Nature Notes: We Are the Stewards

Houses are going up everywhere

    On Monday I took a drive through the hills of Noyac, Bridgehampton, Water Mill, and North Sea that make up the bulk of the so-called terminal moraine left by the glacier that retreated 15,000 or so years ago. When I moved back to Long Island from Oregon and California in 1974, those hills were only sparsely covered with houses. The pitch pine and oaks carpeted the ups and downs of the knob-and-kettle topography, and to the south, the farm fields spread from west to east as far as the eye could see. How things have changed.

    Houses are going up everywhere. Not ordinary houses, but those with several bathrooms, big, pretentious, I would even call them garish, or grotesque, or even gadzookish. There is enough room in them for several families, but most of them are only seasonally occupied. Talk about leaving carbon footprints! Most of them leave very big ones in a year’s passing.

    Sixty years ago, across the bay in Mattituck, where I grew up, every once in a while someone from outside such as Jim Norris, the owner of the Detroit Redwings at the time, would have one of these kinds of nouveau riche houses built and it would become the topic of conversation for years to come. It was a very big deal. Today if someone had a new house constructed and it only had 800 square feet of living space like my house in Noyac, it would similarly become the topic of conversation.

    No one will ever build one as large as the famous Sagaponack mansion-and-a-half with 80,000 square feet of living space. That house made a mockery of local zoning and building codes, which have since been changed to prevent a repeat.

    There is a discernible difference, however, between houses in East Hampton Town woodlands and those in Southampton Town woodlands. In the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, George Miller led the town planning board while Tom Thorsen was the planning director. They did something that was unheard of at the time on Long Island, they worked “scenic and conservation” easements into the planning process, especially where subdivisions were concerned.

    Nowhere on the South Fork is there a better example of such planning than on the back roads of East Hampton’s Northwest and northern Amagansett. Protective easements were taken along the road frontages, building envelopes were set back 100 or so feet on large lots. When you drive down, say, Bull Path in Northwest or Stony Hill Road in Amagansett, you may have to squint your eyes to pick out the houses through the trunks of trees and understory foliage.

    In Southampton Town, it is a different matter. Take Deerfield Road, for example, houses built in old field lots that were formerly farm fields stand right out, you have to squint to see the fields behind them. Although much of the woodland of the moraine has had five-acre zoning restrictions since early 1980, thanks to then-town attorney Fred W. Thiele Jr., supervisor Marty Lange, and Dave Emilita, a planner, the clearing restrictions are much more liberal and the houses so large, they don’t hide behind the bushes as they do in East Hampton.

    This may be great for those out driving at night in the weeks preceding Christmas who are into seeing gaily decorated and gaudily lighted houses, but it is not so aesthetically pleasing during the rest of the year, especially at night when the houses are lighted up, room after room after room.

    Most of the older houses, such as mine, in Noyac are comparatively small. The bigger ones are up in the hills behind the ones along Noyac Road. But there are a couple of giants on Payne’s Cove, a block down from Long Beach Road, into which my house would fit several times over. One of them has an osprey nest in front at the edge of the water. The other one doesn’t, but it has a battery of lights that shine across Payne’s Cove all the way east over Sag Harbor Cove to the bridge leading to Sag Harbor two miles away. Ospreys start out each year in fine fettle, but when the lights go on next door in mid-May, they find it hard to cope.

    After all, birds have biological clocks that are very sensitive to light changes; they are tuned to long days during the breeding season, but dark unlighted nights after the sun goes down and before it rises the next morning. They can take the full moon every two weeks, their brains are programmed for such, but a battery of 100-watt lights is an entirely different matter.

    Some of you may have noticed the dramatic turndown in the whippoorwill population. Hearing whippoorwills calling at dusk and into the night from the woods was once a common sign of late spring, just as peeper calls at night are a sign of early spring and tree crickets trilling at night, a sign of midsummer. Whippoorwills are very sensitive to light and noise. Most of our woodlands are no longer quiet and dark in the evening, so whippoorwills have almost disappeared here.

    Notwithstanding the advances in zoning, the many purchase of open spaces via the Peconic Bay Region Community Preservation Fund, it will be a challenge to keep even a semblance of the richness of nature that those of us who grew up here on the East End of Long Island remember so fondly. Difficult though it may be, we have to try as best we can. Doesn’t the Bible say that “God gave us dominion over the animals.” Dominion is just another word for “stewardship,” and we are all stewards.

    Larry Penny can be reached via email at