out in Montauk, no matter where you drop a pin, within a mile it will be loaded with prehistoric artifacts up to the contact period,” Mr. Cammisa said in an interview. “Out of every place I’ve ever worked, it wins.”

Mr. Cammisa said that there was a site in East Hampton Town where archaeologists found paleoindian artifacts, which date back to a period 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, when humans were hunting mastodons and glaciers had recently receded. He would not share the exact location of the site in order to protect it from “pothunters,” or people who go digging for artifacts for their own collections or to sell.

The town requires archaeological surveys under the terms of the State Environmental Quality Review Act, which says that state, county and local governmental agencies must consider environmental impacts—including impacts on historic or archaeological sites—in their planning, review and approval of land development. The state created the legislation soon after the Nixon administration passed the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969. Town Planning Director Marguerite Wolffsohn said that the town code also dictates that, before granting a Natural Resources special permit, the Planning Department and the Board of Zoning Appeals must look at all possible ways to reduce a proposal’s environmental impact, which includes protecting archaeological sites.

“It’s no different than protecting any other natural resource in town,” Ms. Wolffsohn said. “It’s not tough to justify because it’s our history in the ground, but it’s not the same as a wetland that people can see and appreciate because we don’t have a museum.”

Ms. Wolffsohn and other town planners said that Mr. DeSousa’s case is rare. On bigger lots, the developer can usually build around the archaeological site and leave the artifacts in the ground, which is what the town prefers to do.

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Sucks for the poor guy. Take his lot and GIVE him a better one. Do the right thing. Oh wait. This is East Hampton.
By we could run this town! (129), wonderful Wainscott on Jan 20, 09 9:37 PM
A 5000 yr old fire pit.....come on. Let the dude build his mom a home with a nice fireplace.
By mr.ed (1), nanuet on Jan 21, 09 9:23 AM
Seriously? Let the man build a home for his mother for goodness sake. Oops I forgot we're living in East Hampton! The bankrupt town with nothing better to do but to charge all the locals with ridiculous fines, penalties and charges just to make a buck to get themselves out of this mess! You can thank McGintee for that...

Thanks for NEVER helping the locals, but always putting them out
By bonac (3), EH on Jan 21, 09 11:20 AM
If the town wants a one hundred thousand dollar excavation let them pay for it. Just sue them, they will back down. They always do.
By BruceB (142), Sag Harbor on Jan 21, 09 5:23 PM
i bet if he had land on further lane this would not be happening he would have had that house all finished already
By pinga (90), hamptonbays on Jan 24, 09 8:52 PM
... heard they found some beautifully preserved beer cans buried out there, they are dated back to the Pre-PopTop era, a real find. They should call in a team of mixologists to investigate.
By William Rodney (561), southampton on Jan 27, 09 9:39 AM