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Feb 8, 2017 1:33 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

'The Hills' Debate Continues At Final Public Hearing On Environmental Impact Study

The Southampton
 Town Board held its final hearing on The Hills. AMANDA BERNOCCO
Mar 9, 2017 10:46 AM

Those offering their opinions of a proposed luxury golf course resort targeting nearly 600 acres in East Quogue on Tuesday evening, at the fourth and final public hearing on the project’s draft environmental impact statement, remained divided on the development’s potential impact on the community.

However, nearly two-thirds of the estimated 100 people to address the Town Board at Southampton Town Hall did so for the first time, with a majority of those individuals expressing support for the development, dubbed The Hills at Southampton, that is being pitched by Arizona’s Discovery Land Company. In addition to an 18-hole golf course, the complex would also feature 118 residential units, with most being single-family homes.

“It will be good for the school,” said Vito Gentile of East Quogue, referring to his hamlet’s elementary school and, more specifically, the revenue in the form of property taxes that would be generated by the new development.

But not everyone was pleased with the plan—and, more specifically, targeted certain tactics used by the developer to build support for the project.

Standing at the podium and in front of about 200 people, Ron Kass of East Quogue, a frequent and vocal opponent of The Hills, accused Discovery Land officials of providing the Town Board with approximately 1,500 letters of support that were never actually signed. Explaining that he had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain copies of the letters from the town, Mr. Kass then told board members that he quickly realized that the printed names appearing at the bottom of most matched the handwriting of the author of the first letter, Jessica Insalaco of Quogue—an employee of Discovery Land who does public relations work for the firm.

“It’s another reason I don’t care for Discovery’s tactics,” Mr. Kass added.

Mr. Kass also kept accusing Ms. Insalaco of writing “false signatures,” even though a subsequent review of the documents shows that Ms. Insalaco did not attempt to fake signatures; instead, she appears to have printed the names of those who had given her permission to submit the letters on their behalf.

When reached on Wednesday, Ms. Insalaco explained that Discovery Land wrote the actual letters that were submitted to the town by Vice President Mark Hissey at the first hearing on the environmental impact statement back on November 7, but the names were added only after she secured the permission of proponents. The letters, which follow a similar format, all express support for the project and urge the Town Board to approve it.

“I did not forge anyone’s signature,” Ms. Insalaco said. “Some people can’t come to these meetings, so we wanted to make it easy for people to come support it.”

She explained that she reached out to the individuals by either phone or email, and some were able to download the letter and fill out the bottom themselves. Others, she said, asked her to do it on their behalf. Each letter featured three lines, one for a person’s name, one for an address, and one for the date the form was filled out.

“We would have put the word ‘signature’ on the form if that was what we were going to do,” Mr. Hissey said this week. “That wasn’t our intent. Every one of those people gave consent.”

Still, that tactic did not sit well with environmentalists like Dick Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society and an adamant opponent to The Hills. “I think it was a shock to all of us when we started looking through this and they were all the same,” he said, referring to Ms. Insalaco’s handwriting at the bottom of most of the letters.

Still, Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said such a practice is not unusual in the town, explaining that other developers have relied on similar form letters to register support for their projects. He said that as long as Ms. Insalaco secured permission from those whose names appear on the letters, they are fair game.

“I don’t think that was a fair critique,” Mr. Schneiderman said while referring to Mr. Kass. “I think what was done was done all the time.”

Others stepped up to the podium to offer their support, or voice their objections to the proposal.

James Vlahadamis of Hampton Bays said he supports The Hills, pointing to the way the developer has met with community members and promised to install advanced septic systems and take other steps to improving the local water quality. “I’m impressed with the amount Discovery Land Company tries to interact with community … ” said Mr. Vlahadamis, an attorney. “Their science behind the project shows that they will be removing nitrates from the groundwater.”

Maria Gambino of Westhampton Beach also expressed her support for the development during the five-hour hearing, wearing a large “Hills Yes!” sticker on her shirt. “I think The Hills is the absolute best option for this property, and I hope the board feels the same way,” she said.

Most of those in favor pointed to the developer’s promise to bring new jobs to the hamlet, as well as the many community benefits that Discovery Land is promising, such as improvement along the hamlet’s Main Street, upgrading septic systems in the area and donating money to the elementary school.

The community benefits are required since Discovery Land must get the Town Board to approve special zoning, called a planned development district, to move forward. Presently, all of their land boasts 5-acre zoning, the strictest such requirement in the municipality.

If approved, the development would feature 95 single-family homes, 13 clubhouse cabins, 10 clubhouse condominiums and an 18-hole golf course centered on 168 acres along Spinney Road in the hamlet. The remaining land will be preserved as open space as per the application.

After closing Tuesday’s hearing, board members agreed to allow a 30-day written comment period on the draft environmental impact statement. Once that process is closed, they will begin their review of the hundreds of comments made during the four hearings on the application, as well as those submitted to Town Hall in writing. At that point, the applicant will prepare a final environmental impact statement for review.

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So this form-letter thing, with letters not really signed by the claimed senders, is technically an acceptable tactic that's been used and approved before? Seems a bit fishy, but if that's the way it is, so be it. Still, in weighing all the input, the Town Board will likely be more persuaded by letters actually written by the individual senders, each with its own particular take on the subject. That's how it is with all the letters opposing the project, and they should carry more weight for that ...more
By Turkey Bridge (1979), Quiogue on Feb 10, 17 11:55 AM
TB I agree that it sounds fishy, and by definition an interested developer fighting for a very controversial project submitting purported letters from residents without their signatures is by definition bogus and questionable, unless they can provide definitive evidence, not opinions, that it was supported or signed by the legitimate resident.

Since when has true evidence been irrelevant or not required. I am also very disappointed by the seeming irrationality of Jay Schneiderman who I ...more
By Obbservant (449), southampton on Feb 21, 17 9:50 PM
He's your boy.

I'm sure, that after the 3J's vote yes on "The Hills at Southampton", you'll find a way to spin it as you were always on board, George. They are, after all, your candidates.
By Draggerman (955), Southampton on Mar 9, 17 7:11 AM
Indeed, Turkey Bridge, not only should the Town Board be persuaded by letters actually written by individual senders, I would hope that they are persuaded by the grass root community opposition which only seeks to preserve the environment and the future of this sea side community rather than by the monthly circus of cheerleaders and back slappers that come out for an out of town business seeking to make a "yuge" profit on the backs of the local taxpayers and then leave us to clean up the mess.
By zappy (65), east quogue on Feb 10, 17 3:03 PM
2 members liked this comment
By sleightjames (8), east quogue on Feb 10, 17 4:30 PM
The 'support' that DLC has been speaking of has been transparent for some time. While their approach is perfectly legal, it actually shows how little support for the project there is from the community. This is a simple effort to disrupt the genuine review process, using templated letters, 'authorized' by 'residents'.

We can break it down like this:
- DLC consists of a paid group of developers, marketing people, PR people, etc. etc.
- DLC employees compose a 'support letter'
- ...more
By adlkjd923ilifmac.aladfksdurwp (747), southampton on Feb 11, 17 5:13 PM
... Joe Shaw, can you explain how this thing is "updated" and placed back on the "front page" here? It is inaccurate, and as stale as the Hills project itself.
By William Rodney (561), southampton on Mar 9, 17 12:16 PM
My hope is that all community benefits are front loaded if this is passed. Meaning all improvements and payments, septic, educational, main street etc are done prior to building beginning. If they are allowed afterwards then it is very likely that it will not happen, via many avenues, running out of money, selling the development bankruptcy etc. So in other words community benefits should supercede the actual implementation and construction of this development.

However even if the septic ...more
By AL (83), southampton on Mar 10, 17 8:36 PM
1 member liked this comment