In an unusual move, Suffolk County recently filed a notice of claim to sue East Hampton Town, alleging that the town unlawfully excavated prime agricultural soil in a project off Route 114 in East Hampton.
In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, County Executive Steve Bellone's office said the town officials violated the county's Farmland Law and its development rights on agricultural property. The county also claims the town caused extensive damage by removing large quantities of valuable topsoil from a property the county had purchased development rights to in 1988.
The town was trying to resolve a severe flooding issue in the Hansom Hills subdivision across the farm, something the Wilkinson administration began tackling in 2010, by installing a recharge basin, as part of an approximately $300,000 project.
More than five feet of soil, sand and clay were removed during the installation, the county said in a statement. This summer, the town realized it would need permission from the county's Farmland Committee to take on the project.
“The unlawful excavation and removal of topsoil rendered the land in question unusable for farming and substantially diminished the value of the land, which was paid for by Suffolk County taxpayers,” Bellone said in a statement. “We believe the flooding issue can be addressed without alienating farmland and at far less cost to the taxpayers.”
Wilkinson called the situation "an honest mistake." He said he received two phone calls from the county in recent weeks, which he said he returned, but the two sides played phone tag. "There was no working with us," he said.
Asked how the town would rectify its mistake, Wilkinson said he would defer to the town's attorneys.
"To me, this sounds like a pure political set-up. To me this sounds like it's a set up for someone to ride in on a white horse," he said.
Wilkinson noted there were no claims for damages. He also said East Hampton-area farmers were in support of the town's attempt to fix the longtime flooding issue.
On Monday afternoon, he received a copy of the notice of claim via FedEx with a business card from Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider with a note on the back that read, "Dear Supervisor Wilkinson, Best Regards" and was signed with his name. "I found the note to be totally distasteful," Wilkinson said, adding that he left a message for Bellone on Tuesday that went unreturned.
Former town supervisor and County Legis. Jay Schneiderman, I-Montauk, said he doesn't recall a similar instance where the town was sued by the county.
Schneiderman said he was going to appear before the Farmland Committee to speak about the flooding issues in the subdivision, when he was told the county had sent the application and its check back to the town. He said he was told the town hadn't filed an easement it received on the property.
"I'm certainly sympathetic to the need to address the flooding in the Sulky Circle neighborhood and I want to do anything I can do expedite the process," he said. "I am a little bit concerned that we'll go through another winter without proper drainage."
However, he said the committee has some questions, as does he, about the design of the drainage system — whether it is designed to take road run-off or not, which the program does not allow for. "It's not somebody's subjective opinion," he said.
Suffolk County Director of Planning Sarah Lansdale said in a statement, "There are much cheaper and more environmentally sound ways to resolve the flooding issue than by hauling away for sale some of the finest agricultural soil in the State of New York."
“It’s unfortunate that the flooding issue was not addressed by the Town at the time the subdivision was created,” said Lansdale. “We believe the residents of the subdivision and the taxpayers of both East Hampton Town and Suffolk County will be better served by a simpler and less costly solution.”
Paul Tenyenhuis, District Manager, Suffolk County Soil and Water Conservation District, who works closely with the USDA on local erosion and flooding issues agreed. In a statement he said, “The drainage basin the Town wants to install would attempt to collect all the run-off water in one location, whereas accepted farming practices, such as planting a winter cover crop, changing the direction in which crop rows are planted or terracing would go a long way to reducing and eliminating the problem.”