Last week's Town Board work session left me rather perplexed, which is, sorry to say, not a terribly unusual occurrence.
I don't understand how board members could in good conscience refuse to allow good drinking water to be supplied to residents in need.
I'm talking about residents of Aldrich Lane in Laurel who are forced to use bottled water because they can't sink good wells on their property. Some of them have drilled multiple wells to no avail. Some have been using bottled water for more than 15 years.
The Suffolk County Water Authority wants to run a transmission main down Aldrich Lane to provide the residents there with safe drinking water.
But Aldrich Lane isn't on the town's water map. And the board is hesitant to amend the map to add Aldrich Lane to it -- to provide the folks who live there with good drinking water. The board is so hesitant, in fact, that it didn't even bother to answer SCWA CEO Steve Jones' letter about the Aldrich Lane problem -- sent last August. And when he came to last week's work session to solicit an answer from the board, he still didn't get one. All he left with was a request to resubmit the well test data he provided last year, which some board members said they'd misplaced. And, for good measure, he left with some snide comments about not trusting the county health department's water analysis reports because the health department, as an arm of county government, isn't "independent" of the county water authority. They're both affiliated with the county, he was told, so they're probably in cahoots.
Mr. Jones seemed understandably exasperated.
Town government is charged with protecting the health, safety and welfare of town residents. That's its top job as a municipality. Why wouldn't they want to provide residents whose wells are contaminated with nasty chemicals with safe drinking water? What is really going on here?
I mean, I get it. I understand that the board is using the town's water map as a shield against development, hoping to accomplish by hiding behind the map what it ought to accomplish by good planning and zoning. The reasoning goes something like this: since approval of development proposals depends on a good supply of potable water, and since potable water from private wells is very hard to come by on the North Fork, development on the North Fork can be held in abeyance if public water isn't made available to developable land.
But that's not what's going on over on Aldrich Lane. There is no developable land there to worry about. The farmland along Aldrich is already protected. And the Water Authority is proposing to run a transmission line, not a distribution line, which means, according to its agreement with the town, only existing homes with existing private wells can tie in. So the proposed Aldrich Lane water main can't possibly induce development. Then why not come to the aid of residents in need?
If I read the board's recalcitrance correctly, the answer is "on principle." If we agree to amend the water map this time, the thinking goes, what happens next time? You give 'em an inch, they'll take a yard. Before you know it, public water will be flowing throughout Southold and then condos will start cropping up all over and, in the blink of an eye, we'll look like Riverhead.
The phrase "opening the floodgates to development" got a lot of air time in Southold Town Hall last week.
The discussion caused one official to wisecrack that the Town Board was "zoning by water." That official was right. The town is attempting to do, with its water map, what it can't find the fortitude to do with its zoning code: limit development by limiting the maximum number of dwelling units that may be built in the town. In a word -- a very dirty word, indeed -- upzone.
Sooner or later this water map gambit is going to be up. A court could change things very quickly.
The Town Board agreed to -- surprise -- discuss the proposal further at a future meeting. In the interim, Aldrich Lane residents must buy expensive bottled water to avoid drinking well water contaminated by Temik, excess nitrates, lead and other toxic chemicals. And that's just not right.
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