The controversial Cutchogue condominium project known as The Heritage took a step forward last night with the conclusion of a planning board public hearing on the site plan and draft environmental impact statement for the 124-unit development off Schoolhouse Road.
The hearing record will remain open for written comments for two weeks, until March 7.
With two of its five members absent, the Southold planning board last night heard comments on the plan for more than an hour, in the second round of a public hearing opened on Jan. 11 and then closed the hearing.
Most residents who stepped up to the podium in the crowded town hall meeting room spoke in opposition to the project, as was the case during the first hearing session last month. Objections centered on the development’s impacts on groundwater, surface waters, traffic and quality of life.
The developer’s attorney said last night the project will “definitely” use alternative wastewater treatment technologies to reduce nitrogen loading from the discharge of the estimated 22,500 gallons per day of wastewater emanating from the Heritage. The new technologies have not yet been approved or authorized by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, but are currently being tested in a pilot program indicating they result in a “very substantial nitrogen reduction,” attorney John Wagner told the planning board.
Wagner said he and project engineers had “a very fruitful meeting” with Suffolk County health department officials on Jan. 26.
While the project’s anticipated wastewater flow meets current county health regulations for standard septic systems, Wagner said, the county will support the use of the new, as-yet unapproved technology for the Heritage. Wagner said the health department is in the process of drafting amendments to their regulations that would allow these alternative technologies to be used but health officials will support their use in the project even if the regulations are not yet finalized.
County Legislator Al Krupski, who is also a Cutchogue resident, said the county has been doing extensive testing on six different systems installed on a pilot basis at 19 homes throughout the county a few years ago.
Based on the results of those pilot installations, the county executive is encouraging the health department to make them available for use in the county, Krupski said. It will be June or July before the health code is changed to allow for their use, the legislator said.
Until the code is changed, however, the use of the alternative advanced wastewater treatment systems will be considered a pilot as well, Krupski noted.
“It’s very encouragning to have the applicant and the health department to be willing to do a pilot here,” Krupski said.
But Kevin McAllister, founder of Defend H20 and former longtime executive director of Peconic Baykeeper, questioned whether new requirements, when they are eventually promulgated, would be adequate. He said the county is seeking a nitrogen loading reduction 50 percent off traditional septic systems. Those discharge 50 to 60 milligrams per liter, McAllister said. “So do the math.”
McAllister urged the planning board to instead impose specific and very strict nitrogen limits of 3 miligrams per liter as part of any approval it might grant. That standard was adopted last year by the Town of Brookhaven for new development within the Carmans River watershed, he said. “And that’s as good as it gets,” he said.
“Don’t let this get bantered or slip through the cracks with statements like ‘oh we had a good meeting.’ I’m not trying to be cute or dismissive,” McAllister said. “We have to assign standards to the discharges here and have the system certified by an engineer. This puts the burden of proof on the developer, as opposed to ultimately allowing some sytems that maybe approved that are not going to nearly achieve the same level of denitrification.”
Traffic from the project — both during construction and after it is occupied — was another major issue of concern for residents.
“This area’s not equipepd to accommodate this traffic,” Schoolhouse Road resident Kelly Evers said. “Schoolhouse Road would essentially turn into a driveway for the Heritage project” which, she noted, will increase the population of the hamlet by 15 percent. “The five years it would take to build will be a nightmare Our lives will be on hold,” she said.
“How would you feel if the small narrow street you are raising your family on became a thruway for 15 percent of the town’s population?” she asked. “It is unsafe and irresponsible to allow this project to go through.”
New Suffolk Civic Association vice president Joe Polashock also urged the board to address the traffic the project would generate. “The season now runs from Memorial Day till the end of pumpkin picking,” he said.
Ed Faszczewski of Highland Road predicted that cement trucks and other heavy construction vehicles would access the work site from Highland Road, not Schoolhouse Road or Griffing Street because Highland is “much wider.”
“I don’t want to see every cement truck and every building supply truck coming down our road,” Faszczewski said.
He said the approval should be put to a vote of the residents of Cutchogue, and not decided by a small panel of officials.
Cutchogue resident Nancy Sawastynowicz condemned the “spot zone change done by the town 30 years ago” as a move to benefit “a few greedy developers” in “good old boy fashion.”
“If we had honest politicians, the spot zone change would not have happened, and the stipulation of settlement would not have happened.”
The site, located at the corner of Griffing Street and School House Lane, has been the subject of a number of high-density development applications since the town board changed its zoning in 1983 from residential-agricultural to multiple-residence. The zoning was changed again in 1989 to the current hamlet density zoning use district; the HD zoning has undergone significant changes twice since its adoption.
The current applicant has been attempting to gain development approvals from the town since 2002. After being stalled by moratoria, followed by a 2009 zoning code change that rendered its prior application “unapprovable,” the applicant sued. The lawsuit was settled in September 2014 with a stipulation that granted the applicant the right to build no more than 130 age-restricted (55+) condo units with a maximum 245,000 square feet of livable floor area on the site and required 50 percent of the site to be set aside as open space. The open space is dispersed throughout the site.
Edana Chicanowicz of Cutchogue said the Heritage is “the wedge” for future suburbanization of the rural hamlet.
“We’ll be like Middle Road in Riverhead,” she said, noting that the area now developed with hundreds of over-55 condominiums was once open farm fields.
“If we wanted to live in Centereach, we would move to Centereach,” Chicanowicz said.
She warned that there would be “political consequences” if the Heritage is approved.
But not all of the 16 people who spoke at last night’s meeting were opposed to the project.
Tom Foster of Bridle Lane, who said he lives adjacent to the project, said he has no objection to it. “I don’t mind having new neighbors,” he said. “I think it’s great what they’re doing with the septic.”
Nancy Bertorello, a 50-year Cutchogue resident, said she likes the idea of being able to retire in Cutchogue. “To be able to stay in our town is very important,” she said. “I wouldn’t consider going to Greenport to retire. Cutchogue is my town. This is a very well thought-out, very nice development.”
Paul Romanelli of Cutchogue said while he’s had concerns about density, traffic and runoff, he’s never been “completely opposed to the project.” He said he was gald to see that the developer is taking a leadership role with nitrogen. “It seems they’re on the right track,” he said.
After the written comment period ends, the planning board as lead agency is required by the state environmental quality review act to prepare responses to substantive comments on the draft environmental impact statement. The draft, together with the responses, comprise the final environmental impact statement for the project. At that point, the planning board may vote to approve or deny the application. State law requires the preparation of the FEIS within 45 days after the close of the hearing record, which is set for March 7. But courts have held that the statutory time frames are not mandatory, but rather serve as guidelines for review.