Even though Southampton Town has not yet deemed its change-of-zone application complete, the Discovery Land Company began pitching its plans this week for a sprawling golf course and luxury home development on nearly 600 acres in East Quogue.
Mark Hissey, the Arizona company’s point person for The Hills at Southampton project, said officials with his firm will go to great lengths to reduce the potential environmental impact of their development, particularly with regard to water quality. He said they also plan to fund innovative water-quality improvement measures, the impacts of which will carry beyond just mitigating the issues brought about by their development.
Mr. Hissey, in speaking with a reporter and in a public conversation with members of the Southampton Town Trustees on Monday, said the amount of nitrogen added to groundwater by the proposed 18-hole golf course and 118-home development would be low, and that the deep-pocketed developers plan to dedicate additional money that will improve the quality of both local groundwater and surface waters, including nearby bays.
The project would require a change of zone—the Town Board would have to approve a mixed-use planned development district, or PDD, a localized zoning designation that allows development otherwise excluded by existing zoning.
In a 76-page application submitted late last month, the developers outlined plans for individual septic systems for 108 homes and a separate system for a clubhouse that would also feature 10 condos. All of the residential development, and the accompanying 18-hole golf course, would be sited on 168 acres. The remaining acreage, coming in at approximately 426 acres, will be dedicated as open space under the proposed PDD.
That application, however, was deemed incomplete by town officials last week for various reasons—namely, for lacking required information.
But that has not stopped project opponents from blasting the plan, specifically the part that calls for individual septic systems, arguing that it would damage one of the two Suffolk County Water Authority drinking water wells located in the hamlet, and also contribute to the further degradation of Shinnecock Bay.
“There is no mention of any specific advanced wastewater treatment systems or technology, and no mention of the creation of a sewage treatment plant,” Dr. Christopher Gobler, an East Quogue resident and a professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Atmospheric and Marine Sciences, wrote in an email last week.
Discovery Land is proposing one septic system for each of the 108 single-family homes, plus one septic system for the clubhouse, which would host 10 additional housing units. According to the application submitted on October 21, septic systems must be reviewed and approved by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services. “The applicant is committed to providing enhanced wastewater treatment where feasible for The Hills,” the document states, though it does not specify an exact system that Discovery Land wants to install.
But in an interview last week, Mr. Hissey said the development firm is open to the idea of installing an advanced septic system, though it did not state such in its application. He explained that the thought behind that was to allow the town to direct the developers in the process, noting that actual construction is still years down the road, and such technology is changing all the time.
“We want to engage everybody that we can to get the best septic systems possible on that property,” said Mr. Hissey, who serves as senior vice president of Discovery Land. “Whatever is the most technologically advanced septic system is what we want to employ.”
The current application points out that since the units are going to be marketed to the wealthy, and utilized as second and even third homes, the amount of waste generated will be much less than if the land—most of which is zoned for residential lots of 5 acres or greater—is developed as of right.
“The project will result in two low-intensity uses,” the application states. “The residential component involves second homes used primarily for vacations and getaways by owners, which will not … require the same service demand as fully occupied primary residences.”
Because the homes will be occupied for only 60 days out of the year, the application argues, the wastewater produced will not have as much of an impact on groundwater as homes that would be utilized as year-round residences.
Still, environmental experts like Dr. Gobler, and former Peconic Baykeeper Kevin McAllister, the founder of the new nonprofit Defend H20, are arguing that any development will have a significant impact on both groundwater and surface water.
“We need to strive for the best technology that’s available,” said Mr. McAllister, a Quogue resident who opposes the project. “I’d argue that, right now, from being the degraded system as it is, even if it’s a seasonal pulse to the nitrogen loading, it’s still going to be substantial.
“We’ve already exceeded the tipping point,” he continued, pointing to the amount of nitrogen that is entering the water. “This isn’t going to be good for Shinnecock Bay.”
According to Discovery Land’s calculations, the nitrogen and other pollutants that would enter the groundwater would meet Suffolk County Department of Health regulations. Their estimates also take into account the proposed golf course.
Still, Dr. Gobler argues that any additional nitrogen introduced into the soil will only add to the damage, while Mr. McAllister pointed out that the golf course could have a greater impact in terms of contamination if the fertilizer being utilized is not properly regulated.
“I believe there’s a way to manage this golf course where they can reduce the impact of fertilizer,” Mr. McAllister said, explaining that he has been lobbying the State Department of Health to raise water quality standards for more than a decade. “Why are we allowing things to be built the same way for 50 years when we know there are better ways?”
Mr. Hissey, who was the general manager of the Sebonack Golf Club prior to joining Discovery Land, said he wants to work with the town and county in order to emulate the environmental standards set by Sebonack. Specifically, he pointed to liners that, at Sebonack, were placed beneath the putting greens, where the most fertilizers and herbicides are needed to keep grass in prime condition. The liners also capture irrigation and rainwater, directing both into a holding pond rather than letting them filter directly into the groundwater.
Mr. Hissey told Town Trustees that, in East Quogue, similar liners would be installed under all of the greens, as well as beneath the tee boxes and portions of the fairways that would run along the southern end of the property,
“At Sebonack … we’ve seen levels of 2 milligrams of nitrogen or less on a consistent basis, and that’s certainly what we’re going to achieve at The Hills,” Mr. Hissey told the Trustees. “But through the PDD process we also want to improve the bays. We want to make this a laboratory of sorts for how to do things the right way.”
The approval process for a PDD, which allows the Town Board to set aside zoning codes on a property if there is a “public benefit” to allowing a deviation in its use, requires that developers provide substantial returns to the community in exchange for being allowed to pursue their plans. In the case of The Hills, one of the approaches Mr. Hissey said the developers was exploring calls for funding the use of “permeable reactive barriers” along the shoreline of East Quogue to neutralize the impact of nitrogen flowing into the bays.
Nitrogen, primarily from decades-old residential septic systems, has been pegged by scientists as the catalyst for dense algae blooms that have choked local bays for decades. Reducing the amount of nitrogen that reaches groundwater and, subsequently, surface waters through improvements in septic technology has been spotlighted as a necessary step in restoring water quality. Reactive barriers—essentially buried layers of wood chips treated with elements that neutralize nitrogen—have been seen by some scientists as a potential Band-Aid, helping to curb some of the nitrogen influx until improvements can be made at the source.
“There isn’t going to be a lot of nitrogen coming off our property, but there is a ton of nitrogen coming off other properties and winding up in the bays,” Mr. Hissey said. “We want to work with the likes of Dr. Gobler to pick the right place and the right way to go about it, so that there is improvement, real improvement, in the bay.”
But members of the Town Trustees voiced concerns about such aggressive development on land in the watershed of the bays, areas that have suffered from the most acute and persistent water quality problems.
“My biggest concern, being a bayman, is the impacts on the groundwater … and further changing or degrading western Shinnecock Bay,” said Trustee Ed Warner Jr., who is from Hampton Bays. “We’re in the midst of a project with the college trying to mitigate some of the problems there … and having the potential of a large subdivision with a golf course on top of it—and what could be caused by this—is a real concern to me.”
Staff writer Michael Wright contributed to this story.