The Town of Southampton’s pending legislation on a mortarium proposal for construction in areas of Shinnecock Hills may be thrown out due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Part of the moratorium concept was to give the town ample time to study this area and see if additional restrictions are necessary,” Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said. “There’s no reason why the planning department and the town attorney’s office cannot be doing that now. If they develop a set of criteria, we wouldn’t need a moratorium, we’d go right to the criteria.”
“Normally, moratoriums are put in place very quickly,” the supervisor added. “With COVID-19, this is creating a longer hearing process.”
Public hearings on two separate moratoriums and a potential zoning change for the protection of unmarked Shinnecock Indian Nation graves have again been adjourned, this time, to July 28 at 6 PM, as the supervisor has been continuously pushing the issue to be discussed a time when residents can make comments on the matter in person. Schneiderman may be unsure the moratoriums will still be needed, but unlike previous meetings where the public detailed support for the legislation, several homeowners also debated the need.
David Donohue, who owns three properties in the Shinnecock Hills area, once again voiced his concern over the timeline for cessation of work under the gravesite protection plan, which lists protocols to follow should human remains be encountered within the town during construction activities.
“A lot of people finance projects,” he said. “I find this to be an overreach of the board. I’m feeling threatened by the process. To be held up by new laws that would restrict anybody from expanding their house, digging a pool, improving their property — there are timelines on the bank, it’s an expensive process.”
Schneiderman said the intent is to move as quickly as possible, noting the code would apply to the entire town.
“It’s designed to move quickly if you do inadvertently disturb a gravesite,” he said. “It is tricky and sensitive.”
The supervisor said he will have town Planning and Development Administrator Janice Scherer at the next meeting on the topic detailing what is involved and the costs for an average piece of property.
Town attorney Jim Burke said the law is based on existing laws in other parts of the state, reiterating the goal to move swiftly. He said the timeline details a day for an archeological review, and a 36-hour notification window to respective committees of the results.
“Everything is supposed to be moved in a very expedited fashion so as to address if there’s a discovery of archeological items — a significant discovery of bones or artifacts — not holding up a particular project unnecessarily,” Burke said.
Donohue reiterated comments that excavation already happens, and a law should be in place beforehand with a plan so no moratorium is needed. “It saddles residents,” Donohue said. He also believes there is a hidden motive, particularly behind the moratoriums.
“The fact that everyone in the community is paying the same taxes as everyone else, and we know that the remains could be found anywhere in the Hamptons or on the East End or even on the North Fork — this small section that you’ve segregated seems to be an area that’s isolated for other reasons. There seems to be a political climate,” Donohue said. “There’s a sign that was erected on the highway, there’s a proposal from the Indians to get a second sign up at some point,” he noted, referring to the bill board monuments on Route 27.
“I think we’re being put in a position of a pawn for political aspects,” Donohue said.
Three hearings have been held on the topics over the past few months. The moratoriums would expand protection within the Sugar Loaf and Fort Hill areas, where remains have previously been discovered. The first is a six-month moratorium on any construction while the town reviews its policies regarding development in the areas. Sugar Loaf is state-recognized as primary Shinnecock Nation burial grounds. For any homeowner wanting to be exempt during the moratorium, Schneiderman said Stage 1 archeological reviews would need to be conducted. Stage 1 A is a literature search and Stage 1 B is a field investigation determining the presence or absence of cultural resources.
“It decreases the likelihood that while you’re building you’re going to encounter cultural artifacts,” Schneiderman said. “It would apply to really any excavation that requires a building permit.”
The second moratorium expands protection of the Fort Hill area, but would only apply to new construction. The field investigation could add several thousand dollars to the cost of any project and would be conducted only where construction would be taking place.
Erik Thomsen questioned the process and cost for archeological review. Councilman John Bouvier said in many cases it’s noninvasive — done through the use of ground penetrating radar, so test holes may not be required.
“There are several ways to look beneath the ground to make a determination as to whether a dig is even required,” Bouvier said. “They’re very careful about how that’s done, not to tear up ground, but to be able to specifically identify sites. It’s not always perfect because of the different natures of soil, but for the most part the first stage is a noninvasive review of the property.”
In the two instances where remains were discovered — on Hawthorne Road in Fort Hill in 2018 and Montauk Highway in 2019 adjacent to the Sugar Loaf area — properties were purchased under the Community Preservation Fund since the owners were willing sellers.
Donohue said with the issue arising twice in the last 20 years, “there seems to be a large swath of the area being impacted for a few undisturbed properties.”
Sag Harbor resident and realtor Michael Daly said the board can’t base its decision off the number of properties where the town is certain remains have been found.
“There are factual accounts of bags of bones being dropped off at the Shinnecock Nation’s historical museum in the past. Just a bag of bones,” he said. “There are numerous accounts of contractors reporting remains have been found and put in the dumpster. This is something that will pay long overdue respects to members of our community in an appropriate way. I totally support what you’re proposing here, and if this was happening in Sag Harbor, I’d equally support it at this point.”
If remains are found under the proposed legislation, several things could happen. It’s possible a building or project could be moved on a property so remains could stay in place, the remains could be relocated on the property, or even removed to a more fitting burial site. Schneiderman said besides Native American remains, Colonial could be discovered as well.
“It’s important to protect the sanctity of those remains, whether it’s my great grandmother or your great grandmother,” Schneiderman said. “We hope, with these moratoriums, to avoid the disruption of these sites by flagging the remains before they’re disturbed.”
Dan Malone, a North Sea resident, said he’s afraid of the moratorium creeping eastward. Donohue believes amid the novel coronavirus crisis now might not be the time for a moratorium.
“To jump through the hoops of this additional or potentially restrictive process without a plan doesn’t make sense,” Donohue said. “And why create a moratorium in a time where people are struggling to make a living? This is what the town relies on for tax dollars.”