12/01/10 7:51pm

The battle involved Southold Town but it could have been any Suffolk town. On one side was the Suffolk County Water Authority (SCWA), insistent on extending water mains from East Marion to the Browns Hills community in Orient. It maintained that as a state-created authority, it had the power to do that despite local opposition.

On the other side were Orient residents against the extension, concerned that the availability of piped-in water would encourage development along the largely rural three-mile route of the proposed mains. They held that the limited supply of water from private wells served to constrain growth. This is not a new conflict involving SCWA expansion plans. In this fight, the residents were backed by their elected town officials.

In the end, the SCWA backed down — in a narrow decision.

Former Suffolk County Executive Patrick Halpin, a member of the SCWA Board, demanded the authority not accede to the local resistance. Indeed, he argued at length before the five-member SCWA Board that the SCWA should sue the Southold Town Trustees over its refusal to grant a permit to place the pipelines through wetlands. With a mission of distributing potable “public” water in Suffolk and the clout of a state-sanctioned authority, the SCWA has the rationale and power, held Mr. Halpin, to extend the mains and override local government.

Mr. Halpin had one other board member on his side. But a majority of three members — led by the new SCWA chairman, James Gaughran, displaying the sensitivity he showed when he was a member of the Suffolk Legislature — took the responsive course of dropping the project.

The situation could change. SCWA board members are appointed every five years by the Suffolk Legislature. If the legislative majority changes,  the SCWA’s concession  to the Town of Southold may not be etched in stone.

There are state and county issues involved. The state issue is that public authorities have considerable power in New York. A leading critic of this power is Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. “Public authorities remain a massive and largely unrecognized influence on public policy and the use of public resources,” declared Mr. DiNapoli earlier this year as he pressed for more oversight and transparency involving the state’s now 1,102 authorities.

“As public authorities have grown in number and scope, they increasingly operate outside of their original purposes, functioning as a virtually independent arm of government.” Incoming Governor Andrew Cuomo has pledged to reduce the number of authorities. Let’s see if he can overcome their influence and do that.

The proliferation of authorities in New York and the functioning of some in literally authoritarian ways are in large part the legacy of Robert Moses who, overwhelmingly defeated when he ran for governor, exercised power through authorities and commissions.

The county issue is the SCWA itself. It has a checkered past. I covered the 1969 trial of Richard Zeidler before the Suffolk County Board of Supervisors, on charges he profited from his chairmanship of the SCWA by buying property near a SCWA test well. Mr. Zeidler, also Brookhaven Town GOP chairman, was removed by the board as SCWA chairman. Historically, patronage flowed at SCWA like water.

There have been initiatives to de-politicize and professionalize the SCWA, notably during the era of reform-minded Gregory Blass as presiding officer of the Suffolk Legislature, and during the tenure of former County Executive Michael LoGrande as SCWA chairman. The recent appointments of Mr. Gaughran as chairman and Jeff Szabo as chief executive officer of the SCWA are hopeful signs.

Still, with its board membership dependent on the political winds blowing at the Suffolk Legislature and with the license given to all state-created authorities to function if they want in undemocratic ways, what does the future hold?

The SCWA claims that towns control growth through zoning and it’s not a function of water distribution. Orient resident Freddie Wachsberger testified at a July hearing on the project before the SCWA gave up its year-long fight, “Public water doesn’t cause development, but it facilitates it.”

The SCWA now provides water to 1.2 million residents in 85 percent of Suffolk. One of the sizeable areas of the county not covered by the SCWA is Shelter Island.