“The overall state of the town is good, with positive progress on many fronts, and much more work to be done,” Supervisor Larry Cantwell said Tuesday at the East Hampton Town Board’s first meeting of the new year.
In his annual State of the Town address, Mr. Cantwell outlined areas of progress and future efforts. After years in which officials had worked to overcome a multimillion-dollar deficit resulting from financial mismanagement, he declared this week that “the financial footings of the town are strong.”
A recent Moody’s credit rating upgrade, to the Aa1 category, restores East Hampton to its highest credit rating ever. The favorable rating, which allows the town to take advantage of good interest rates, is a result, the supervisor said, of a “disciplined approach to managing town finances and budgeting,” notably the reduction of indebtedness, balanced budgets, growing surpluses, and annual tax increases that stayed within the boundaries of the state-imposed tax cap, thus earning taxpayers state property tax rebates.
“The town will see major reductions in annual debt service payments in 2019 to 2021 if we continue on this course,” Mr. Cantwell said.
Over the last three years, using the community preservation fund, which receives the proceeds of a 2-percent real estate transfer tax, the town has preserved more than 322 acres of land through 161 purchases, he said in his address. “Preservation is the better alternative to legacy and future development in the most environmentally fragile areas of our town. Preserving open space reduces future development density, protects the environment, and continues to be one of the most important priorities of our residents,” he stated.
A recent vote to use 20 percent of the C.P.F. for water quality programs, and to extend the program through 2050, will provide an expected $170 million for water initiatives and $680 million for more land protection, which “must continue to be one of our highest priorities,” Mr. Cantwell said. He noted that a law authorizing the use of preservation funds to encourage homeowners in environmentally sensitive areas to replace their cesspools and septic systems with new systems that remove nitrogen is forthcoming. Nitrogen is a widespread pollutant that comes from septic waste.
Also on the environmental front, the town board “believes our community must be part of the solution to global warming and sea-level rise,” Mr. Cantwell said.
With an expected energy deficit on the South Fork beginning next year, when demand will outstrip supply, “we must be leaders,” he said, in calling for renewable energy development, “and be part of the solution to end polluting fossil-fuel generation.”
The board, along with the town’s energy sustainability committee, should be lauded for its adoption of a “climate action plan,” and for the town’s certification by the state as a “climate-smart community,” the supervisor said. The town has earned state grants totaling $285,000 to “analyze microgrids, support home energy audits and home conservation, install electric vehicle charging stations, support solar energy, complete energy audits of town buildings, and replace a number of town vehicles with electric vehicles.”
Officials “will continue to support energy conservation, solar, and offshore wind energy,” he said, and to urge the Long Island Power Authority and the state to support the Deepwater Wind offshore wind energy project 30 miles east of Montauk.
Mr. Cantwell also outlined “important capital projects” expected to get underway this year, including replacing the senior citizens center on Springs-Fireplace Road with a new building at the same East Hampton site, and replacing the old Town Hall building. Money will be raised for those projects by selling the town’s old scavenger waste plant site on Springs-Fireplace Road, as well as its co-op offices on Pantigo Place, both in East Hampton.
The town will “continue to work closely” with Southampton Hospital on construction of a satellite emergency room facility at Pantigo Place, and will relocate Little League fields that will be displaced.
Ongoing planning efforts focusing on hamlet centers and on creating a coastal assessment and resiliency plan, known as CARP, will present both challenges and opportunities in the year ahead, said Mr. Cantwell. The hamlet studies, which incorporate community input, will focus on “how to make these centers safer for pedestrians and vehicles, improve parking efficiency, improve infrastructure, and address zoning issues and support local businesses without compromising rural character and environmental protection,” while “the CARP will bring into the forefront the need for our community to address the short and long-term impacts along our shoreline of erosion and flooding from more frequent storms, long-term erosion trends, climate change, and sea-level rise.”
While the town will continue to press the Army Corps of Engineers for a full-scale beach nourishment plan for the downtown Montauk shore, Mr. Cantwell said that “we need a new plan that will remove some of the most vulnerable development on our coastline, replacing it with natural sand dune protection, and land use and redevelopment plans to replace the most essential uses in less vulnerable areas.”
Following a court ruling that nullified local laws intended to control traffic at the East Hampton Airport in order to reduce aircraft noise, “the future of the airport is likely to be called into question,” Mr. Cantwell predicted. Attorneys for the town will appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court, and the town is also seeking Congressional action on its right to enact local airport restrictions, but “other options that would maintain a local-use airport while meaningfully reducing noise must also be explored,” he said. “Aviation interests must take heed as well, and work to find solutions to this serious issue before next summer or risk a growing call to close the airport in the future,” he warned.
Train shuttle transportation to and from East Hampton will also be on the agenda, in an effort to cut down on vehicle traffic that Mr. Cantwell called “a serious safety, environmental, convenience, and economic issue threatening both Southampton and East Hampton.” The towns are working with state officials and the Long Island Rail Road, he said, hoping to initiate shuttle service on the South Fork.
The town board will continue to prioritize residents’ quality of life and the enforcement of state and local laws, the supervisor said. Community response to a new rental registry law — 3,000 property owners registered in its first year — and a court victory in a case regarding vehicle access to a Napeague ocean beach were encouraging, he said. The board “will continue to protect public access to our beaches.”
On affordable housing, though “modest progress” has been made with zoning amendments designed to provide more opportunities, “the pace must improve,” Mr. Cantwell said.
The supervisor, entering the second year of his second two-year term, ended his address with wide-ranging comments about “civil discourse and debate.”
“The hate and violence in our country witnessed in the past year tears at the very fabric of our society,” he said.
“We can end this unconscionable hate and violence when all of us — and especially our leaders — use our words and action for positive change.”
Here in East Hampton, he said, he is proud of the way the board has worked together and listened to one another and the public, even in the face of disagreement.
The recent full-scale community response to the fire on Sag Harbor’s Main Street, Mr. Cantwell said, was, despite the devastation, “really one of the most inspiring things I’ve seen. It just reminded me what a special community we live in, and how proud I am to be supervisor.”