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Jan 29, 2019 2:39 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

PSEG Could Buy Montauk Hillside Property For Substation, Over Neighbors' Objections

The land where PSEG plans to build a new substation sits just below the Suffolk County Water Authority water tower and just above the Montauk Playhouse.
Jan 31, 2019 9:32 AM

Officials from PSEG-Long Island confirmed at a public meeting last week that they have reached an agreement in principle with the owner of 6.7 acres of land just off Flamingo Road in Montauk to buy the land and develop a new 60,000-square-foot power substation there.

Neighbors of the property have continued to object to the proposal, citing concerns about impacts to water quality and the safety of kids using the Montauk Playhouse, and have threatened to sue if the utility presses ahead.

At the monthly meeting of the Long Island Power Authority Board of Trustees on January 23, Dan Eichhorn, the president of PSEG-Long Island, told the panel of trustees that the utility’s contracted operator has reached an agreement to buy the property contingent on the utility being able to secure approvals to build the facility on the site. The utility says it is still weighing other sites as well.

The land the utility has targeted comprises four lots, whose addresses are 66 and 68 Fairmont Avenue and 20 and 22 Fenwick Place. All are owned by two limited liability companies connected to Ralph C. Macchio and his wife, Rosalie Macchio, who own numerous properties throughout Long Island under similarly-named LLCs. They are the parents of actor Ralph Macchio, a longtime Montauk resident.

Representatives of PSEG have refused to detail the proposed purchase agreement or the agreed-upon price, but neighbors said they have been told that the sale price was in the neighborhood of $6 million.

Mr. Eichhorn said the company plans to hold a forum with community members in late February to discuss its plans for the property.

“I’m confident it’s just a matter of doing the outreach,” Mr. Eichhorn said. We think there’s things we can do to mitigate the appearance and the look.”

He said that the wooded nature of the hillside land would make screening it easier and nodded to a recent project the company had on Shelter Island that he surmised residents were “extremely happy” with the final design of.

Mr. Eichhorn said that the utility’s engineers have been working extensively with town officials on the designs for the substation—which include excavating a portion of the hillside so the station can sit on level ground—to lessen the visual and environmental impacts.

But a group of neighbors of the property who have mounted a petition drive to oppose the proposed site and are making preparations for a lawsuit also pleaded with the LIPA trustees to derail the plans to put the substation on the hillside.

Shaun De Jesus, whose home faces the property from the opposite hillside across Flamingo Road, questioned the sense in putting a power substation next to a drinking water wells and a facility that houses child care and senior services programs. He also said that there is a known Native American burial ground nearby, and that artifacts of Montauk’s ancient inhabitants have been found on the property.

“Should an electrical generation facility be next to the most sensitive members of our community?” he asked at the LIPA meeting, which was held at the LIPA headquarters in Uniondale. “We would ask that the board exhaust all resources to find a more suitable location.”

Mr. De Jesus said that he and other residents planned to sue to stop the purchase if LIPA or PSEG does not abandon plans to use the hillside property.

Ken Giustino, a Montauk resident and publisher of the Montauk Sun newspaper, said that more than 2,000 Montauk residents have signed a petition opposing putting the substation on the hill near the Playhouse.

Mr. De Jesus argued that a property LIPA already owns off Navy Road and has planned to use for its next Montauk substation for decades would be more suitable.

But the plans for a substation at that property have already drawn their own torrent of objections from the community and from town officials, based mainly on concerns about the location’s vulnerability to being flooded in an extreme storm event.

During public hearings on a battery storage facility that was to stand adjacent to the substation, the comments from dozens of residents focused almost exclusively on the PSEG-LIPA property being used for a new substation—the siting of which was the justification for the placement of the battery storage building. That facility was approved and has been constructed.

Mr. Eichhorn noted that pleas from East Hampton Town planners and elected officials are what had led the utility to set aside its long-held plans and go looking for a new location in the first place.

“We decided to honor the town’s request and not put the substation there,” Mr. Eichhorn said. “We evaluated at least six other sites, some in excruciating detail.”

He said that a town proposal to site the substation on town-owned land near the Montauk dump, on one of the highest points in the hamlet, was not feasible, for reasons he did not detail.

Tom Ciccariello, who lives just over the hill crest from the land the utility has proposed buying, asked the LIPA board and PSEG officials to revisit the town’s former dump property and find a way to use that site for the new substation. He said he worried that an event like the recent “arc flash” at a power station in Astoria, Queens, or a fire at the substation could pose a danger to children at the Playhouse’s day care facility, or the community as a whole.

“In order to put those fires out, you have to spray the foam, which was practiced with at East Hampton Airport and polluted 500 wells in Wainscott that the town spent $10 million to run pipes to,” Mr. Ciccariello said. “If something happens at this site and there’s contamination in our only aquifer, there could be very serious problems for LIPA and PSEG.”

East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said that town’s Planning Department staff have been working with the PSEG engineers on the designs of their plans but that the town has played no role in choosing or negotiating an acquisition of the Macchios’ property.

“We do support the general principle of moving critical infrastructure out of harm’s way,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “We’ve asked that they be aware of community standards for viewsheds in a project like this and that they have public outreach, so we expect that they will be addressing a lot of the issues that neighbors are concerned about when they unveil their plans, and our response to that will be based on how well they do that.”

The members of the LIPA board acknowledged that finding locations for substations, like any necessary industrial facility, can be tricky, but said they had hoped that changing course from the original plans would be met with support.

“Siting a substation anywhere is a very difficult proposition from the way of community acceptance—it’s been that way forever,” LIPA Trustee Matthew Cordaro said. “In this case, you would think that the town would have had its hand on the pulse of the community and been fully aware of the community’s views on this.”

Another trustee lamented the damned if you do, damned if you don’t sort of situation LIPA and PSEG have found themselves in.

“It seems like it’s a no-win situation,” said LIPA Trustee Peter Gollon. “If we don’t listen to the local governments, we get assailed. If we listen to the local governments, we get assailed by the people whose governments they are.”

Montauk resident Tom Bogdan said that the board members should not discount the objections of Montaukers as neighbors who don’t want something in their backyards, and should take a more down-to-earth look at the siting of the substation from the standpoint of Montauk residents who have put lots of thought and effort into the issue.

“From this lofty position of yours here, 70 miles away, here on the fourth floor, it may look reasonable to you,” he said. “What I ask is that you look very, very closely at this project. Facts and information look very different on the spot.”

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