Since at least the late 1990s, the Riverhead Water District has built its current distribution system without permits required by state law, installing miles of water mains to serve hundreds of residential and commercial developments across the Town of Riverhead.
Riverhead has built between 30 and 40 water district extensions without the water withdrawal permits required by the State Environmental Conservation Law.
The State Department of Environmental Conservation said Monday it issued a notice of violation to the town-owned water district in 2005 for more than 30 extensions and in 2009 entered into a consent order to resolve the violations. But the permits for those extensions are still pending, the agency said. The water district has added extensions since then as well.
Riverhead filed applications for the permits, according to town officials, who say the applications were either rejected or just never approved by the state agency, which told town officials its water capacity calculations did not conform to industry standards.
The longstanding permitting and enforcement issues have never been publicly discussed — and even members of the town board, both past and current, said they had been unaware of the district’s outstanding permit and enforcement issues with the DEC. The town board serves as the governing body of the town water district.
The issues became public last week because the DEC on July 20 issued a new Notice of Incomplete Application in response to Riverhead’s application to subdivide land at the Calverton Enterprise Park. The town must obtain the DEC’s approval under the State Wild, Scenic & Recreational Rivers Act and the outstanding water district issues may prove a difficult hurdle for the town to clear.
The DEC has directed the town to revise documents submitted with the subdivision application “to clearly indicate that Riverhead Water District (RWD) is not currently permitted by the Department to serve public water to this area.”
The Notice of Incomplete Application references a July 2005 notice of violation “for adding numerous extensions, including the EPCAL property, and operating wells without a permit.”
In 2009, Riverhead Water District applied to the DEC for a water withdrawal permit that would extend the district to serve the EPCAL site — but, like its other applications, the permit was never approved.
‘Demonstrate that SCWA has no objection’
“In order to approve the application for RWD to serve the EPCAL property, RWD must demonstrate that it has sufficient capacity within the system to operate its entire service area using standard industry calculations and must demonstrate that SCWA [Suffolk County Water Authority] has no objection to RWD serving this area,” the notice states.
That’s a problem for the Riverhead Water District, not only because of its ongoing capacity issues, but also because the SCWA has already gone on record opposing the Riverhead Water District’s proposed extension “for a multitude of reasons.”
The SCWA in October 2009 wrote to the DEC objecting to Riverhead Water District’s application to extend the district to serve the enterprise park.
Citing a 1949 decision by the New York Water Power and Control Commission, SCWA takes the position that any area in Suffolk County that is not served by another legally established water supply system is within the authority’s “assigned territory.”
While Riverhead already has water mains within the proposed extension area, its service to the site was not “legally established” — as it was built without benefit of permit — according to SCWA general counsel Timothy Hopkins, who penned the Oct. 7, 2009 letter to the DEC.
“The SCWA is ready, willing and able to serve the subject area and the subject area is already assigned to the SCWA,” Hopkins wrote.
In a phone interview yesterday, Hopkins said SCWA’s position on this issue has not changed. He said he was unaware the town water district was “going forward with anything” at EPCAL.
“Under current law, that is an area assigned to the SCWA and we would object to the any application they would make,” Hopkins said.
But Riverhead’s position is that under state law the Town of Riverhead Water District can be extended to serve people who need it anywhere within the boundaries of the town.
Even if the Riverhead Water District can show that it has “the wherewithal” — as SCWA Chairman Pat Halpin put it yesterday in an interview — to provide water for new development at EPCAL, the DEC says it won’t issue water withdrawal permits for infrastructure to serve the site unless the town water district can “demonstrate that SCWA has no objection to RWD serving this area.”
And demonstrating that the district has the ability to serve new development will require clearing up the decades-long permitting issues — issues that past and present members of the town board say they didn’t know anything about.
Board members say they were unaware of violations
Past town board members who served from 2001 to the present said they had never heard anything about water district permit problems with the DEC, or the 2005 notice of violation and the consent order.
George Gabrielsen, who served from 2010 to 2015 and was the town board liaison to the water district, said he never heard the water district lacked state permits for its extensions. Neither did Barbara Blass, who served from 2002 through 2009, nor Ed Densieski, who served from 2000 through 2007.
Councilman Tim Hubbard, who has been the town board liaison to the water district since he took office in 2016, said the lack of permits is “something we never heard about or were briefed on.”
Hubbard said he learned of the issue last week in the DEC’s July 20 Notice of Violation.
“I was surprised when I read it,” Hubbard said.
Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, a town board member since 2010, agreed.
“The town board didn’t know about any of this,” Giglio said. She said H2M, the water district’s consulting engineers, “never told us about this problem.”
Former supervisor Sean Walter, who held the office from 2010 through 2017, said he was aware of the issues and involved in the ongoing negotiations to resolve them.
“I don’t know why the town board wouldn’t know,” Walter said in an interview Monday.
Walter’s successor, Laura Jens-Smith said, “It was never brought to my attention or the town board’s attention that we lacked permits.”
Giglio, currently the town board’s longest-serving member, said she had “never heard that demand cannot be met by our water supply for the EPCAL property. I’ve never heard that we cannot provide water to that site.”
The DEC did not raise the issue in its initial Notice of Incomplete Application issued to the town in September, a few weeks after the town filed its application with the DEC.
None of the environmental review documents prepared in connection with the town’s extensive environmental impact study for a previous version of the proposed EPCAL subdivision mentioned any water supply regulatory issues with the DEC.
The draft impact statement, prepared for the town by VHB Engineering and completed in 2014, states that the Riverhead Water District will serve the site and would construct an additional water supply well with a capacity of 2 million gallons per day in order to meet the demand created by future buildout there.
In its comments on the draft impact statement (by letter dated Oct. 10, 2014) the DEC did not raise any regulatory issues or suggest the RWD could not extend its boundaries to serve future development at the EPCAL site. The agency in its comments simply noted, “The RWD must apply for water supply permits.”
The Riverhead Water District had already (in 2009) filed a permit application for an extension that would serve new development in EPCAL — the extension application that drew opposition from the SCWA.
In fact, the water district was already providing water to existing development at the site, as the town has described in an updated environmental analysis provided to the DEC in March in connection with the subdivision application.
When the Riverhead CDA took title to the site from the Navy in 1998, the town was given ownership and control over the existing water and sewer systems that then served the former Grumman plant. During the decommissioning and planning process for the site that took place in the years leading up to the transfer, the town obtained grant funding from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to extend water mains into the EPCAL property to replace the water system previously owned and operated by Grumman.
The RWD then ran a 12-inch transmission main along Route 25 and into the EPCAL property south to River Road and along Grumman Boulevard, according to the town’s 2014 environmental impact statement. All existing development within the “industrial core” was required to connect to the new mains.
‘What happened to fair play?’
Riverhead officials are not about to concede the EPCAL site to Suffolk County Water Authority. Some, including Walter and current Supervisor Yvette Aguiar, argue that the authority wants to take over the town-owned water district, which SCWA officials deny.
“The Riverhead Water District is a very important asset to the Town of Riverhead. Riverhead should never, ever give it up,” Walter said.
Aguiar said in an interview last night that will never happen on her watch.
She expressed frustration with the process.
“The second incomplete application notice we recently received was a surprise,” Aguiar said, “especially since we met in February and I believed at that time we were provided with a road map to completing the application.”
Aguiar said she’s concerned that once the town fulfills the DEC’s new requests, “the cycle will repeat again.”
“The residents of Riverhead deserve a resolution to this matter, regardless of the outcome, for or against the subdivision. Three years to resolve this matter is way too long,” Aguiar said.
The town’s conundrum is multi-layered. Riverhead needs the DEC’s approval in order to finalize its subdivision, which it must do in order to close the deal with Calverton Aviation & Technology. The DEC is telling Riverhead it won’t grant its approval unless it can both demonstrate sufficient capacity to serve the entire water district — which means addressing its open permits — and demonstrate that the SCWA has no objection to Riverhead serving the EPCAL site, objections that SCWA has already forcefully expressed.
“You say to the adversary of someone, you’ve got to get their permission before the granting authority is going to give you the permit you’re asking for?” said one official, who asked not to be quoted by name. “What happened to fair play?”
Correction: The consent order entered by the Riverhead Water District and the NYSDEC was signed in 2009, not 2008 as originally stated in this article.
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