Keep the Public In Preserved Lands

“The rural ambience of the town . . . an essential part of the unique character which makes East Hampton aesthetically attractive.”

   A partially built barn on protected Wainscott farmland is at the center of a legal squabble involving neighbors who say the structure diminshes the attractive view from their house. They have our sympathy, but the question of how such land is managed has greater implications.
    Some years ago, the Town of East Hampton and Peconic Land Trust bought the development rights to a portion of the Babinski family farm for a total of $7 million. This was in keeping with a section of the town code that authorizes such purchases with the intention of keeping commercial agriculture viable, and saving the “rural ambience of the town . . . an essential part of the unique character which makes East Hampton aesthetically attractive.” In the case of the Babinski land, the neighbors suing to have the barn moved elsewhere on the property contributed $20,000 to the cause.
    Earlier, the Town Building Department did not remember what was in the relevant section of the town code or bother to look it up before issuing the construction permit. Had it done so, it would have realized that the work should not proceed without the town board’s okay following a public hearing. It took an attorney for the neighbors to point this out, but by the time the board took up the matter, construction of the barn was almost finished.
    The farmers have said the site is the best location for the barn, and there appears to be reason to take them at their word. A decision is expected shortly, and it will probably go in the Babinskis’ favor. We have no objection to that. However, while they were considering the barn, several members of the town board expressed their opinion that the requirement for town board approval be dropped from the code. We disagree. When taxpayer money is involved in land preservation — as it is when development rights are purchased on agricultural acreage — what happens on such properties is of public interest. Maintaining the requirement for town board approval of new-construction permits is one way to assure the public is protected. As elected representatives, rather than as political appointees on the planning board, for example, town board members are the proper officials for the task. Moreover, the visibility of a full Town Hall hearing is warranted.