By Emily J. Weitz
Last Thursday evening, candidates for East Hampton Town Board and members of the public gathered at LTV Studios in Wainscott to address the question of preservation, and whether we have gone too far. The discussion was preceded by a screening of a film that showed footage of East Hampton in the 1920s and 1930s, which allowed the audience to see what has been lost and what’s been preserved. When candidates running for office this November in East Hampton Town took the stage afterwards, the unanimous sentiment was that the town has not gone too far, and some argued that it has not gone far enough.
Bob Schaeffer came to the podium first, to speak for town council candidate Fred Overton, who was not able to attend the conversation. Schaeffer presented a new map that showed all protected land in East Hampton, including purchases made by the Community Preservation Fund (CPF) and purchases made with the help of The Nature Conservancy and other organizations like the Peconic Land Trust. Schaeffer pointed out that 1,820 acres had been preserved through CPF, and 4,700 acres had been preserved altogether. Over $800 million has been generated by the CPF throughout the five East End towns since its inception, and in East Hampton $42 million is currently available to purchase lands designated for open space, farmland preservation, historic preservation or for recreational purposes.
Schaeffer reported that Overton believes, “We have not gone quite far enough. More can be done and it must be done with prudent planning and respect to environmental and groundwater protection, and with very focused eyes on the future of East Hampton.”
President of the LTV board Robert Strada moderated the discussion as the other four candidates fielded questions from the community. In response to the first question, the title of the conversation, there was little debate. All four candidates praised the work done by their predecessors in preserving much of the identity of East Hampton.
“I grew up in Valley Stream,” said town council candidate Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, “which was founded in 1640. When I go back, there’s no historic district. It’s strip malls, car dealerships, and gas stations. I say kudos to East Hampton. When you return to this town, and arrive at the ‘white house’ and Town Pond, your shoulders relax. It’s such a nice place to come home to.”
Burke-Gonzalez is running on the Democratic and Working Families lines for East Hampton Town Board.
Democratic supervisor candidate Larry Cantwell, who is running unopposed, echoed the sentiment, and added, “We have a moral obligation to do a lot more.”
Dominick Stanzione, a Republican incumbent town board member, recalled a time when community preservation funds were not available to keep up the task of preserving open spaces and protecting historic landmarks, but acknowledged the fund is once again in healthy shape.
“We stand behind a rich legacy,” says Stanzione, “and one that is difficult to repeat… The challenge before us is making sure we keep apace; making sure community preservation funds are available… We have to recognize that we are standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Town council candidate Job Potter, who grew up in Amagansett, agreed that much has been done and still more remains. He emphasized the importance of the homeowners in the preservation process.
This raised a question about how the town can work with homeowners to help them preserve their historic properties, particularly if they lie outside the bounds of a regulated historic district, but are in a neighborhood that should be considered for that kind of designation.
“When the village focused its attention on creating a historic district,” replied Cantwell, “it was successful because it started by meeting with the people who lived there.”
Together they figured out what the incentives might be to maintaining the architectural and historic integrity of the property.
“In a district,” Cantwell said, “everyone accepts some limitations like architectural review. Everyone is in it together, and you reap the benefits of that. The difference with the landmarks is when you have isolated properties they’re accepting a review process with no incentive. So the village created an incentive. If you accept the terms of being designated, you’ll be able to use part of your area to build a second residence. This is an amenity that no other property has. The property owners were interested in doing it.”
Potter thought that, for some properties, this incentive would not really be helpful. He suggested using CPF money to buy an easement, which would give the homeowner a payment for the restrictions.
“The town doesn’t own the house or have to pay for it,” said Potter, “but the homeowner receives an easement.”
Burke-Gonzalez seemed to agree that this would be beneficial to both the town and the homeowner.
The conversation then turned to larger national landmarks, like the Montauk Lighthouse and the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center. These are currently the only two designated national landmarks in East Hampton, but candidates discussed the possibility of pursuing others.
“The Amagansett Lifesaving Station is the kind of structure that deserves national landmark status,” said Stanzione, who has worked on its preservation for years. “We’ve been able to raise the $40 million for the restoration, and it’s a remarkable site that I’m proud to have worked on.”
Cantwell threw out the idea of the Thomas Moran House in East Hampton Village as a potential site for national landmark status.
Potter mentioned the importance of the older buildings on Gardiner’s Island and Miss Amelia’s Cottage in Amagansett, but he wasn’t sure the national designation would give them the kind of protection they really need.
“The best protection,” he said, “is your local laws. You can get federal designation, and they recognize but they don’t protect. It’s the local laws that really protect.”
A question that received applause from the audience related to the size and mass of houses in relation to existing neighborhoods, and whether there should be protection for the character of neighborhoods regardless of historic status.
“I think there is more work to be done,” said Potter. “If you have 2,000 square foot houses and you place a 6,000 square foot house in between you’re destroying the character. It’s all a matter of scale and we have more work to do.”
Stanzione pointed out the work already done to this end.
“During the [Bill] McGintee administration,” he said, “they passed a law where the building area was reduced from 8,000 square feet to 4,000 square feet on a half acre, which was a significant advancement. There has been work done, and it was good work.”
Looking towards the future, one question asked was what might happen when the two percent transfer tax, which supports the CPF in the five East End towns, expires in about 2030. Stanzione thought that by then, there would be little left to purchase.
“We will have a couple million unspent dollars for maintenance,” he said. “But we might not have any more land to purchase by then. We have spent nearly a quarter of a billion dollars taking land off the market. We have the Girls Scout camp [in Springs] that could be sold privately, and we have been working with them to see if we could purchase that, but they have not seen fit to offer it up yet. And then the sand pits in Springs and Wainscott. That’s about 200 acres that the CPF needs to keep an eye on.”
Cantwell emphasized that funds should also be used for groundwater protection, wetland protection, coastland protection and farmland preservation.
“We are not done there,” he said. “We also need to refocus attention on smaller parcels. The village over time purchased little green spaces, like triangles and village greens. The town could do the same kind of thing and improve the aesthetic quality of neighborhoods. I think the CPF should shift its focus onto improving the character of neighborhoods and the quality of life and aesthetic value where people live.”
Potter also pointed out that, when the two percent transfer tax expires, there may be other needs in the community.
“It may be that there are other needs that the town has at that time,” said Potter. “I’m thinking of affordable housing in particular. I’m not sure that all of the two percent [transfer tax] funds should go to open space 15 years down the road.”