Pictured in January are Tom Ruhle, left, and Richard Whalen,...

Pictured in January are Tom Ruhle, left, and Richard Whalen, from the Coalition for Hither Woods, looking at a map of Montauk where East Hampton officials want to build a wastewater treatment facility through a land swap that Suffolk parks trustees voted Thursday not to recommend.

 Jan,12th, 2023 Credit: John Roca

The Suffolk County Parks Board of Trustees voted Thursday not to recommend a land swap of county parkland with East Hampton Town for the construction of a wastewater treatment facility in Montauk.

The board’s lack of support for the land swap complicates and potentially ends the town’s proposed acquisition of 14 acres of Hither Woods Preserve in exchange for a separate undeveloped 18.8-acre property — a swap environmentalists staunchly have opposed.

The trustees voted 9-0, with two members abstaining, to not recommend the land swap to the Suffolk County Legislature. The process of parkland alienation requires approval from the county legislature, which still could pass legislation for the land swap regardless of the park trustees' recommendation.

“I have a really hard time supporting this,” board chairman David Barnes said just before the vote.

Parks trustee William Sickles, who represents Southampton on the board, said he believes a land swap “cracks the door” to allowing municipalities to explore using parkland for other purposes.

“I think the trustees would be doing the people of Suffolk County a disservice by approving this,” he added.

East Hampton officials outlined the proposal for the trustees at their monthly meeting Thursday at the West Sayville Country Club.

Town officials said they’ve exhausted all other possible locations in a hamlet where land is either preserved or developed. Such a facility is necessary in Montauk, they say, to combat pollution caused by outdated cesspools in its densely populated downtown.

East Hampton Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc told Newsday after the meeting he understood the concerns about parkland alienation and said it was a “last resort.”

He added: “For now, without having a site that’s feasible, we won’t be able to move forward on addressing this issue."

Van Scoyoc also said he believes a “rational review of the facts” will show the advantage of such a facility “far outweighs any detriments."

Town officials on Thursday sought to alleviate park trustees' concerns about how much of the property would be cleared, showing a map with the proposed facility on about 2.8 acres tucked away from hiking trails.

Kim Shaw, the town’s environmental protection director, said East Hampton officials initially sought a seven-acre site, but found they needed at least 14 acres due to county health regulations.

Members of pro-environment group Coalition for Hither Woods who have lobbied against the land swap and facility hailed Thursday's vote as a victory.

“I’m glad the parks trustees put a kibosh on it,” coalition co-founder Richard Whalen told Newsday.

Suffolk Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) urged the trustees not to support the land swap “because of our love of parks,” while calling the potential precedent “very problematic.”

Land swap opponents raised several questions at Thursday's meeting about an environmental review that is required for such a project under the State Environmental Quality Review Act. They have argued the town has failed to start the review, but town officials said they couldn’t commence it without a firm site in hand.

“You can’t fully assess the impacts unless you know where you’re putting it,” Van Scoyoc said. “That’s an expensive and really involved process. If it’s not feasible, then why would you pursue reviewing it?”

A representative of the engineering firm East Hampton officials hired for the project, Nick Bono of H2M architects + engineers, said during Thursday's meeting that if the land swap didn't go through "the reality is there is no backup plan."

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