February 23, 2011
EECO Farm: Illegal Structures, Arsenic Concerns
How can the town allay concerns about a proposed super expedited review of agricultural structures when it can't keep its own tenant in compliance? That's the question that arose last week as discussion of proposed zoning code changes geared toward curtailing a ponderous planning process for farmers continues.
| (click for larger version)|
Citing an effort to support the flagging industry, East Hampton Town Councilwoman Theresa Quigley crafted a code change that, if adopted, would allow farmers to skip site plan review for building projects. Instead they need only undergo an analysis by the building inspector. Critics of the proposal worry less assiduous scrutiny could open the door for any number of violations, such as the construction of multiple structures on supposedly open vistas.
Just like what's already happened at EECO Farm.
The East End Community Organic Farm, which leases its land on Long Lane from East Hampton Town for $1 per year, "has more violations than people," Building Inspector Tom Preiato remarked Friday. "It's been an ongoing situation."
During the town board's February 15 work session Alex Balsam, who is both a tenant and a member of the EECO Farm board, not to mention one of the farmers pushing for adoption of Quigley's reform bill, sought an extension of EECO's lease, which expires in 2012. Asked whether the site was in compliance with the provisions of the existing lease he said, "Probably not." But, he added that with the possible exception of one building, all the structures on the property were there when the town renewed the lease in 2005.
The lease allows for four sheds and two hoop houses. According to the building department file, over the years EECO Farm garnered approval for just two sheds, a farm stand and deer fence. There are currently a slew of hoop house structures on the property that have never been approved. "I counted eight," Supervisor Bill Wilkinson said last Thursday night during the board's regular meeting after community member Elaine Jones complained about the illegal structures. Preiato said the violations have been reported to town code enforcement.
Two days prior Councilman Pete Hammerle said EECO Farm would have to clean up the property before he'd consider voting for an extension. He said he didn't want to hear complaints from the community that the town gave the organization a lease "and then EECO Farm goes out and does what it wants."
During the work session discussion, none of the members of the board expressed knowledge of EECO Farms violation history. Councilman Dominick Stanzione quizzed Balsam about the condition of the property, observing that it is a reflection of the management of the site. Speaking of suspected violations Monday night, he said he'd want to continue his line of questioning further before considering the lease extension. "The board has a responsibility to pursue due diligence before it takes any action."
Hammerle said yesterday that he "had a funny feeling" there were illegal buildings on the site. Now it's up to the board to find out how far beyond the approval and the lease EECO Farm has gone. "They have the opportunity to come in and ask for approvals for additional structures before we renew the lease," he said, adding "They're gonna need to do something."
A significant portion of the work session discussion was devoted to concerns about arsenic levels on the property. Quigley reported the East Hampton Citizens Advisory Committee has asked the town to test the soil on the premises.
Traditionally used as a pesticide to kill the potato beetle, arsenic is currently banned in the United States. It fell out of style in the 1940s and '50s with the advent of cheaper chemicals. But, according to Town Director of Natural Resources Larry Penny, when arsenic has been used in soil "It stays there forever, just about."
Sampling at EECO Farm conducted in 2005 showed elevated levels of arsenic ranging from 29.4 milligrams per kilogram to 54.7 mg/kg. The established background levels for arsenic in soil are between 3 and 12 mg/kg.
After the 2005 test results were revealed, Penny sent a memo to the town board recommending that anyone tilling community garden plots should wear face masks to avoid breathing in soil particles. A March, 2005, letter to the town from the state Department of Environmental Conservation also suggests "the use of personal protective equipment to minimize exposure to soil contaminants."
Balsam reported sampling was conducted at EECO Farm in 2008 and showed "acceptable" levels of arsenic. "I don't think it's an issue," he said. Children visiting the site would have to "eat the dirt" to suffer exposure, according to Balsam. Rona Klopman, a community member who worked on earlier committees eyeing chemicals on farmlands said ingestion is not a problem, it's when "children inhale it and pregnant women."
"You're telling us one thing and the people from the East Hampton CAC are telling us another thing," Quigley said to Balsam on February 15. For that reason, she wants new samples tested, and a group discussion of the results.
Any field that was ever farmed is going to have arsenic in the soil, Balsam said, "I feel it's really unfair to be picking on EECO Farm." But EECO Farm is different from other area farms in that activities are conducted on town-owned property leased to the group. "When you open up a property to the general public, you have to address these concerns," Hammerle said yesterday.
A hearing on Quigley's proposed ag-reforms will be held on March 3 at 7 PM in the town hall courtroom.