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Sep 5, 2008 3:05 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Planning Board votes against rescinding Woodfield Gables decision

Sep 5, 2008 3:05 PM

The Southampton Town Planning Board, which had indicated it would belatedly require an environmental impact statement for the proposed 57-lot Woodfield Gables subdivision, did an about-face on Thursday, September 4.

With board member Lawrence Toler switching camps to cast the deciding vote, the planners decided they would stick with their 2006 ruling that the development, proposed for a site above a plume of contaminated groundwater, did not require the extensive environmental review.

The board voted 4-3 to eschew the impact statement for the development slated for a 160-acre tract just west of the intersection of Old Country Road and Speonk-Riverhead Road in Speonk. Instead, the board simply amended its earlier ruling, which was made before it became aware that there is a 1.5-mile-long plume of groundwater containing four toxic cleaning solvents whose known northern boundary is in the middle of the property. The soil in the area of the plume is also contaminated with high amounts of chloroform in some areas.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is investigating the site and has not yet determined the source of the contamination—or what parties would be responsible for the ensuing remediation, which is expected to cost millions of dollars.

Mr. Toler’s change of heart came as a surprise. He said in August that he planned to vote in favor of requiring the environmental study. On Thursday, he voted in favor of simply amending the decision to include the current information about the groundwater plume.

In a prepared statement Mr. Toler gave before casting his vote, he said that despite his reservations that the source of the plume is still unknown and that there has not been enough data collected, he was swayed by an August 14 presentation from environmental consultant Paul Lageraaen of the H2M Group, who said that any potential health hazards from the chloroform could be mitigated by the installation of a soil vapor barrier beneath the new houses.

After learning that the board planned to rescind its earlier ruling, known as a negative declaration, earlier this summer, Mr. Datre hired attorney Andrew Campanelli, who has appeared before the Planning Board a number of times threatening to file a lawsuit based on Mr. Datre’s constitutional land use rights. He also said that the environmental impact would be caused by the contamination, not the proposed project.

Andrea Spilka, a community activist who lives near the plume, attended the Planning Board meeting and said that she planned to attend a public forum with State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo at the Suffolk Community College School of Culinary Arts in Riverhead the following Tuesday night. At that meeting, she asked the attorney general’s representatives to become involved in the investigation of the plume being conducted by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the New York State Department of Health.

State Assemblyman Fred Thiele also weighed in on the ongoing investigation last week, sending two letters to the commissioners of both the DEC and the DOH asking the agencies to conduct more soil vapor sampling below basements and more indoor air sampling in homes above the plume. Mr. Thiele said that he is still awaiting an answer to a July 7 letter to Governor David Paterson asking for a timeline for the state investigation.

At the meeting Thursday, Planning Board members Alma Hyman, Jacqui Lofaro and Blair McCaslin voted in favor of requiring the environmental study, while Chairman Dennis Finnerty and members John Blaney and George Skidmore joined Mr. Toler in voting in favor of amending the 2006 decision.

In an impassioned statement in support of her position, Ms. Hyman said that Mr. Lageraaen was examining only the data provided to him by environmental consultants for the project’s developer, Tom Datre. She also said that, while New York State has no guidance for safe levels of chloroform in soil vapor, the chloroform levels above the plume in some places are 540 times greater than the Environmental Protection Agency’s identified risk levels.

She also referred in her statement to the “copious correspondence from experts in the community” who have conducted their own analysis of the threats associated with the plume.

The DEC is investigating the source, potential health risks and boundaries of the plume. Three hydrogeologists who live near the plume have repeatedly stated that they believe future homeowners in the subdivision might be held responsible for the cleanup if the source of the plume is found to be on Mr. Datre’s land.

Ms. Hyman and Ms. Lofaro had argued in past discussions that the environmental study should be required as a result of the new information about the plume, and also because it would allow more public comment to be added to the record of the Planning Board’s ultimate decision.

“Jacqui and Alma listen, they think about things, and they use common sense. My hope is that we don’t lose people like that on the board,” said Bob DeLuca, the president of the Group for the East End, which has pushed the board to insist on a full environmental review. “I don’t know whether it’s ignorance or arrogance, but the majority of that board sees it as their role to push development forward and ignore the concerns of the community. If you’re not going to require an EIS when there’s an unconfined toxic plume under a site, when are you going to do it?”

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By Beth Young (7), Southampton on Sep 5, 08 5:55 PM
What a shame. The town has increased the potential for lawsuits if this turns into a mini 'Love Canal'. How can you approve something when you do not know all the answers, especially after the investigation is still not complete. Clean the contamination 1st, get a clean bill of health, then construct the homes - simple!
By cleanfish (2), Astoria on Sep 6, 08 10:43 AM
Who besides Mr. Toler approved this?
By tenn tom (259), remsenburg on Sep 6, 08 5:46 PM
Dennis Finnerty, John Blaney & George Skidmore.
By Beth Young (7), Southampton on Sep 6, 08 6:01 PM
Has the Southampton Planning Board ever requested an Environmental Impact Statement on any questionable tract of land? We're still trying to figure out why one isn't being performed on Oakland Farms...the Conservation Board in 2003 labeled this site as "ecologically sensitive"....hmmmmm
By pvolk (3), westampton beach on Sep 7, 08 2:35 PM
Nobody in their right mind would approve homes here until the issue of safety was resolved. It goes to show the influence of those involved. We thought Kabot would clean up these types of persuasions at Town Hall.
The developer, attorney and Board should be ashamed of themselves.
By Hampton (50), Westhampton on Sep 8, 08 9:53 AM
Who are the real estate interests on the board? Is this Blaney the same as Blaney Reality? Is Mr. Skismore in real estate also?
I can smell that chloroform already.
By North of Highway (280), Westhampton Beach on Sep 8, 08 2:08 PM
isn't a plume a good thing? Oh wait maybe not...let's not buy there!
By Hambone (514), New York on Nov 12, 09 10:29 PM