Once again what appeared to be a simple project has become political, as is often the case in East Hampton Town. And, it's gotten ugly.
This time it pits the town, which just so happens is run by a Republican majority, against Suffolk County, which just so happens to be run by a Democratic County Executive, Steve Bellone.
The project seemed innocuous enough – to create a sump and improve drainage on a section of Route 114 across from Harness Lane, which hopefully would alleviate a flooding problem that has plagued the neighborhood to the immediate west known as Hansom Hills.
Somewhere along the way, a contractor hired by the town removed topsoil from a farm on Route 114 to create an area where water runoff would gather and create a drainage system to divert the flow. Hansom Hills is anything but hilly – basements there regularly take on water, and the streets often have huge puddles, at times too deep for a small car to ford.
What the town didn't know was that Suffolk County owned the development rights to the farm in question -- and the soil that was removed.
"The town never reached out to the county," said Sarah Lansdale, the Suffolk County Director Of Planning. "We heard of this action from a third party.
"We made a mistake, I get that," said Theresa Quigley, a Republican town board member who noted the focus should be the people who are affected by the flooding.
Both the town and the county acknowledge that initially the two sides expected to come to an amicable solution.
Then the county served the town with a Notice of Claim, suggesting the county would sue unless an agreement was reached. Lansdale said the county took the legal step because the town wasn't negotiating in a timely manner.
"I placed a call to the town supervisor September 10 and I'm still waiting for a return call," Landsdale said.
Bill Wilkinson, the East Hampton Town Supervisor, isn't a happy camper, either. At a town board meeting last Thursday he lashed out at the county's threat to sue. "This is crap," he said more than once. "And the biggest piece of crap is that lawsuit delivered to us. We've got basements and pools collapsing and houses being flooded." Wilkinson and Quigley both harshly criticized Deputy County Supervisor Jon Schneider for including his business card with what they considered a smarmy comment written on it.
Schneider is a former top aide to Congressman Tim Bishop. Both are Democrats, and the relationship between the two camps has been somewhat strained since Wilkinson and Quigley publicly announced their support for Randy Altschuler, Bishop's opponent in 2010. The two are running against each other again this year.
Schneider feigned innocence when told the note upset Wilkinson, noting it read, "Best Regards." "I didn't let my friend drive off with any topsoil," Schneider said.
The friends would be Keith and Susan Grimes, Wilkinson's friends and campaign contributors who often do work for the town.
"They were the low bidders," Quigley pointed out. "It was totally done properly."
"The town contracted to have Keith Grimes Inc. remove the soil," said Town Engineer Tom Talmage, who said it was understood Grimes might sell off the soil. He said the project will cost about $320,000 if the town is allowed to complete it.
Former Town Supervisor and current County Legislator Jay Schneiderman has been sucked into the argument as well.
Quigley, like Schneiderman has her eye on the supervisor's seat should Wilkinson not run (or be passed over by the town's Republican Committee). Quigley said she suspects Schneiderman, "Wants to ride in on his white horse and save the town."
Well, he does. "I said I was willing to go to the County Farmland Committee on behalf of the town," he said. The town sent in an application and was about to be placed on the farmland committee agenda – but the owner of the property didn't sign it – the town erroneously had the former owner sign.
The back and forths are flying at this point, and amidst the charges and countercharges is the real possibility the county might sue the town and attempt to make it return the soil to the farm minus the clay content. County officials said that a natural swale could be constructed to reroute rainwater away from Hansom Hills. Quigley scoffed at the notion, saying the town's engineers "came up with the best solution."
"We want to reach a conclusion that doesn't violate the public trust," Lansdale said.
Then there is the matter of the farm. Quigley said the area where the dirt was removed wasn't farmed anyway, according to local farmers who use the field.
"Our annual inspection showed the area was being prepared to be farmed," Lansdale countered. "We have aerial shots of crops growing there," she added.
"Wilkinson is saying this is a political stunt, which puts me in an awkward position," Schneiderman said. "I've been back and forth with Sarah . . . they want to resolve this amicably."