By Gianna Volpe
About 50 residents and community members gathered at a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons on Monday at which representatives of the East Hampton and Southampton Town Trustees discussed their role in modern government.
The Trustees of both towns trace their authority to colonial-era patents and were once the local governing bodies when King James II was on the throne in England. They remain to this day, with a primary focus on protecting the East End’s undeveloped common lands, including beaches and the bottomlands of ponds.
The forum took place at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton.
“The Trustees were the governing board long before there was a town board, long before there was a supervisor, long before there was a United States of America, so our patents are recognized right up ’til now,” explained Southampton Town Trustee Ed Warner Jr. “We had a lot of natural product that was here and was very important to England and that’s why they made sure we had good management practices in the colonies.”
Mr. Warner, a commercial fisherman, said this focus on protecting natural resources has led to his interest in educating the town board and others on the ways of the bays and oceans, particularly in terms of the town’s Local Waterfront Revitalization Program.
“When I first became involved in this program they didn’t even recognize sea level rise,” Mr. Warner said of Southampton’s LWRP. “One of the things that I brought to the Urban Harbor Institute is the understanding that we live on a barrier beach…that protects the mainland, and the town or the village is allowing people to build very big residences right close to the dunes…. Something that should be incorporated into this is a fallback plan. Basically, these houses should be moved back as the dunes and the beaches wash away slowly, which is inevitable.”
He said such plans should focus on things like making sure hard structures like rock abatements and bulkheads are avoided or only temporary solutions, and said care should be given to dredging projects.
“You can only dig so much sand out of the ocean, and you’re losing fish habitat,” he said of the importance of doing environmental impact studies of dredging projects. “I’m a commercial fisherman and my son is a dragger and we work in these areas every year. It’s one of the most productive squid fisheries on the East Coast. It’s a multi-million dollar fishery, and if we take away the habitat for these squid, which is a bait for larger fish like striped bass, we’re going to lose all the bigger fisheries out here.”
East Hampton Town Trustee Diane McNally stressed the importance of establishing such plans when there is not an emergency.
“The LWRP was drafted at a time when everyone was…thinking about the resources on multiple levels as they need to be protected,” she said. “When people see that water coming at them, they panic and that’s when mistakes get made.”
Southampton Town Trustee Scott Horowitz said he is interested in working respectfully alongside the town board when it comes to resolving such issues.
“I think it’s important that there is a mutual understanding and a respect that each board has an authority and a jurisdiction and if there’s a respect for that, I think we can get along and work together just fine,” he said. “The press always likes to paint that there’s a big rift or a problem. Sometimes we do disagree, but there’s a lot of things we do have common ground on, that we do have respect for each other and we work hard on, but people don’t want to write about the train running on time, they write about the train wrecks…I’m very, very happy to work with whatever department it is – federal, state, the town, the county whoever it is…. The only thing I require is a mutual respect back and forth to the fact that we’re trying to solve a problem in the best interest of the people we represent.”
That resonated with Southampton Town Board member Bridget Fleming, who said she came to the meeting because she also believes board and Trustee members should work closely with one another.
“Our coastal resources are our greatest assets, so we have to work closely with the Trustees who have so much experience,” said Ms. Fleming. “They’re out there on the bays every day, so I really admire the effort and the experience. I think it’s always best for the community when two important decision making boards are working…with mutual understanding because we do sometimes have different points of view, different interests and different constituencies protecting different parts of our coastal assets and our resources, but if we have mutual respect we can learn from experience.”