Dems Hit the Campaign Trail

Christopher Walsh

The scarcity of affordable housing, drug abuse and mental health, and preservation of the town’s character dominated discussion when the Democratic candidates for East Hampton Town Supervisor and town board held an informational meeting on Monday night at the East Hampton Presbyterian Church’s Session House.

For two hours, Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc, who is running to succeed Supervisor Larry Cantwell, Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, who is seeking re-election, and Jeff Bragman took questions from approximately 40 residents. The candidates plan future informational meetings in Springs and Montauk.

East Hampton is at a crossroads, said Prudence Carabine, an attendee who told the candidates that she is a 13th-generation Bonacker. Land is so valuable that longtime residents are selling and leaving, she said, leaving a critical shortage of affordable housing and scant opportunity for younger residents to own property.

In the latest solicitation from the town’s office of housing, more than 300 applications were received. A home ownership lottery drawing was held at Town Hall on May 31.

Mr. Van Scoyoc pointed to the 12-unit condominium project the town is in the process of developing at 181 Accabonac Highway in East Hampton. It is the first affordable housing project to get underway in “far too many years,” he said, and, while acknowledging that it falls far short of the need, it is a start. Another 38 units are planned in Amagansett through the East Hampton Housing Authority, a nongovernmental group, he said, and the town is “looking at additional properties to purchase.”

Mr. Bragman referred to his 29-year-old son and recalled once advising him that remaining in East Hampton would be impossible. Later, “I realized how pessimistic and wrong that is,” he said. Preservation, he said, is “not just about protecting beaches and water. It’s a question of protecting a real community.” East Hampton, he said, should not be “just a playground or film set.”

He also suggested that by connecting teens and young adults with entrepreneurs, younger residents could develop their own careers, allowing them to continue to live in the town while encouraging civic and government engagement. Current demographic trends are “a recipe for no future.” The youth of East Hampton, he said, have “energy, vision, excitement, and enthusiasm. I’d like to bring them to government younger. And we’re going to need them.”

Mr. Van Scoyoc seconded that observation. Of voter turnout among those under 35, “it’s scary how few in that demographic actually vote,” he said. “It’s not just keeping them here, but it’s involving the people already here.”

Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said that the town has made great strides in implementing mental health services, pointing to its participation in creation of the South Fork Behavioral Health Initiative, under which schools, hospitals and clinics, and other organizations unite to prevent mental health crises and suicide among youth. More social workers, some of them bilingual, and tele-psychiatry capability at East Hampton High School and the Family Service League now allow young people to be seen by a professional immediately.

The town provides an annual grant to Phoenix House, an outpatient rehabilitation facility, she said, and has held forums on substance abuse. “I’m proud of our track record,” she said, “but there’s always more we can do.”

Strict and neutral enforcement of the town’s zoning code is essential to protecting its character, the candidates said. The present town board “has really ramped up” that enforcement, Mr. Bragman said, working to restore Montauk “as a real community.” He advocated a “quieter, calmer, slower” town with smaller events and fewer mass gathering permits.

A prior town board, under then-Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, “simply ignored the rules that people have chosen for this town,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. What is needed, Mr. Bragman said, are “people committed to protecting the community that can say ‘no’ ” to greater development. “You have to re-fight the battles constantly,” he said. “Today, the power of money seems more forceful,” and brings with it “a cultural pressure that anything that can be done should be done.”

The candidates were united in support for the South Fork Wind Farm, a proposed 15-turbine installation approximately 30 miles off Montauk that could be operational late in 2022. Mr. Van Scoyoc criticized the Republican candidates for supervisor and town board, who he said “started very early opposing the wind farm” and are “trying to drive a wedge” between residents over the project’s potential to impact the commercial fishing industry, members of which fear that the wind farm’s construction and operation will destroy critically important habitat.

The federal government, he said, has lifted a ban on offshore drilling and oil and gas exploration along the Eastern Seaboard. “What would you prefer, windmills or oil spills?” he asked. “We put ourselves and our children’s future at risk” should oil and gas exploration resume. He and his colleagues, he said, “are science believers, not deniers.”

The South Fork’s electricity supply will reach a critical shortage in 2019, he said. “We have a choice of receiving overhead transmission lines from farther west” that would deliver fossil fuel-derived electricity, “or we choose to signal our approval of a clean, renewable source.”

Renewable energy and decentralized systems allowed by solar panels and battery storage may also mean a new industry “that could be sources of jobs and new careers for kids who want to stay here,” Mr. Bragman said.