Southampton Keeps Wading Through Water Protection Plan

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Summer in Red Creek.

Update [Oct. 14] Southampton Town Board closed its public hearing on Water Protection Plan Tuesday afternoon, after five contentious extensions. Councilwoman Bridget Fleming, who has been very active in the drafting of the plan, said Tuesday evening that the document will be first included as an element in the town’s comprehensive plan before it is considered for use as a Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan. More details are online here.

Out on the far eastern tips of the North and South Forks, the use of Local Waterfront Revitalization Plans to to govern development near the water has become well-established over the past decades, and in port villages such as Sag Harbor and Greenport, those plans act as the villages’ comprehensive plans, guiding the harbors’ development with an eye toward preserving their maritime uses.

But Southampton Town, which is in the midst of digesting a draft of a nearly 200-page Southampton Water Protection Plan, has encountered a good deal of confusion on the part of the public over just what their new plan means.

Many have been concerned that it may diminish the authority of the Southampton Town Trustees, which has been called into question in court in several recent lawsuits.

The fifth public hearing on the plan is scheduled for the Southampton Town Board’s Oct. 13 meeting, this Tuesday at 1 p.m.

New York State’s 1981 Waterfront Revitalization of Coastal Areas and Inland Waterways Act created the Local Waterfront Revitalization Program (LWRP), and the Southampton Water Protection Plan is eligible to become an LWRP if the town submits it to the state for approval. If approved, the plan will allow Southampton’s guidelines to supercede both those of the state and the federal government.

According to the plan’s authors at the University of Massachusetts’ Urban Harbors Institute, “when a local government in New York State has an approved local waterfront program, that program is submitted by New York State to the federal government as a revision to the state’s federally approved coastal management program and effectively becomes the state’s coastal management program within the jurisdiction of that local government.”

“This process can be a powerful tool, not only for coordinating the multiple public decisions that affect the uses and resources of the Southampton waters and waterfront, but more importantly to assure that those decisions reflect the values and objectives of the town,” they added.

The full text of the plan is online here.

The plan includes hundreds of suggestions for improving Southampton’s relationship to its groundwater, coastlines and marine ecosystems, including rezoning some waterfront properties so that the uses allowed there are more consistant with current water-dependent uses, protecting historical buildings along the waterfront, and establishing restrictions on uses and structures allowed shoreward of bluffs throughout town.

The plan also recomments the town participate in the Federal Emergency Management Act (FEMA) Community Ratings System program, which provides discounts on flood insurance when the town takes steps to make the coastlien more resilient. East Hampton is already working on improving its Community Rating through the program.

Southampton’s plan also recommends several serious wastewater recommendations: the implementation of a Cesspool Removal Act, requiring cesspools be removed from within a certain distance of a water body or drinking water well; increasing the distance from the base of onsite septic systems to groundwater by two feet more than the county minimum and the consideration of a town-wide wastewater treatment district. The plan also suggsts the town require that cesspools be inspected when properties changes hands.

The plan also calls for reducing disturbance of eelgrass beds, which support Peconic Bay scallops, through requiring “conservation moorings” and not allowing moorings in eelgrass, as well as some changes to dock construction requirements to allow light to reach the underwater ecosystem.

At the town board’s last public hearing on Sept. 8, the Town Trustees’ attorney, Richard Cahn, asked for more time for the Trustees and the public to digest the plan.

“It’s very interesting and very intricate,” he said. “There are some serious questions I would respectfully submit to you.”

Mr. Cahn said the plan “states flatly that it does not apply to decisions of the Board of Trustees, yet the boundaries of the water protection areas — all bays and ocean, creeks and ponds — are under the jurisdiction of the Board of Trusees.

“It is hard to see right at the begining how the Trustees’ decisions will not be affectd by this plan,” he said. “There’s almost a compelling inference that they will be.”

Mr. Cahn added that the scope of the law regarding Trustee jurisdiction “is still an open legal question.”

“It is for these reasons that there is some very intricate work that needs to be done between the Trustees and the Town Board,” he said.

Councilwoman Bridget Fleming, who helped shepherd the plan through several years of public input sessions, said that “nobody is going to rush this to a close.”

“The whole purpose of this is to protect and efficiently manage coastal resources,” she said. “We’re going to continue to talk, and we certainly will set up another meeting with the consultants.”

Ann LaWalle of the Southampton Business Alliance said she doesn’t believe the plan has ever been presented to the public in a digestable form.

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Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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