A proposal for “The Hills at East Quogue”

The Southampton Town Board did not reach the supermajority vote it needed to pass The Hills at Southampton Planned Development District in East Quogue Tuesday afternoon.

The proposal, which has been the subject of controversy for several years, would have created a new zoning district to allow the construction of a 118-unit housing development and golf course.

Councilwoman Julie Lofstad and Councilman John Bouvier voted against the project, while Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, Councilwoman Christine Scalera and Councilman Stan Glinka voted for it.

The property’s owners, Discovery Land Co., are allowed to build a 137-unit subdivision, as of right, without the zoning change.

After the vote, Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman issued the following statement:

December 5, 2017

Supervisor’s Comments Regarding Hills PDD Legislation

We have reached the end of the Town Board’s consideration of a luxury resort golf course development in East Quogue known as the Hills.  After today, this matter will be closed and the board will move on to focus on many other issues and considerations.  Although this project enjoys majority support from the board it lacks the Super Majority needed for a Planned Development District.  In many communities, golf courses are allowable uses in residentially zoned areas.  In Southampton Town there is no such provision.  The property owners will now weigh their options including as of right development proposals for this property.  Our offer to preserve the property, I hope, will remain on the table.

I have a long history with this property starting with my attempts to preserve this land going back seven years ago.  Then owners had agreed to sell the property to the County and Town.  However, the Town showed little interest in seeing the property preserved and the owners gave up and sold it to a golf course developer.  Even the county executive at the time, Steve Levy in his veto message’ dated July 6, 2011 said

“It has already been determined that up to 70% of the parcel, including all of the acreage existing within the Pine Barrens Core and the Special Ground Water Protection Area can be preserved forever through a proposed clustering of the use of the property at no cost to the taxpayer.  We can preserve 300 acres without expending a single dime.”

Zoning traditionally follows comprehensive planning.  The Town engages its citizenry with the assistance of planning professionals in plotting a course for future development.  Environmental, social and economic concerns are evaluated on a town-wide basis and recommendations are made for appropriate land uses based on community needs taking into account environmental conditions and existing land use patterns.   Comprehensive plans and updates once adopted are supposed to form the basis for zone changes.  In the case of the Hills the latest adopted comprehensive plan amendment for this area recommends precisely the type of development being proposed.  Had the town put the zoning in place following the adoption of the comprehensive plan, this matter would not have been before this town board.  It would have been sent directly to the planning board. 

Typically zone changes require a simple majority, but again, nothing about this proposal has been simple.  The PDD process was the only clear path to build a private membership golf course in the town.  This path would place the fate of the zoning request before an elected body and require 4 out of 5 votes for approval.  A prior town board voted 4 to 1 in favor of considering the zoning alternative.

Much of the public’s initial reaction to the proposal focused on the underlying PDD law.  Plan Development Districts were taking the place of comprehensive planning.  Under the PDD law, new development proposals were being considered on a case by case basis with developers engaging with the town board in a flexible planning process.  In exchange for increased use of the land, the developer would offer other community benefits such as affordable housing or historic preservation.  The community began to see this dialogue as prone to political influence with the developers the big winners and the community getting shortchanged.  The PDD law was undermining public confidence in the Town’s planning and zoning functions creating the perception that zoning was somehow for sale.  Recognizing that the law itself had become toxic, this Town Board decided to repeal the PDD law and process the last PDD request, namely the Hills.

First, I had to assure myself that the Town had made a serious attempt to preserve the property.  A fair market offer was made and rejected by the owners.  The job then of the town board was to evaluate the proposed zoning alternative and compare it carefully to the current zoning to determine if the new zoning should be permitted.   For this review I decided to fully ignore any community benefits that were not associated with issues arising from the zoning request itself.   I wanted to compare apples to apples, so to speak.  Benefits such as school scholarships, land for the local fire department and parking for downtown would not cloud my judgment regarding one development proposal versus the other.   I would consider unrelated community benefits only if I felt the alternative zoning was beneficial on its own merits. I established a 10-point test and published it in the Southampton Press in July.  I placed environmental considerations at the top of the list.  The criteria were as follows:

Nitrogen Loading



Number of Housing Units

Total Square Footage of Buildings


School Impacts

Jobs Created

Property Taxes

Community Support

I met with opponents and proponents of the project and discussed my criteria for evaluation.    I explained that to get my support the project would have to be objectively better in all ten categories.  I explained that I would enlist independent professionals such a Dr. Chris Gobler from Stony Brook to assist me in the evaluation.  My methodology was embraced by both supports and opponents.  I had set the bar almost impossibly high.  One staunch opponent said “How could you say ‘no’ if its better in every single way”.  Another said, “follow the science” and implored me to listen to and trust Dr. Gobler. 

My first concern was the added use of the property. The current zoning allows 118 housing units but the developer wanted a golf course in addition to 118 housing units.  In exchange for the added use the developer offered a community benefit package.  That was a non-starter for me.  The proposed zoning was more intensive than the existing and I would not support it.  Dr. Gobler also railed against the proposal saying it was more nitrogen loading than the allowable zoning.  Many people spoke for and against the initial project at 4 public hearings.

After listening to the public, my first approach to modifying the proposal to address public concerns was to eliminate the housing yield associated with the area being used to create the golf course.  Approximately 130 acres would be needed to build this golf course.  At five acre zoning the land under the golf course would yield 26 homes.   So I asked the developers to remove 26 homes from the proposal reducing the 118 units down to 92 units and a golf course.  The developer suggested that rather than shrinking the number of homes allowed, that they expand the amount of preserved land associated with the proposal.  My response was that it would have to be land in East Quogue with a yield of at least 26 homes and be located in a more environmentally sensitive area.  The developer then secured an option to purchase 33 acres of property with a 29 lot yield at the headwaters of Weesuck Creek. 

To further reduce yield, the developer additionally agreed to purchase and abandon 30 Pine Barrens credits, 20% of these could be otherwise used to increase density for the Hills project by six homes.  The remaining 24 credits would reduce density in the Westhampton area, which also faces issues of overdevelopment and nitrogen loading.  To further address nitrogen loading the developer proposed a state of the art sewage treatment facility that would remove twice as much nitrogen as the county required.  They also proposed building a similar facility for the school, a major nitrogen contributor.  I asked Dr. Gobler to analyze the newly proposed mitigation as well as a possible town requirement to limit the amount of applied fertilizer to no more than 2 pounds of nitrogen a year per 1000 sq. ft. of turfed areas.   This level would provide extraordinary protection to the aquifer and surface waters. Dr. Gobler also analyzed a proposed irrigation method referred to as “fertigation”.  The concept of fertigation is to water the turf with well water laden with high concentrations of dissolved nitrogen from fertilizers used by nearby farm fields.   This would theoretically allow the turf grasses to absorb the nitrogen from the groundwater and then allow it to recharge back into the water table at a lower concentration of nitrogen.  I asked Dr. Gobler to compare the proposed development and mitigation to the existing zoning and to use conservative assumptions including the lowest as of right yield under current zoning and to assume that the as of right development would include individual advance wastewater treatment systems although not currently required in this area.   I was prepared for whatever determination Dr. Gobler made.  If it did not meet the nitrogen loading criteria, then I would not support the project.  If it did, I would still examine the other 9 criteria before making a final decision.  Dr. Gobler concluded that the amended development proposal, even without the fertigation, would result in less nitrogen loading than the lowest as of right development.  Fertigation would tilt the scales even more in favor of the golf course development.

To deal with pesticide the proposal included a town approved integrated turf health management plan (ITHMP) and greens to be lined with a vinyl barrier to prevent migration into groundwater.  The greens would be piped into vinyl lined retention ponds.  Sebonack Golf Course has a similar system.  Wanting to go a step further I asked for a prohibition of synthetic pesticides on the lawn areas associated with the housing units and the areas known as the “roughs” of the golf course.  I also inserted language that the ITHMP would be such as to minimize the use of synthetic pesticides to the greatest extent possible.  I also wanted enforcement mechanisms that included the closure of the golf facility.  The as of right housing subdivision would result in 118 separate residential parcels.  There would be many separate landscaping companies applying pesticides and fertilizers unregulated by the town.  The list of allowable chemicals would be determined by the State and include products that the Town would be otherwise prohibiting at the golf course.  There would also be no independent monitoring and reporting.  I determined that the regulated program with lined greens and pesticide free areas and under the town’s yearly approval of the ITHMP and an independent monitoring program would introduce less pesticides into the environment than the as of right development.

I worked my way through the other criteria.  You will find most of this analysis in the SEQRA findings statement and the table attached.

Nitrogen Loading: more than 700 lbs per year less nitrogen than the lowest density as of right development according to Dr. Gobler’s findings.  Serveral thousand lbs per year less according to the town’s scientific consultants.

Pesticides: 190 less acres subject to pesticide application and a monitored town restricted and approved ITHMP program

Clearing: 34 less acres cleared

Number of Housing Units: 51 less housing units

Total Square Footage of Buildings: ½ a million less sq. ft of development

Traffic: 60 to 90 less vehicle trips per day

School Impacts: up to 186 less school aged children.

Jobs Created: 75 additional full time equivalent jobs.

Property Taxes: $2.7 million additional tax revenues for the school.  A total of $3.6 million additional taxes per year across all property tax jurisdictions.

Community Support: In terms of Community support I believe that preservation is still the preferred alternative.  As far as development goes, there is no town-wide consensus.  However, I believe that a majority of the residents of the host community of East Quogue believe that the proposed alternative is better than the existing zoning. 

Therefore, all of my 10 criteria are met.

After concluding that the new zoning alternative is better in every way than the existing zoning, I changed my focus to the PDD law itself and wrestled with the language that the community benefits must be commensurate with the benefits to the developer.  Since the housing units are allowed under zoning, the only benefit to the developer is the golf course itself.  Many of the offered benefits were in fact mitigation of the impacts of the development.  I began to examine the unrelated benefits and came to the conclusion that they did not quite match the benefit to the developer.  The use itself was not a public benefit.  It was a private golf club.  The Town of Southampton does not have a single public 18-hole golf course.  So, to meet the PDD requirement, I placed into the PDD law a requirement that 20% of the available tee times be available to the public at affordable rates.  The introduction of this town-wide community benefit combined with the other community benefits creates a package that based on my calculations meets or exceeds the requirement of the PDD law that the community benefits are commensurate with the developer benefits.

Remember, it is the PDD law itself that encourages a creative, flexible and cooperative planning process between the Town and the developer that results is a proposal that is more in line with the needs of the town and with the goals of the comprehensive plan than the existing zoning.  What we are voting for today, I believe is a better alternative for the property than what currently exists under zoning.  Although I still prefer preservation, the facts and independent analysis support this alternative over the existing permitted land use and therefore I will be voting in the affirmative.  I understand that this board is not unified in its decision.  I recognize that there are other considerations beyond my own and that people can reach different conclusions based on the same set of facts.  I know my colleagues love this Town and, like myself, are concerned about the future of our community and our environment.  I respect their opinions enormously.  After today’s vote, we will come together as a board to address all of the issues facing the town.  We will engage our community in planning for the future.  We will take a look at golf and other recreational uses and evaluate our code and determine under what conditions, if any, such facilities should be constructed.

I want to thank Kyle Collins and Janice Scherer and the entire Planning Department for their extraordinary assistance with evaluating this proposal.  I want to thank Dr. Gobler for his assistance.  I especially want to thank the community for sending letters and emails and for speaking at meetings and letting us know your concerns regarding this proposal.   I realize that the final vote will leave some celebrating and others disappointed.  I assure you all that your voices were heard and considered.  I hope sincerely that we move forward as one community working together for the common good and that we respect each other’s opinions even when they differ from our own.  Together we still have many issues to discuss and problems to solve.

Thank you.

Supervisor Jay Schneiderman

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she 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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