Differing Visions For Town’s Future

Face-off at League of Women Voters debate
A large crowd turned out for a League of Women Voters candidates' debate on Monday night. Joanne Pilgrim

A League of Women Voters candidates’ debate in East Hampton on Monday night touched on a host of issues about the town’s most pressing needs and underscored the differences between Democratic and Republican candidates for town supervisor and for two seats on the town board.

The debate, moderated by Judy Samuelson of the League of Women Voters and David E. Rattray, the editor of The Star, gave candidates a chance to answer questions submitted by audience members. Supervisor candidates had the floor first, followed by town board candidates.

In his opening and closing remarks, Peter Van Scoyoc, a Democrat serving his second term on the town board, pointed to his record, and that of the sitting board, on open space preservation, water quality protection efforts, energy efficiency, social services, obtaining grants, and planning for the future through ongoing hamlet studies and creation of a plan that accounts for rising sea level and shoreline erosion. “I have 17 years of relevant experience in local town government. I’ve spent literally thousands of hours listening,” he said. “Preserving our economy relies on preserving our environment. I think that requires vigilance.” 

Manny Vilar, his Republican opponent, a senior sergeant with the State Parks Police, reviewed his credentials as a 33-year law enforcement professional and the president of the New York State Police Benevolent Association. He is a “recognized expert,” he said, in labor relations. That will serve him in fulfilling what he said he sees as a key role of the town supervisor.

“I’m a union guy; I’m a labor leader,” said Mr. Vilar. Expenses for salaries and benefits of town employees are a big part of the town budget, he said, making his skills essential. “There’s a constant recruitment and retention problem at Town Hall.” 

The supervisor “is the face of the town” in interactions with other municipal agencies, said Mr. Vilar. “It’s understanding the way those state agencies work. It’s all about doing right for the people you’re representing. . . .” 

“It’s really about leadership and the development of town policy . . . gaining consensus . . . listening to the community,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said in describing the role of town supervisor, who is also the “C.E.O. of the town.” It is “important to lead,” he said, in a town that “preserves its environment, is concerned about water, preserves its traditions, and is cognizant of its diversity.” 

The ability to start a business is “crucial to being able to continue to live here,” for some residents, Mr. Van Scoyoc said. The town has a business advisory committee, and the board has recently offered leases of town-owned industrial space surrounding the East Hampton Airport to local businesses, he said. 

“There needs to be a comprehensive business plan,” Mr. Vilar said, which also addresses affordable housing and affordable workplaces. 

Issues posed by the nature of East Hampton as a resort community brought Mr. Vilar to the problem of affordable housing, as well as transportation and affordable workspaces. “It all interconnects,” he said. “Positive, proactive enforcement” is needed to address violations of town code and unruly visitors. “There’s a way to handle a crowd.” As a parks policeman, he said, “I can do it.” 

“The question is, how can we improve our experience here, especially in the summertime?” asked Mr. Van Scoyoc. He pointed to the free bus shuttle instituted last summer in Montauk and the establishment of the town rental registry as contributors to “having a calmer, saner summer,” and mentioned the successful bid to the Long Island Rail Road to run shuttle trains on the East End, due in 2018. 

On the problem of airport noise, said Mr. Vilar, after a judge threw out curfew restrictions enacted by the town board in 2015, “we’re no further ahead than we were 5 years ago, 10 years ago, 15 years ago.” He said it is a matter of “negotiating in good faith” with the Federal Aviation Administration on proposing acceptable restrictions. 

Mr. Van Scoyoc said that much has been done to pin down the issues and facts surrounding local control of the airport and that after “exhausting all of our judicial options” the board is proceeding with the F.A.A.’s Part 161 process to gain approval of airport use restrictions.

As long as the airport is self-sustaining, Mr. Vilar said, “I don’t see why we would” take money from the F.A.A., which gives them authority over how the airport is run.

The supervisor and town board candidates were all asked what they might do to reach out to members of the Latino community. Members of a Latino advisory board became uncomfortable going to Town Hall for meetings after President Trump was elected, Mr. Van Scoyoc and Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, an incumbent Democratic candidate for town board, said. 

“What’s going on at the Washington level is unfortunate, because it serves to alienate a portion of our community,” said Mr. Vilar. But, he said, “economic development and affordable housing helps all.” He suggested creating an office at Town Hall focused on “all immigrants.”


Town Board Candidates

If people are not comfortable going to Town Hall, “then we should go to them,” said Jerry Larsen, a Republican town board candidate and former East Hampton Village police chief. The Republicans have been reaching out to the Latino community, said Paul Giardina, who is seeking a town board seat on that ticket. 

Mr. Giardina charged that “the current town board has let us down.” A former staffer at the Environmental Protection Agency, “I have 40 years of experience as an environmental lead­er,” he said. 

“I’m proud of all that we’ve accomplished,” said Ms. Burke-Gonzalez, ticking off initiatives in social services, housing, and environmental protection.

With “management and leadership experience,” said Mr. Larsen, “I can make a positive difference.”

“We’re facing big issues for a small town,” said Jeffrey Bragman, a Demo­crat running for town board. He said he has “learned to listen to people,” and, in his career as a lawyer, has fought to stop “inappropriate development” and to “preserve the resources we need for the next generation.” 

The need for affordable housing was addressed in both segments of the debate, with Republicans charging that the incumbents and their board had done little, and the Democrats refuting that and saying that, historically, it has been solely Democratic boards that have created affordable housing. 

The town board has been working with business and housing advisory committees, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said, on possible code changes that would clear the way for work-force and seasonal housing in downtown or resort areas, and is seeking proposals from builders for temporary seasonal housing units in the Montauk dock area. In addition there are about 60 other new housing units in the planning stages, she said. But “unfortunately the time frame is frustratingly long” for the approval and construction process. 

A minimum of 1,000 new housing units is needed, said Mr. Giardina. He said he would look for public-private partnership opportunities to allow real estate workers and contractors to “make a buck” while promoting affordable housing. 

Mr. Larsen said the community preservation fund would be “a great way to get money for affordable housing.” The fund was initially reserved solely for open space land buys, but as of a vote last year, 20 percent of it can now be used for water quality projects. 

Mr. Bragman said he would revisit the idea of using a town-owned site in the Wainscott School District for affordable housing, though the proposal, which drew fire from the Wainscott School Board, “may have to be scaled down.” 

Both Mr. Bragman and Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said that the town’s rental registry, established by the current town board, is helping enforcement efforts against housing violations and helping to keep short-term rental services like Airbnb from having a negative effect here.

Mr. Giardina suggested a closer look and possible changes. “We need to understand what we’re really trying to accomplish,” he said. The rental “paradigm has changed,” with vacationers no longer interested in staying for the full summer season. “How do we protect our community and still encourage renters to come here, whether short or long term?” he asked.

“I’ve talked to code enforcement,” said Mr. Larsen. “This tool is not working.” He said he supports the idea of a registry of tenants so that the municipality could assist landlords if tenants misuse their rentals. 

Opportunities for local businesses, said Mr. Giardina, are key to making the town’s economy work. Asking two local business owners in the audience to stand up, Mr. Larsen criticized the elected town board for their dealings with them in negotiations over land leases. 

“When money becomes the driving force . . . it drives out people of modest means,” Mr. Bragman said. “We need the kids, we need the people of modest means to stay here.” 

On deer management, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said that she had supported expanded hunting because of concern over the “epidemic we have now for tick-borne diseases” and because “there are no natural predators for the deer.” Mr. Bragman said he would not vote for expanding hunting but would not seek to eliminate it. “I think we have to be science-based,” he said. “Do we really have a deer problem; are we overpopulated? I don’t think we have the answer yet.” 

Mr. Larsen agreed that a count of deer is needed and said, as the first item in a deer management plan adopted by the town, it should already have been done. “I’m totally opposed to just doing things blind and sitting on plans,” he said. “They have plans, they have visions, but they never do anything.” 

“Nothing really has been done with that in four years,” Mr. Giardina said. All of the deer management options in the plan should be evaluated “to make it work in a comprehensive fashion,” he said.

The Deepwater Wind offshore wind turbine project and water quality protection — in particular, the candidates’ differing positions in regard to programs that will result in the phase-out of nonfunctioning septic systems — were also among the topics at the debate. The candidates’ positions on these are covered in detail in a separate story in today’s Star. 

Mr. Giardina supports seeking a state and federal loan to obtain money to replace failing septics versus a current incentive program through which property owners who update their septics are provided with rebates paid for from the town’s preservation fund. 

The large-scale borrowing and investment could have a “dramatic impact,” said Mr. Larsen, versus the one-by-one replacements. “If we follow your course of action, maybe my grandkids will see it clean,” he said to the Democrats of water polluted by septic waste.

But Mr. Bragman criticized Mr. Giardina’s plan. It would be ill advised to borrow the large sum of money needed, he said, and unrealistic to assume that the town would be able to obtain a piece of the funding. The septic replacement program is just one of the “multi-pronged” efforts being undertaken to protect and restore water quality, he and Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said.