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Town Seeks Direction to Protect Waterways

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By Claire Walla

The town of Southampton has just embarked on a two-year process that will culminate in a comprehensive plan to protect all town-owned waterways heading into the future. And at this stage in the game, it wants to hear from you, the residents of Southampton Town.

Members of the advisory committee for the town’s Waterfront Protection Program (WPP) gathered at the community center in Bridgehampton last Thursday, October 27 to give the initial presentation on what the plan is expected to entail. (The same meeting was held the previous night in Hampton Bays for town residents west of the canal.) But, as committee member and Southampton Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming told the roughly 50-person crowd, “right now we’re in the inventory and analysis phase.”

The WPP is similar in theory to a Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan (LWRP), which earns seaside and oceanfront towns and villages in New York financial assistance for certain funding programs. Southampton Town is, in fact, preparing its WPP in accordance with the New York Department of State so that it meets all the requirements of an LWRP. The only reason the town has chosen a new acronym, according to Assistant Town Planning and Development Administrator Freda Eisenberg, is because LWRP traditionally refers to waterfront in industrialized urban areas. Southampton Town, she said, doesn’t quite fit that bill.

In addition to members of the 14-person advisory committee, last Thursday’s meeting was also attended by faculty members of the Urban Harbors Institute (UHI) at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. UHI will work in concert with the Pace University Land Use Law Center to complete the first draft of the proposal for the town.

“Our expertise really lies in supplying scientific information,” said UHI member Jack Wiggin.

In general, the WPP will be designed to address several key issues that affect the waters of Southampton Town: flooding, erosion and sea level rise; public access; water-dependent uses and harbor management; water quality; fish, shellfish and wildlife habitats; land use ranging from housing to agriculture to open space; scenic, historic and cultural resources. But Wiggin added that before the UHI team can address such categories, it has to know what the pertinent issues might be. And for that, it needs public input.

All attendees of last week’s meeting — including Citizens Advisory Committee Chairs Fred Cammann and John Linder, as well as the Town Trustees and elected officials — split into four main groups, each facilitated by a member of UHI. They proceeded to discuss any personal or regional issues residents may have had. Issues ranged from chemical runoff and global warming to waterfront access.

“What’s happening here is that property owners adjacent to the ocean are trying to restrict access to those roads [that end at the water],” said Bridgehampton resident Jeffrey Vogel.

“The towns are hard-pressed to fight these things,” he added. “It’s a continuing problem and it’s happening all throughout the East End. Public access is being taken over by property owners through lawsuits.”

Vogel’s fellow Bridgehampton resident Jeff Mansfield, head of the Mecox Sailing Association, which has entered into a license agreement with the town to create a sailing school where the now-defunct Mecox Yacht Club was once housed, echoed these sentiments.

“We’re currently being sued by the homeowners [on Bay Lane in Water Mill],” he stated.

UHI member Steve Bliven, who facilitated this discussion, said, “that’s just the kind of neighborhood versus facility-access I’m talking about. That’s the kind of issue that the plan is trying to address.”

With a WPP in place, he added, the town will be able to confirm its stance on waterfront access issues, allowing officials to refer to written documentation for each case in which waterfront access is threatened.

“That way the town doesn’t have to address these things on an ad-hoc basis,” Bliven continued. “The best way to fight that is to have a clear set of laws and policies.”

Another topic residents raised was the inordinate amount of parking tickets issued throughout the town in the summer months.

“They give tickets all over the place,” Vogel explained. “Including in my driveway!”

Bliven said the same issue had been addressed the previous night with residents in Hampton Bays. He suggested that perhaps “increased signage” would reduce the influx of falsely issued parking tickets.

Across the room, a group of residents discussed water quality with Wiggins and his UHI associate Kristin Uiterwyk. Northampton resident Brad Bender (who is also running for Southampton Town Council) expressed concern with soil runoff from farmlands. And several other residents were worried by the presence of nitrogen in groundwater often caused by septic systems.

While Wiggin said he was happy to hear about these issues from the residents’ perspectives, he added that “I don’t think this plan would necessarily be the primary way you would go about addressing the septic problem. What’s happening with the septic system is causing concern for us, but this plan won’t provide the solution.”

Similarly, just as toxic runoff has an affect on town waterways, so do waters from neighboring towns, an issue some residents thought to address. Wiggin said the WPP would only govern areas within Southampton Town, even though town waters are integrally connected to neighboring towns.

“That was one of our frustrations,” explained Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst.

But she said she and her administration will continue to try to work with neighboring districts so that the affects of the WPP will have more far-reaching impacts.

“That is a big part of this plan,” she added. “We want to do it on a broader level.”