Water war at EPCAL will continue under new boss

06/10/2010 12:00 AM |

The Suffolk County Water Authority has new leadership as of last week, but its stand on the Calverton Enterprise Park is not changing.

The water authority claims that EPCAL is part of its distribution system, and not that of the Riverhead Water District, and has taken its case to a state Department of Environmental Conservation administrative law judge, seeking to oppose Riverhead Town’s current proposal to extend the Riverhead Water District to EPCAL.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter called the water authority’s position a “hostile takeover” of the town’s water district, and is vowing to fight it. SCWA had made a $12 million offer to buy the town system in October 2008, which was rejected.

“The SCWA is a 900-pound gorilla that’s trying to force its way into Riverhead and Southold,” Mr. Walter said. “This is nothing more than a hostile takeover in which they are trying to do through the DEC what they couldn’t do otherwise.”

Jeff Szabo, a former chief deputy county executive under Steve Levy, took over June 1 as the Suffolk County Water Authority’s chief executive officer, replacing Stephen Jones, who held the position since late 2000. And on May 24, attorney and former county legislator Jim Gaughran replaced Mike LoGrande as the authority’s chairman, a position Mr. LoGrande had held for 20 years.

In an interview Tuesday, Mr. Szabo and water authority attorney Timothy Hopkins said the authority still believes it should be supplying water to EPCAL, and they even question the legality of past extensions of the Riverhead Water District.

“EPCAL is not presently part of the Riverhead Water District,” Mr. Szabo said. The authority asserts the EPCAL property is part of its water distribution territory based on the New York Water Power and Control Commission’s 1949 decision that all of Suffolk County not served by another legally established waterworks system fell under the jurisdiction of SCWA.

SCWA believes the town is required to seek a permit from the state DEC every time it seeks to extend the boundaries of the Riverhead Water District, something Mr. Szabo said has not been done.

“We question whether past extensions of the Riverhead Water District have been done properly,” Mr. Szabo said.

Mr. Walter said that the town has water pipes at EPCAL that were given to it by the water authority when the town acquired that property from the Navy. The town has received federal grants for that system and supplies the Calverton National Cemetery through those pipes as well.

SCWA also claims that the Riverhead Water District does not have adequate capacity to serve its existing coverage area, Mr. Szabo said.

“If they can’t serve their existing area, how are they going to serve a new area?” he asked.

Papers submitted by the water authority to the DEC include minutes from a 2008 Town Board meeting at which Riverhead Water District’s consulting engineer said, “At the present time, the Riverhead Water District does not have excess well capacity to provide water to” a proposed subdivision in Baiting Hollow. Those papers also include the water conservation brochures the town water district puts out, as well as a July 2008 Newsday article in which town officials ask residents not to water their lawns because the town’s water supply tanks were less than 25 percent full.

Mr. Szabo said the county authority running the water system at EPCAL would have no impact on development there or on home rule issues. He said individual developers would make applications for water there, just as they do now, and the cost of the water installation would be borne by those developers.

Mr. Walter said that as of Jan. 1, the town’s water district was at 94 percent capacity, including the water it pumps out of the district and into Southold Town.

But Mr. Walter said the town will soon have two new wells on line, which will bring its pumping capacity to 116 percent of the town’s water needs, with another well planned on Northville Turnpike that will boost capacity to 126 percent.

“The Suffolk County Water Authority does not have the ability to condemn us,” Mr. Walter said. “Their charter is to provide water to areas where it’s not available.”

He said the town’s water rates are 40 percent lower than the authority’s, and that the town water district will be more accountable.

“Where is the accountability in the Suffolk County Water Authority?” Mr. Walter asked. “Who sets their rates? They are appointed by the Suffolk County Legislature, and there is no oversight.”

“The Town of Riverhead charges $1.10 per thousand gallons of water and we at SCWA charge $1.46,” Mr. Szabo responded. “When you include the taxes paid by the residents of the water district we believe the total costs are comparable. When Supervisor Walter claims to be 40 percent lower than SCWA, he is not including the taxes charged to residents of the water district.”

Mr. Szabo said the county Legislature provides oversight to SCWA, and the New York State Health Department reviews its plans and samples its water quality.

“We also are subject to the state DEC for our well development,” he added.

The water authority’s 2008 proposal to the town called for the structuring of a 40-year lease agreement that would allow Riverhead Town to keep title to all real estate and assets, retain control over water rates and get a check for $12 million, to be used for “any lawful purpose.”

As part of that deal, the water authority also proposed to immediately undertake the $15 million in needed capital improvements to the town system.

But the Town Board, then under the administration of former supervisor Phil Cardinale, unanimously rejected the offer, saying its main concern was control of the water system.

“The water district is critical to the future of the town, and to give up control or ownership of it would add yet another level of outside control to the town’s future,” Mr. Cardinale said at the time. He added that the issue was particularly important in light of several large projects before the town at EPCAL and downtown.

“SCWA would have almost unlimited control over our development of the property,” Mr. Walter said this week. “It’s another example of up-Island legislators dictating what happens in Riverhead.”

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