While the topics addressed at an Amagansett “listen in” hosted by Democratic candidates for town supervisor and town board were diverse, the message was unmistakable: Quality of life, for which so many choose to make East Hampton their home, has deteriorated, and something has to be done.
Like the rising seas and the more violent and destructive storms the scientific community says are upon us, residents asserted that problems caused by summer visitors, in their numbers and their behavior, have become extreme and must be mitigated.
Larry Cantwell, the Democrats’ candidate for supervisor, and Job Potter and Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, candidates for the town board, fielded questions from a sizable group of residents on topics including affordable housing, pedestrian safety, climate change and sustainability, air traffic, litter, services for the disabled and mentally ill, alcohol consumption on beaches, deer, taxes, open vistas, and bicycle lanes. It was their third such forum. The others were in Springs and Montauk.
Among the many phenomena that come along with summer visitors, said Dell Cullum, “is the trash buildup at our local beaches. The reason I get so sad about this topic is because I grew up on these beaches. . . . I don’t see anything being done about it; I see it getting worse as the summer progresses. . . . Is there hope, is there something that can be done, not just at beaches but at the Nature Trail?”
“I’m insulted by the litter I see in places, and the condition of our beaches after a Saturday night is deplorable,” Mr. Cantwell said. “There are a lot of elements to it, certainly education and enforcement. But I think the village does a reasonably good job, and a much better job than is being done in the Town of East Hampton in terms of overall appearance. That’s a question of utilizing your resources to meet the problem.”
“I agree with Larry,” said Ms. Burke-Gonzalez, “but it goes beyond beaches. In Springs, people feel if they don’t need a couch or a dresser anymore they’ll just put it in front of their house and wait for someone to take it. When did that become acceptable?” Mr. Potter said that he and his colleagues were committed to reopening the household exchange at the town’s recycling center, a remark that drew applause.
The town’s code enforcement, said Mr. Cantwell, is inadequate, an observation the entire room seemed to agree with. “Everywhere we go, we hear the same thing over and over: ‘You’ve got to do something about overflow parking, noisy nightclubs waking residents at 3 a.m., wild parties on beaches, overcrowding in Springs.’ People have had it up to here on the negative impact on quality of life. We live here for quality of life, and the town has a responsibility to stand up and do something about it.”
Like a school’s budget, said Ms. Burke-Gonzalez, a town’s budget “is a reflection of what the community’s goals are. You’re going to see us allocating things differently to get a fully-staffed code enforcement department. We need a chief building inspector. We need a fully engaged and staffed legal department. We’re sending a lot of legal work to outside firms, and that’s costly.”
Mr. Cantwell was asked if the village allows alcoholic drinks on its beaches, to which he replied that it does not. “Then, based on what’s happening at Indian Wells beach in the last two years, do you expect to extend that ban to the town?” he was asked.
Alcohol consumption, Mr. Cantwell said, “is part of the problem. . . . In terms of the town of East Hampton, it’s something I would certainly consider. . . . There are a lot of ways to do this that are not a complete ban, but we could wrestle with the issue of huge beer parties on public beaches that are not designed and not traditionally used for anything like that.”
Mr. Potter said that he had counted a group of approximately 350 young adults at Indian Wells Beach the previous Saturday afternoon. “There were beer cans everywhere, red cups, rum and vodka bottles. They weren’t actually doing any harm, and controlling traffic has only helped, but it really looked strange and out of place to me. . . . I think we have to deal with this. We have to target that particular area.”
On the same day, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said, she had picked up her daughter at the same beach and found “an accident waiting to happen,” given the crowded parking lot and abundance of young adults who had been drinking.
“If you’re there at 3 or 4 p.m.,” said the questioner, “you’ll find kids urinating on the beach, vomiting on the beach. . . .”
“They’re not bad people, as such,” said Mr. Potter, “but they’re not Amagansett kids. I don’t think Indian Wells needs to be that place.”
Excessive consumption of alcohol is a problem beyond Indian Wells Beach, said Susan Jaxheimer. “I walk my dog in the morning at 7:30,” she said, “and on weekends Amagansett looks like a hamlet with a hangover.” She cited litter including bottles, cans, cups, pizza boxes, and paper plates, as well as merchants’ signs demolished and split-rail fences broken in half.
The candidates were asked to address share houses. “These mammoth houses that are being built,” one person in the audience said, “would make tremendous share houses.”
“It gets back to the code enforcement,” said Mr. Cantwell. “This is a fundamental issue that is pervasive, whether you live in Montauk, Springs, Amagansett, or Northwest, whether it’s an overcrowded house in Springs or someone who’s rented a house on Miankoma Lane to 30 people. It’s a question of the town having the will to enforce the code that is well established and the community supports. Right now, I don’t think the town’s current administration has the will to enforce these laws, and the public is getting fed up with it.” The room erupted in applause.
Discussion also turned to affordable housing, pedestrian safety, and preparedness for natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy.
Responding to a question from Hope Mulholland about climate change, Mr. Cantwell said, “We need to prepare for it. . . . There are a number of things we need to do better,” emergency planning among them. “I’ve talked about the need for a hazard mitigation and recovery plan. . . . We need to examine the coastline with the natural protections we have. Much of our coastline has been preserved, yet we have areas in Napeague that are very vulnerable where we have development.”
Advance planning is critical, he said. “We don’t want to be making it up as we go along. The modeling today to predict storm surge and damage is available. We can put together a plan for exact steps we need to take.”
Mr. Cantwell, who recently retired as the East Hampton Village administrator, listed actions the village government took, such as securing a $400,000 grant to install solar panels on public buildings and the recent transition to natural gas for heating. “Not only are we doing something for the environment, but we’re lowering operating costs,” he said.
Milford Crandall, who has lived in Amagansett since 1957 and who Mr. Cantwell said had been his fifth-grade teacher, recalled a long-ago traffic accident in which a colleague’s grandchild was killed by a drunk driver on Atlantic Avenue. “If you look at the lanes of Amagansett, you will not find one sidewalk that goes from Main Street to Bluff Road. . . . I have not seen any change in safety of our roads in the 56 years I have been here. . . . Something has to change. We’ve got to protect our pedestrians.”
Vehicular and pedestrian traffic have increased tremendously, Mr. Potter said. The sidewalk along Bluff Road improved pedestrian safety there, but he said that to do more, both the town board and the highway superintendent will have to work together.
“The way you begin to address an issue like this is by looking at the most important places you want to move people to and from,” Mr. Cantwell said. “School is an obvious one.”
In Springs, said Ms. Burke-Gonzalez, who serves on that hamlet’s school board, “we got $554,000 for safe routes to school,” referring to a grant from the state. “They actually gave us more money than we requested. We worked closely with the police, the Planning Department, the Highway Department.”
With many senior citizens in attendance at the meeting, which was held in the community room of the St. Michael’s senior citizens affordable apartment complex, much of the discussion addressed the shortage of affordable housing. In his opening remarks, Mr. Potter, a former town board member, said that East Hampton “used to do a lot of affordable housing for seniors and working families. There’s nothing in the pipeline and hasn’t been for several years.” He pledged to work for the creation of more affordable housing if elected.
Indeed, the need is great, said Brian Byrnes, citing a waiting list of more than 200 people for affordable senior citizen housing, not to mention the needs of younger people who grow up here and want to continue living here.
The town “needs to be active in trying to find suitable locations where partnerships can be put together, as was done here,” Mr. Cantwell said, commending the partnership that came together to create the housing complex at St. Michael’s, calling it “a model development for affordable housing in the community” and one that should be used in the future.