With five of the six candidates vying for seats on the East Hampton Town Board on November 8 gathered together for their first televised debate on Monday night at LTV Studios, one may expected a contentious evening. However, while some had differing views on how to tackle issues in East Hampton, the forum remained friendly, candidates taking the time to introduce themselves and their views to the community, rather than take shots at each other.
The biggest debate revolved around the East Hampton Airport and whether or not the town should accept Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funding moving forward.
The Quiet Skies Coalition, a grassroots organization founded this year has vocally opposed the town taking the money, citing noise and environmental pollution caused by the growing airport as a key quality of life issue for town residents and beyond. They contend if the town does not take more funding it can wrest control of the airport back in the town’s hands and place some restrictions on incoming and outgoing flights to protect residents.
Independence Party candidate Marilyn Behan, the wife of veteran politician John Behan and former director of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce, said she supported the town taking FAA funding.
“The safety facilities need to be updated,” said Behan, specifically referring to the installation of a deer fence and repaving of the defunct runway 4-22.
“The facility is an important facility to East Hampton Town,” she said. “It makes a lot of money. We need to be more vigilant in the accessibility of helicopters and the approach they take and I believe the installation of a control tower will do that.”
Democratic Party and Working Families Party candidate Peter Van Scoyoc, a former member of the town’s zoning board of appeals and current planning board member disagreed.
“We don’t believe it is required or necessary to take FAA money to address the short term needs of the airport,” he said, noting the control tower is already budgeted for in the 2012 proposed spending plan.
“Rather than tie ourselves to FAA money, at this point the reasonable approach would be to take an in-depth analysis on what the cost of the airport is moving forward,” he said.
Richard Haeg, a decorated veteran who has served as a Suffolk County Police Department officer and detective, said he did not understand why this was an issue up for debate.
Haeg said he believes the FAA would still have control over the airport regardless of whether the town takes grant money from the FAA. Haeg added the airport is a critical asset, in particular should an emergency arise.
Van Scoyoc countered that come 2015, if the town does not take any more FAA funding, it could place “reasonable restrictions on the airport, including a nighttime curfew.”
“The other part about the airport is we have already restricted or banned ferries,” said Van Scoyoc, noting that was upheld in regards to violating inter-state commerce in a court of law.
“He is absolutely right,” said Haeg. “We can take steps to take back our airport. The control tower, in my mind, is the most important tool we have.”
Suing the FAA for control, he added, doesn’t mean the town will win and could cost millions.
Author Steven Gaines, who is running with the Republican Party, agreed with Haeg, adding he would be “happy” to ban helicopters, but doesn’t think that will be legal.
“The only certainty is the airport noise is intolerable,” said Gaines.
“We should not take any FAA money until we know the tower works,” said Democratic and Working Families parties candidate Sylvia Overby, a former member of the town planning board.
Overby said the airport was an asset and like all candidates agreed a control tower was a step in the right director. However, she said the town also needs to look at “reasonable restrictions” at the airport to protect residents.
When asked about the reduction of employees within the Town of East Hampton, which was accomplished through voluntary early retirement agreements last year, Van Scoyoc called the situation “difficult.”
“You have the issue of wanting to keep jobs here in the town and year round jobs are very important in a seasonal economy,” he said.
He said he would like to see promotion of local farming and fishing, as well as other industries that do not impact the town in a negative way.
“I don’t think there was a lot of choice in what we had to do,” responded Haeg of cutting the positions, adding Southampton Town is a larger municipality with a smaller workforce.
“I fully believe at this point in time we need to partner with private businesses to create jobs,” he said, adding affordable housing is meaningless without the jobs to keep people here year round.
“Bill Wilkinson was handed a terrible mess,” said Gaines, referring to the almost $30 million deficit the town faced from the prior administration. Since Wilkinson was elected in 2009, he cut spending, and jobs through voluntary retirement.
“We do not need jobs in the government sector, but we have to create jobs in the private sector,” said Gaines.
“The 51 jobs that were laid off or through voluntary separation, those are my neighbors and friends, parents and coaches and there were a two additional layoffs that occurred recently,” said Overby. “It is harmful to the economy.”
She suggested the town could open itself up to the ability to hire people on a part time basis, which reduces the burden on the taxpayer.
“I do believe that cutting jobs is a very diff thing and I believe the present admin might have gone about it a little heartlessly,” said Behan, although she added she would like to research alternatives before announcing a solid plan.
Preservation of land has long been at the core of protecting quality of life on the East End, and the candidates were questioned on how the town can also preserve human resources through affordable housing.
I am in favor of continuing those programs which includes the government subsidizing housing in some way so it becomes affordable,” said Van Scoyoc. However, he added, dense communities like Springs should be protected from more housing.
Haeg said affordable housing was not the issue as much as job creation.
“We haven’t solved affordable housing because we still need the jobs so people can earn the money to keep the homes,” he said, calling for a two-fold job creation plan coupled with affordable housing.
Gaines blamed zoning from keeping a middle class in East Hampton.
“We have no middle class,” he said. “When kids graduate from school they have to leave.”
Like Haeg, Gaines said the key was job creation through low-density businesses like software companies.
“Ten percent of people living in East Hampton are living in poverty,” he said. “They are prisoners of a 16-week economy.”
Overby and Behan both noted the town has had affordable housing opportunities for decades.
“We need it,” said Behan. “I am in favor of it, but more importantly, we need to offer these children jobs.”
Independence Party candidate Bill Mott was the only contender absent from Monday’s debate, having a scheduling conflict that was planned even before he screened before the Independence, Democratic and Republican parties last spring. In his stead, a statement was read by the League of Women Voters, which sponsored Monday evening’s debate.
Mott, a veteran who was born and raised in East Hampton and has served for six terms on the East Hampton Town Trustees, said he is an independent thinker who believes in open communication between the town board and its residents and has vowed to protect the town’s waterfront.
In his statement Mott said his main focus, if elected to the town board, said Mott was ensuring all bays and waterways are kept open to residents and that shell fishing and commercial fishing industries are supported by the town board.
One of the main initiatives Mott said he would like the town to undertake in the next year in regards to the waterfront is purchasing its own dredge in an effort to preserve water quality and ensure safe navigation in and out of the town’s harbors.
Mott cautioned that the lawsuit filed by a group of Napeague property owners seeking to prohibit access to the beach in front of their homes via vehicles – the only viable way to access the beach – is “the latest attack on our traditions” and could open the door to other lawsuits if successful.
“We have many residents with deep pockets residing in our town who also live on water and may decide they want to have their own beach,” said Mott.