Beach access, code enforcement, job creation, land use, water protection, the size of government, the fishing industry, and the role of the town board were all touched on when the six candidates for East Hampton Town Board met with The East Hampton Star’s editorial staff last Thursday.
The candidates — Sylvia Overby and Peter Van Scoyoc on the Democratic and Working Families lines, Bill Mott and Marilyn Behan, Independence Party, Richard Haeg, Republican and Conservative, and Steven Gaines, Republican and Opportunity Party — agreed on many points, including what they see as some of the most pressing issues facing the town, but they prioritized them differently.
This week, a look at their top issues, views on the fishing industry, and thoughts on businesses and the town code. An article next week will address their comments on the role of the town board and the size of town government.
To Mr. Mott the most important issue this election year is the ongoing battle over a stretch of Napeague ocean beach where private property owners have sued the town, claiming that they, not the town trustees, control the beach.
“We can’t afford to have our beaches become privatized,” said Mr. Mott, who is finishing his sixth term as a trustee. If the town loses the suit “every hotel owner and waterfront property owner will want their private beach and it will snowball.” The question of noise, safety, and town control over the airport is secondary to this issue, he said.
Mr. Haeg, Mr. Van Scoyoc, and Ms. Behan echoed Mr. Mott’s concerns.
Beach access and access to public lands are of critical importance, Mr. Van Scoyoc agreed, “because that strikes at the core of who we are historically and culturally.” Land use is another top issue for him.
“The present town board has been too lax” on the Napeague beach access matter, Ms. Behan said, and has not been “forthcoming in supporting the trustees.”
The State Supreme Court “is going to dictate what happens and that’s going to set a difficult precedent,” said Mr. Haeg. “I’d like to see a settlement so we don’t get saddled with that.” In his opinion, however, “the biggest obstacle” facing the people of East Hampton is the difficult economy and the unemployment rate. “I will try to make jobs every chance I get,” he said.
“The greatest problems we’ve always faced have been land use and jobs,” said Steven Gaines, who is running with him on the Republican ticket and is also on his own Opportunity Party line. “We’re held hostage to a 16-week program here.” Rather than depending on second-home owners to prop up the economy, he said, the town needs to encourage low-impact businesses — software companies, for example.
“A lot of that falls under planning, land use, using our code effectively, making sure we’re compliant with the comprehensive plan, the local waterfront revitalization plan,” Ms. Overby said. Documents like those “have already told us who we are and what we want to be,” she said. “We can write legislation that would protect local businesses. We know what happens when chain stores come in; there are things we can do that have been talked about but ignored. I would like to be very active in promoting these shoulder seasons.”
In Montauk, “we grow from 5,000 to 25,000 on any sunshiny weekend,” Ms. Behan said, but as important as tourism and tourists are, “I think it’s important we stay focused on what’s important to those people who live here all the time.”
She returned to that theme several times. With the airport, too, she said it is important that visitors “use it under our rules.” And businesses, particularly in Montauk, should be allowed to be successful but “have to do what they do within the quality of life we all require.”
“I’m not against business,” Ms. Behan said in talking about Montauk clubs that have drawn sharp criticism from residents for noise, overcrowding, and parking mayhem. “If they operate within the code, fine . . . but all of these violations, that’s not fair to residents. It’s not fair to other businesses.”
“There are businesses that are operating within the code and then there are businesses operating flagrantly outside the code,” Ms. Overby said. “That’s the kind of thing that drives people up a wall. . . . We don’t want to close businesses down, but how do you compel them to come into the Planning Department?”
The town board may need to change the laws governing such establishments, but “let’s also enforce the laws,” Mr. Mott said.
“I think the board is very frustrated,” Mr. Gaines said. “I think we need new laws. . . . Those guys take the fines out of tip jars.”
“There are any number of ways to address this problem,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said, suggesting, “Tow the cars parked illegally,” among other things. “We have to address the fact that many [of the problem businesses] are pre-existing nonconforming in residential zones and they should conform as much as possible to [rules of residential zones]. That is the whole crux of zoning.”
The candidates also addressed the question of whether the existing code is strong enough to protect the town’s resources. “The codes need to be strengthened in some cases,” Mr. Gaines said. In terms of dark-skies legislation, for example, he said he is “all for making it stronger” and would in fact “do away with ornamental lighting. . . . When times are bad, the environment becomes a luxury issue, and it’s not and it can’t be because our environment is so fragile here.”
“Road runoff and other types of pollution are affecting our watershed and harbors,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “We have this huge looming problem with our drinking water, especially in Springs,” where “we’ve been loading our ground with nitrogen.” Upgrading septic systems can be an onerous process, but he suggested that the town might encourage it through incentives like giving “a little on a setback somewhere else in exchange” for a septic upgrade.
“If we started enforcing some of the codes that are on the books, that would be a step in the right direction,” Mr. Mott said, while acknowledging that short-staffed town departments are having trouble keeping up.
Ms. Overby is concerned about aquifer protection and said the town needs to educate residents and develop good management plans. Keeping density in check is another way to achieve this, she said.
Asked what could be done locally to increase revenue for the fishing industry, which provides year-round jobs and brings millions of dollars to the community, all of the candidates vowed their support, but with different approaches. “I grew up farming and fishing in Mattituck,” Mr. Haeg said. If elected he would be a vigilant lobbyer for the industry, he said. “I can make a phone call once a week until they get tired of hearing from me.”
Among other things, each of the other candidates pointed to protecting and improving water quality as a way to support a vibrant local fishing industry. Mr. Mott said he would pursue a town-owned dredge, so that the town’s harbor and bay inlets could be dredged more often, allowing them to flush more readily and perhaps opening areas to shellfishing that are not open now. “We have uncertified waters — we can make them certified,” he said.
“Dredging is one of those things that are value-added,” Ms. Overby said. While it might mean adding “more people to the payroll . . . the value added to the town is measurable.”
Mr. Mott also spoke about the trustees’ flounder grow-out project and eelgrass plantings to improve water quality in shellfish beds.
Mr. Van Scoyoc said that promoting “the production of seafood . . . relates to fishing quotas long range. Many of our finfish spawn within the local estuaries. Water quality and productivity of these fish are important for the industry.” He is “concerned about land uses that negatively impact those estuaries.”
“Environmental concerns are primary” when it comes to the fishing industry, said Mr. Gaines, who also supports a more frequent dredging schedule. He pointed out that Montauk is the largest fishing port in New York State and the fifth largest in the country, yet, he said, the fishing industry “is a stepchild.”
“Someone hasn’t been diligent enough to take care of it and look over it,” Ms. Behan said. “We’ve got some dead water in Montauk and nothing is going to live in it.”
The town no longer has a full-time fisheries consultant. “We attend one or two [fisheries] conferences,” Ms. Overby said. “We need to have representation in state and federal conferences. Someone has to fight for East Hampton.”
With Reporting by Catherine Tandy