By Tessa Raebeck; Photography by Michael Heller
With the increase of construction, landscaping and visitors brought on by Memorial Day, the unofficial town dumping grounds are overflowing with garbage.
Illegal dumping is an epidemic “as old as the town,” said Southampton Town Highway Superintendent Alex Gregor.
Rather than paying for trash removal, it’s become obvious that some contractors, landscape companies and homeowners choose instead to dump their refuse on roadsides, in beach receptacles, and along wooded trails.
The primary dumping ground locally runs along the power lines and the dirt section of Town Line Road, stretching from Merchant’s Path to the East Hampton Airport. The largely undeveloped woods are strewn with abandoned couches, garbage bags, and even Xboxes.
Some areas have as many as 20 large garbage bags stacked up, others are littered with piles of electronics, shotgun shells and stumps. In addition to the obvious environmental impact, the waste renders the area’s trails useless for bikers, runners and other visitors.
Other problem areas on the South Fork, according to town highway departments, include Red Creek Road, Cobb Road in Water Mill, Stony Hill in Amagansett, and the end of North Sea Road.
Both East Hampton and Southampton town officials and concerned residents continue to look for ways to curb the practice, yet there is a lack of clarity on who is responsible for the mess. Town Line Road, for example, spans Sag Harbor, Sagaponack and Wainscott. The worst stretch of waste is under the jurisdiction of East Hampton Town, Southampton Town, and Suffolk County.
“It isn’t a town maintained section of roadway,” said Gregor who added the highway department is responsible for maintaining clean roadways, but doesn’t have the equipment or the budget to monitor dumping in the woods and dirt roads.
“We only deal with the stuff that’s dumped on the road right-of-ways,” added Stephen Lynch, the highway superintendent for East Hampton Town.
Officials in both Southampton and East Hampton have enacted substantial punishments for littering that can mandate up to $1,000 in fines or 15 days imprisonment, but they are rarely enforced.
“It’s one thing to acknowledge that a problem exists,” said Gregor. “What we really need is some courage to say, ‘Hey, it does happen, what can we do to stop it?’”
Gregor has asked the town to purchase motion-sensitive wildlife cameras to monitor problem areas. The cameras cost “about $500 a camera set-up,” according to Gregor. He would like to purchase half a dozen to spread around town, but has not been granted the funding.
Enforcement is difficult without the cameras, as perpetrators generally go into the remote woods at night and are not easy to pinpoint.
“You have to catch them doing it, and that’s the tough part,” said Lynch.
“Unless we make an example of someone, whether they’re contractors or private individuals, unfortunately it will continue,” Gregor explained.
Those who dispense their litter throughout the woods vary in intention. According to Gregor and Lynch, the vegetative debris generally comes from landscaping companies, contractors dump municipal solid waste and both second homeowners and year round residents drop off decrepit furniture, used electronics and household garbage.
“I think it’s a little bit of everybody,” said Lynch. “Some landscape companies, some homeowners.”
Some of the litterers appear to actually be hired to remove garbage from properties. Despite charging a removal fee to homeowners, workers have been known to then dump the refuse in the woods, rather than paying the fee to use waste management facilities.
The dumping has placed an undue burden on the highway departments, which are not prepared for mass garbage removal.
The funds for highway maintenance “should be used for snowstorms and hurricanes,” said Gregor. Instead, it “is being spent for being garbage men on non-town roads.”
East Hampton Town Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc is actively looking for ways to bring various departments together to combat the problem.
“We have a constant problem of illegal dumping which is not being effectively addressed,” said Van Scoyoc in an email. “I have suggested that town departments: police, land management, parks and recreation, code enforcement and highway meet to identify ways to catch perpetrators and create deterrents.”
In addition to cooperation between the various departments, Van Scoyoc hopes to implement “stepped up enforcement, think special task force.”
“I would also like to see higher penalties including community service time for offenders in the form of cleaning up dump sites,” said Van Scoyoc. “We should have zero tolerance for dumping and littering.”
Without constant enforcement, reporting generally falls to residents who happen to observe others dumping. According to Gregor, people claim to witness illegal dumping, “but no one wants to sign an affidavit for the town to go forward.”
“People all have to take a stake in trying to keep the community clean,” said Gregor. “We’ve got one of the most beautiful areas in the country here and it’s too bad that a few people treat it like a dump.”
To report instances of illegal dumping, call the Southampton Town Highway Department at 728-3600 or the East Hampton Town Highway Department at 324-0925.