Despite an exhausting campaigning schedule and the recent “nerve-racking” public debates, Sylvia Overby, a Democratic candidate for East Hampton Town Board, remains buoyant, meeting every election challenge with a smile and the determination to fight for East Hampton’s quality of life.
While Ms. Overby’s community involvement dates back to 1994, she admits she was surprised by the intensity of the campaign process.
“It’s so stressful to put yourself out there for the world to decide on you,” she said Monday. “And in reality, it involves more than just you — it involves your family and your friends.” When asked when she decided for sure to run for office she said, “It’s always a big leap. I don’t think anybody is ever sure. It’s daunting and it’s personal and it’s emotional.”
A Floridian by birth, Ms. Overby described her inaugural visit to East Hampton as “love at first sight.”
She says that her husband, who hails from Huntington, had always praised the beauty of the area, but she was skeptical until he finally drove her out to see it for herself. She decided almost immediately that she wanted to live here. They built a house in 1984, but only summered here, dividing their time between Amagansett and Atlanta, where they met, until 1994 when they moved here full time.
“I think one of the capturing moments was the thought that this [place] doesn’t have a mall,” she smiled. “It’s such a relief from all the asphalt. I think [Amagansett] feels like a much happier place. It feels right.”
She soon got involved with the Amagansett Citizens Advisory Committee, and served as its chairwoman for six years.
“There were a lot of issues during that time,” she said. “The farmers market was trying to expand, people were looking for a grocery store somewhere — there were a lot of pressures for development and I wanted to make sure that the community reacted with everybody’s voice. And that’s what these C.A.C.s allow people to do.” The committee had members from all political parties, but they all agreed about the right direction for the town, she said.
When the town undertook an update of its comprehensive plan, Ms. Overby served as chairwoman for a hamlets and villages subcommittee. She was also involved in a recreation advisory committee, and more recently, she served for seven years on the East Hampton Planning Board, three of them as its chairwoman.
Ms. Overby first ran for town board in 2001, renouncing a lifelong loyalty to the Republican Party for the first time.
The Democrats “were the ones that asked,” she said. “But I really believed in what they were saying, to preserve land, to continue good planning. In 2001, we were again seeing a push. It was a time of a lot of money; people wanted to develop out here.”
Perhaps because the 2001 election closely followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, “it wasn’t a time when people were saying ‘Let’s try something new,’ ” Ms. Overby said. “All the incumbents won.”
This time around, Ms. Overby, who is also running on the Working Families line, said the campaigning process is quite different, marked by more intensive publicity.
“The exposure has grown significantly,” she said. “There are more newspapers, including online, there are more debates, LTV has gotten a lot bigger. . . . People want information every single day. People blog, people respond immediately, they don’t wait to write a letter to the editor. In some ways it takes away from standing at the grocery store and talking to people. In some ways it makes you less visible.”
Ms. Overby decided to run again in the hope of refocusing the town board’s efforts toward “good planning” for East Hampton, making sure that new development will not impinge upon or erode the local environment, which the local economy so depends on, she said.
“I was very concerned with the professionals I saw in the Planning Department not being consulted on issues for the town,” she said. “Their expertise was not being used. This administration does not like planning for some reason. The reason we have something to offer is because people see the value of the beaches and the forests and the bays — the wealth of our natural resources. We have to make sure we don’t pave it over.”
Ms. Overby says she has always been impressed with the level of knowledge and professionalism of the Planning Department, and has worked to understand the codes so she would be well informed.
She says that East Hampton should expand the businesses that have traditionally made money here, such as farming and fishing. “You want things that are consistent with your environment,” she said.
While campaigning is people-oriented, which she likes, she said that during her neighborhood walks she has learned some important things just from observing.
“There are too many kids at home in the late afternoons without parents,” she said. “There is definitely a need. It’s heartwarming and heartbreaking. But, that’s what we’re supposed to be seeing; that will inform your decisions.”
Children are perhaps at the very center of Ms. Overby’s “agenda.” Raising her two sons, Alec and Andrew, who both graduated from East Hampton High School, here was one of the most rewarding experiences she’s had, she said.
“I’ve had the most fun having my kids in school here,” she said. “The Amagansett School has such small classes and there is so much diversity, not only with the children, but with the classes offered. I was at every soccer, track and field event and there is that great feeling of knowing all the parents, kids, and teachers. Of all the activities I’ve done, I think I enjoyed that the most — getting to know the community.”