Inappropriate Use of Preservation Fund

A movie theater question of another sort has been in the news lately. After the Sag Harbor Cinema was destroyed in a fire almost two years ago, there were doubts that films would ever be shown there again. However, a group of citizens rallied and raised millions to purchase the Main Street site and begin reconstruction. The problem is that the money donated for the new Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center is not enough. Now, the group overseeing the restoration has asked the Town of Southampton for money from the community preservation fund. 

Much as we love the idea of a revitalized art house theater in Sag Harbor, we cannot support the proposed town grant.

When the preservation fund was approved in the East End towns 20 years ago, it was clear that the voters believed the use of the fund would be strictly limited. It was for buying environmentally significant land, recreational sites, farmland, and for historic preservation. Tapping Southampton’s fund because the Sag Harbor Cinema group is having a hard time coming up with sufficient money to meet its goals would not be appropriate.

Early on, politicians tried to push the envelope for money from the community preservation fund. In Southampton, a supervisor seeking re-election made an indirect cash handout to some likely voters, going so far as to pose for photographs holding an oversize mock check made out to the Hampton Bays School District for $1.5 million. East Hampton Supervisor Bill McGintee resigned and his budget manager was arrested over their misdirection of preservation fund money to pay for routine town expenses.

More recently, voters approved an amendment that would allow up to 20 percent of the income in a calendar year to be used for water quality. How this will play out is not yet clear, but there already are troubling signs. For example, the fund may be used for a sewage treatment plant in the commercial downtown of Montauk — an area of negligible environmental value and one that has been targeted for the managed retreat of buildings in the face of continual erosion.

As worthy as the Sag Harbor Cinema restoration is, for preservation fund money to be used to speed the work along would be both improper and a very bad precedent, tempting other groups to come begging when in financial need. Southampton Town might well want to support the old theater’s rebirth and should be encouraged to do so, but this money is the wrong way to go about it.