River plan runs deep

THE LONG ISLAND ADVANCE - OCTOBER 24, 2013 
BY PEGGY SPELLMAN HOEY

 

The much-anticipated Carmans River Conservation and Management Plan  was approved last week by Brookhaven  lawmakers, heralded by supporters as a  major step forward in improving the river’s future.  What does an approval really mean now that it’s in place?  

Water quality, a key issue 

Brookhaven Town does not currently  have water quality standards for surface  water, but environmental planning staffers  have included in the plan a sanitary recommendation, requiring alternative waste systems for commercial establishments with  sewage flow over 1,000 gallons and also a  pilot program for single-family residences. Additionally, the plan recommends the establishment of a surface water-quality standard of 1.3 milligrams per liter of total nitrogen and 1.0 milligrams per liter of nitrate nitrogen, as well as the restoration of .5 milligrams per liter of total nitrogen and.35 milligrams per liter for nitrate nitrogen.  “These are recommendations that are very important to the overall quality of the freshwater wetlands,” said Joseph Sanzano, a Brookhaven Town map drafter who has worked on the plan. “What we really want to establish is the non-degradation of the water quality of the Carmans River and going into the future, an improvement of the long-term water levels in a long-term period.” Critics say that it will be years before anything is achieved with the Carmans River watershed, possibly to the river’s detriment as development progresses in Brookhaven Town. Kevin McAllister, a scientist who heads the Peconic Baykeeper organization, called the plan “a step in the right direction” by its inclusion of the septic system requirement and improved water quality standards, but would not go as far as to label it the end-all for the preservation of the river. He noted the federal government sets standards for drinking water and under the Clean Water Act, directed the states to set a standard, which is something that state officials are looking to codify themselves within the next year.  “It’s solid,” said McAllister of the town’s plan. “The prescription is well-defined and appropriate, but unless the board actually codifies this, all this is paragraphs in a plan.  It’s a little premature to declare all of these great things are going to happen. We have got to put the plan into action.” In the next phase of the plan, a performance committee will be chosen to lay out the steps in which the recommendations will be carried out, according to town officials. Town officials have already started meeting to discuss the implementation of the recommendations and how to move forward, according to Sanzano.  Town officials are working with planning department commissioner Tullio Bertoli  in codifying the plan, and they expect to  see some progress by the end of the year,  according to Supervisor Ed Romaine. “We are starting the work on it right away,” Romaine said. “We intend to implement it right away. Obviously, it will take some time to implement all of it, but it will start as soon as possible.” “Right from the get-go we want this to be successful,” he said. “We want this to work and we are ready to go.” 

Management plan boundaries 

The plan has a guideline area based on groundwater contributing areas, which run along the entire length of the 10-mile river, from Middle Island to Brookhaven hamlets, but no management plan area. The performance committee, which has not yet been formed, will set a specific management plan boundary to advise the town board and to establish the physical boundary of this management plan. Land preservation Proposed now in the core area expansion is about 1,600 acres of open space, as well as an additional open space recommendation for the acquisition of about 1,000 acres outside of the Pine Barrens core area, a separate list of properties planners believed to be worthy of acquisition, bringing the total amount of open space to be preserved to about 2,600 acres, according to Sanzano.  “The core prohibits new construction except in circumstances of an existing building and you are doing a small addition, which is permitted,” he said, adding, “But if you have a vacant property and you are proposing a new development, that is prohibited, that is under state law.” Property owners precluded from developing their property can go to the Pine Barrens Clearing House and would be issued a certificate letting them know how many Pine Barrens credits they have, he explained.  But ultimately, the goal of the Carmans plan is for the public acquisition of proper ties in the core area, which would extinguish the Pine Barrens credits altogether.  Town officials expect to continue their partnerships with the state and county to purchase and preserve land in and around the watershed and have set aside $6 million in funding in the 2014 budget to see their goal through. Pine Barrens credits that are not extinguished and are purchased on the open  market could, however, be sold for a number of purposes including to aid a developer  seeking to use them to meet sanitary flow  requirements at a specific location, where  they might not have enough credits.  “That is how the majority of our credits are being established today,” Sanzano said. The credits typically work by sterilizing development in one area, so that the credits can be used somewhere else, such as on a commercial or industrial development to increase sanitary flow, a multi- family housing project, or in a residential overlay district for single-family housing, provisions already included in the town’s existing code. “We are hopeful that as we allow more usage of Pine Barrens credits, we will be able to extinguish more credits then we have in the past,” Sanzano said. 

Building and the wetlands 

The town code already limits building and construction in and around wetlands to 20 feet of the edge of wetlands and surface water. The Carmans Plan recommends amending the current code to prohibit building within another 30 feet, bringing the total amount to 50 feet of the edge of wetlands and surface water in the management plan area. 

Potential for development 

Town planners did not analyze the potential for building square footage in and around the watershed area because it was not required.  “We don’t anticipate how much building you can do in an area,” Sanzano said. “It is almost impossible; you can’t determine how much,” he continued, adding, “Because there are so many varying factors, zoning setbacks, health department regulations.  There are so many parcels; to go parcel by parcel by parcel is an undertaking of huge proportions, and as I said, it is not required for us to do that examination.” 

Transfer of Development Rights and Pine Barrens credits 

There are Transfer of Development Rights  but only in terms of Pine Barrens credits,  which can be transferred between the three  participating towns — Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton. More properties are now able to participate in the Pine Barrens credit program due to state legislation that was passed earlier this year expanding the core of the Pine Barrens. Of the 1,600  acres of properties included in the core,  there are now 487 privately-owned acres  of properties and 1,173 acres of publicly- owned properties, including Southaven  Park and Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge. There are no Pine Barrens credits for publicly-owned land and officials expect the expansion of the Pine Barrens core to generate an additional 135 Pine Barrens credits to the program. Pine Barrens Commissioner John Pavicic explained the finite nature of the credits program, which was created in 1993. “Each of the three Pine Barrens towns,  Brookhaven, Riverhead, and Southampton,  have a certain amount of Pine Barrens  credits to use and they can be used within  the Pine Barrens or they can cross town  lines, but both towns have to agree,” he  said. “This can be done by resolution by  [town board] in regards to a specific trans- action.”  As of January this year, roughly 14 Pine Barrens credits were transferred from privately-owned properties from the towns of Riverhead and Southampton to Brookhaven hamlet. A private property owner in Brookhaven also transferred .2 Pine Barrens credits to Patchogue Village, as well as .46 and roughly seven Pine Barrens credits to the hamlets, or unincorporated areas of Southampton and Islip, respectively, within the timeframe. Former Brookhaven planning Commissioner Dan Gulizio, who now heads up the nonprofit Community Planning Center, noted everyone agrees the river should be preserved, however, he noted that there is a concern that the use of development rights from the preservation area could result in an additional density increase elsewhere throughout the town, particularly for the town’s new multi-family housing code.  

Gulizio says that the town’s new multi- family housing code allows for five additional multi-family housing units for every single development credit purchased by the developer.  The matter is the subject of a lawsuit filed by the Affiliated Brookhaven Civic Organization, an umbrella group consisting of all the town’s civic organizations. The group claims the town segmented the legislation as opposed to studying it together with the Carmans River plan. Other concerns of his are that the plan contained non-committal language that did not obligate the town to enforce any of its recommendations. Also a concern to  Gulizio, he says, is that  the plan failed to contain  a sound analysis of the  important impacts on  the Pine Barrens cred- its program and that the  plan failed to take a look  at the ratio — normally  1:1 — which potentially  renders that entire Pine  Barrens program “legally  indefensible.” “They have an obligation to do that now when they are adopting the plan, not after the fact,” he said. MaryAnn Johnston, chairwoman of  ABCO’s land-use committee, criticized the  plan for providing an “escape valve” for the  developers of projects that have already  been approved or were the subject of  litigation, such as The Meadows and Silver  Corporate Park in Yaphank, and Sandy  Hills in Middle Island, the project that  started the push to preserve the Carmans  five years ago. “That isn’t how you construct a watershed protection plan,” she added. 

Town attorney Annette Eaderesto said the language involving the clause Johnston was referring to was removed from the final draft, however, she noted that if a court order stipulates a project can go through as planned, there is little the town can do to prevent it.  Likewise Romaine, who opposed Sandy Hills as legislator, said the town could not rescind the property rights of landowners who have already been previously granted the right to construct their project. McAllister questioned who would monitor the river — another agency such as the U.S. Geological Survey or a private contractor — once the plans are codified, and also what recourse there would be if water-quality standards were not met. “This is a good first step,” he said. “But let’s not mislead the public that this is the ‘end-all’ for saving the river. There is a lot of work and a lot of management issues.” McAllister said the town could see an influx of building applications from people looking to skirt any new proposed restrictions and provide an opportunity to the  Long Island Builder’s Institute’s member- ship. “LIBI will be all over this,” he said. LIBI executive director Mitch Pally had a different take on the issue, noting the organization did not have a stance on the revised plan for the Carmans River, although it supports the preservation of the river in general. “I do not believe anything Mr. McAllister says at all,” he said.  Q Brookhaven Town officials last week moved forward with a plan to preserve parcels around the troubled Carmans River.