Hamlet Studies May Evade Key Questions

With the assistance of hired consultants, East Hampton officials are taking one of their periodic looks at aspects of how the town is regulated and how they might balance growth and residents’ needs in the future. Changes certainly are necessary, but whether the process embodied in the current set of so-called hamlet studies will be adequate remains to be seen. 

In a nutshell, the problem is that though East Hampton Town occupies a narrow, environmentally and infrastructurally challenged isthmus capable of being home to a limited number of people, the actual peak population reaches well beyond the capacity. How land-use regulations are crafted — and in whose interest — has been a largely unsolved riddle since at least the 1960s and the birth of zoning.

Given current trends, there is ample reason for alarm. Summer weekend traffic and crowds are on the edge of unbearable. A lot of residents are beginning to hate the place we have become. Noise, brawls, and public drunkenness disturb once-peaceful Montauk. Town and county officials are planning to spend millions in a last-ditch effort to save the waters. And what do the consultants offer? Platitudes about adding more workforce housing and bike trails. Forgive us for a bad attitude, but we have heard this all before. 

The central flaw in the thinking at Town Hall is the belief that we can manage growth when the region has reached a point at which growth should actually be reversed. According to the consultant’s conservative figure, some 73,000 people pile into East Hampton in the summer. This is well beyond what any rational planner would consider a sustainable level, given all the constraints dictated by the landscape, lack of sewage treatment, and limited roadways and emergency services, to name but a few. At a minimum, town officials need to be talking about how to adopt a zero-growth strategy, how to reduce that peak population and eliminate problematic attractions, such as scarcely contained outdoor entertainment venues. 

This year presents a chance for a debate about what the town will be like in 5 or 10 or 50 years. Voters will choose a new town supervisor and two board members in November. In the lead-up to Election Day, we believe that a conversation about the very nature of East Hampton must take place. Should it be a kind of Disney World by the beach for the affluent and short-term visitors who care little about their effect on the place, or should it be returned to the kind of place its residents really want — one that is beautiful, easy to get around in, and quiet? 

Make no mistake, this is an existential moment for the town, but real and lasting solutions are possible, as long as officials and consultants are asking the right questions, which so far, they are not.