Crash Kills Developer

Gregg Saunders had big plans for Whole Foods site
Gregg Saunders in 2010 Morgan McGivern

   Gregg Saunders, a 55-year-old real estate entrepreneur who lived in Sagaponack, was killed in a head-on collision on Montauk Highway in East Hampton shortly before noon last Thursday. The accident occurred just east of Green Hollow Road as Mr. Saunders was on his way to meet a friend at Nichol’s restaurant.
    East Hampton Village police said Mr. Saunders was driving a 2012 Prius in the eastbound lane when a westbound 2010 Audi station wagon driven by Benjamin Rechler, 19, of Brookville, swerved into his path. According to Gerard Larsen, the village police chief, Mr. Rechler had reached into the rear of the Audi to adjust a surfboard that had shifted.
    “He was on his way to see me,” Robert Schaeffer, an East Hampton Town Planning Board member, said yesterday. “We’d become good friends.” Mr. Saunders was less than a minute away from his destination when he was killed.
    Mr. Saunders had been lauded earlier this year by the planning board for his plan to create a 17,500-square-foot “hub” store not far away from the accident scene on the highway in Wainscott, where a Whole Foods market has operated this summer. The work was scheduled to begin in the fall.
    Firefighters from the East Hampton Fire Department’s heavy rescue team had to cut open Mr. Saunders’s car to allow medical workers to reach him. He was taken by an Amagansett Fire Department ambulance to Southampton Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Mr. Rechler and a passenger, Taylor Frank, 17, also of Brookville, suffered minor injuries. They were also taken in an East Hampton ambulance to South­ampton Hospital, where they were treated and released.
    Two other vehicles collided when their drivers tried to avoid the crash. A westbound van braked to avoid the collision and was struck from behind by another vehicle. The drivers and passengers of these vehicles were uninjured, police said. The highway was closed to traffic for about five hours after the collision.
    “A tremendous loss for the community,” Reed Jones, the planning board’s chairman, said of Mr. Saunders on Wednesday. “He had significant plans to redevelop Wainscott.”
    “It was an unfortunate accident,” Chief Larsen said last week. “The poice, the ambulance crews, and the Fire Department did everything they could to save him.” The chief stressed that there was no alcohol or drugs involved and that no criminal charges were filed. Mr. Rechler was issued summonses for crossing the double yellow line and failure to maintain his lane.
    A service was held for Mr. Saunders at the Star of David Chapel in Babylon. Burial followed at Mount Ararat Cemetery in Farmingdale.
    Mr. Saunders had purchased the Plitt Ford property in July 2010 at an auction for $3.9 million.
    “I never thought I’d develop where I live,” Mr. Saunders said in an interview in March after a hearing before the planning board. “I develop all over the country. But I live here. I shop here. I shop at the fish market, the bagel shop, Breadzilla. I thought, let me put something nice here.”
    His goal, he said at the time, was to build something on the site that the local people wanted.
    “I used to swim with Gregg at Gurney’s,” Bill Becker, of the Becker Home Center in Montauk, said yesterday. Mr. Becker said that when Mr. Saunders learned that the Animal Rescue Fund needed a temporary home for its thrift shop last spring while its own building was being renovated, the former Plitt Ford building, which he eventually leased to Whole Foods, was empty. “Gregg gave them the property. No rent, nothing. Just gave it to them.”