Coalition Forms For Greater Voice On the South Fork

Posted on 09 October 2008

During the past year, citizen advisory committees and civic organizations across the South Fork united, sharing a common goal in urging the Town of Southampton to work — and if necessary — force the Long Island Power Authority to bury power lines they said were necessary to supply the region with adequate energy.

The success of the public’s campaign to “bury the lines,” despite initial opposition to the concept, was an inspiring and eye opening moment for a number of community activists, including Sag Harbor Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) Chairman John Linder, who witnessed the power coalition building can have towards common, regional goals.

Linder also saw a potential for a greater voice for all communities within the town, whether attempting to tackle local issues or those that affect everyone east and west of the Shinnecock Canal, when organizations unite under one banner.

During a Sag Harbor CAC meeting on Friday, October 3, Linder shared with the rest of the committee that the South Fork Civic Coalition, currently made up of the Southampton CAC, the Sag Harbor CAC, and the Water Mill CAC, convened its first meeting on Monday, September 29. The organization, inspired by a similar, and successful Southampton Town Civic Coalition – a group that formed to ensure a greater voice for residents in western Southampton Town – is also expected to include the Noyac CAC, and other civic organizations, said Linder on Tuesday, and is already in the process of hammering out a mission statement to boot.

Frank Zappone, a member of the town’s transportation committee and of the Southampton CAC is slated to coordinate the organization with Southampton Town Civic Coalition President Andrea Spilka serving as a consultant as the group takes its first steps.

According to Linder, it was actually a meeting on community participation, which he attended with Zappone and Spilka, that first planted the seed in his mind about the expanded roles a CAC can play when organized with other groups. The LIPA debate, and its outcome confirmed for Linder the success coalition building can bring to a cause.

“It was a natural coalition event,” remembered Linder on Tuesday. “It just reminded us of what is possible.”

Now, as the town considers proposed zoning changes for the gateway to the village on the Sag Harbor Turnpike — legislation that involves issues communities across the East End are contending with including traffic, the environment, concerns of over-development — Linder sees this as the perfect opportunity for a coalition representing interests east of the canal in Southampton to step up to the plate.

As the coalition begins to find its initial footing, Spilka was invited to the CAC’s meeting last Friday to share her experiences and offer advice.

“The idea of coalition building is to help tackle some of these problems in our town and actually support some of the town board members on their agendas,” explained Linder on Friday. Linder said the idea is to pool the efforts of many groups together, noting it can serve as a way to increase public participation on key issues at town board meetings.

Spilka’s coalition, which will be the model for the South Fork Civic Coalition, is made up of a number of communities west of the Shinnecock Canal, including Hampton Bays, Eastport, Flanders and Riverside and includes CACs as well as civic associations in its membership, although some groups come and go, she noted. Spilka said the organization has had a voice on a number of issues throughout the town, including the Hampton Bays moratorium and the Woodfield Gables subdivision in Speonk, finding successes and defeats, but more importantly has also lobbied on regional issues in an effort to ensure the town is handling applications or legislation in the appropriate manner.

 “We are all faced with similar kinds of situations where we feel the town could be doing better and we have worked very hard with my coalition to partner with the town, not to treat them in some adversarial way,” said Spilka. “What we have tried to do is give them our best advice.”

One issue the Southampton Town Civic Coalition has been working on is the town’s planning department and that board’s giving of negative declarations, meaning a project is not subject to extensive environmental review, to projects the coalition feels have the potential to significantly impact the community in an adverse way.

“We have met three times now with [town supervisor] Linda Kabot to come up with ways to ensure the planning board is more mindful,” she said.

One example is the Woodfield Gables application in Speonk, a 57-lot subdivision above a plume of contaminated groundwater, for which the coalition along with the Group for the East End demanded the planning board require extensive environmental review. Unfortunately, said Spilka, “the damage had pretty much been done before we were able to get on board,” as the planning board had already ruled in 2006 the review was unnecessary and upheld that decision in early September.

“To me this was a definite disappointment,” said Spilka. “However, my goal is for the town and the community to use this as a way to say, this will never happen again.”

Members of the CAC likened the decision to the approved project at the former Bulova Watchcase Factory in Sag Harbor. The village planning board found there would be no significant adverse environmental impact, although the Group for the East End and a handful of residents charged the board was delinquent in not requiring an extensive environmental review. The decision has been contested by the Group and remains in litigation.

“There has to be more real oversight by the town,” said Spilka. “It is not enough for the developer to say there is no impact. Someone needs to go out there and look at it objectively … what [the coalition] is trying to create is a better environmental review process.”

And ultimately, added Spilka, “The truth is, my coalition can fill up a room.”

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