Farmers, Activists Ponder South Fork's Ecological Future

The participants in a March 30 forum on environmental sustainability held at Mandala Yoga in Amagansett were, from left, Brendan Davison of Good Water Farms; Scott Bluedorn, an artist and activist; Bob Deluca of the Group for the East End; Scott Chaskey of Quail Hill Farm; Linda James of the East Hampton Town Energy Sustainability Committee, and Bill Chaleff, an architect. Biddle Duke, far right, the founding editor of East magazine, organized the event. Durell Godfrey

Is the South Fork a pristine paradise lost? Opinions varied among panelists who gathered at Mandala Yoga Center for Healing Arts in Amagansett last Thursday, but all agreed that individual and collective action is essential to protect and preserve the natural environment.

The event, hosted by The Star and its East magazine, featured environmental activists from diverse backgrounds together for a discussion that encompassed climate change, land use, energy sources, and the myriad decisions that have brought us here.

Linda James, the acting chairwoman of East Hampton Town's energy sustainability advisory committee, called the town board's 2014 climate action plan calling for 100 percent of its electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020 "historic." The town board, she said, is "visionary," and its support, with that of the town's Natural Resources Department, "is really very encouraging." The planned South Fork Wind Farm, to be situated 30 miles from Montauk, will help the town achieve its renewable-energy goals, she said. "I do indeed believe . . . that we are doing a first-rate job."

But Bill Chaleff, an architect and activist who is also a member of the energy sustainability committee, delivered a darker assessment. While "it's terrific that we use wind power and renewables," he said, per capita energy consumption in the United States is three times that of other developed countries, and "maybe five to 10 times" greater on the South Fork. "I chalk a lot of that up to the human settlement pattern we have out here," he said. "As much as we love it . . . it's not the rural paradise that we have in our minds."

The suburban settlement pattern, he said, "is a real killer for us in many, many ways." For example, a house with zero net energy consumption "on a five-acre parcel six miles from the village" is "a lot worse than having a code-minimum house that's right in the village." Lamenting the South Fork's "auto-centric plan instead of a public transportation plan, or other ways of getting around," he likened the South Fork's development to a car speeding in the wrong direction. "You have to slow down, and then you have to turn 180 degrees, and then you start going the other way," he said. "I still believe that we're in the slowing-down phase."

Bob DeLuca, president of Group for the East End, was more optimistic, pointing to the community preservation fund and "some of the most progressive laws on the books" to protect land, water, and wetlands. The town can take pride, he said, in the "big list of real, measurable, tangible outcomes" that results from civic engagement. "The decision to engage in politics," he said, "is critically important to the outcome of your community."

Scott Chaskey of Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett also pointed to the community preservation fund. The C.P.F., he said, "is such a big deal, over a billion dollars, and how much land has been protected. . . ." Today, there are more than 30 organic farms on the East End of Long Island, he said. "What does farming mean to this place? It's the soul. You want to protect it."

But, Mr. DeLuca said, "That doesn't mean that everything that Bill mentioned isn't also happening." Land-use patterns are set, he said. "This is like the final chapter, and the start of the final chapter is us: It's the energy we use, the garbage we produce, the traffic we produce, how we use the energy that comes into our homes." All of those, he said, "are going to be the next generation of environmental change that happens out here."

The inherent conflict between communal, sustainable design and individual property rights impedes positive action, he said. "You cannot tell people that you can't have something that they believe is inherent in the underlying zoning by law, and if you do, they will fight you and sue you and it will cost you something. . . . It's an inherent conflict in the academic argument about what you can do to design a community that works best for everyone versus the individual freedom that comes with private property."

Mr. Chaskey agreed. "We've chosen to value land on how it can be developed," he said. "Only that."

Two-thirds of the housing stock on the South Fork is second homes, Mr. Chaleff said, "and we're rolling very quickly to making that three-quarters." This, Ms. James said, "is why we're going to have brownouts this summer."

Brendan Davison of Good Water Farms in Bridgehampton said that he too is more hopeful than Mr. Chaleff, but added that a soil test on his farm revealed that it was "super high in nitrates." Nitrogen is one factor blamed for the harmful algal blooms that have afflicted South Fork waterways in recent years. "What's the culprit here?" he asked. "It's the gi-normous homes. People are using all kinds of shampoos, conditioners, laundry detergents. That all gets leached out into our groundwater, which leaches out into our water system, the ocean. . . ."

Scott Bluedorn, an artist and member of the energy sustainability committee who advocates a ban on single-use plastic products such as plates, cups, and utensils, was hopeful that "we are on the verge of a global change of consciousness" in which climate change is both accepted as fact and action is taken to save civilization. He encouraged "changing consciousness about what disposable culture is, which is our de facto way of living," in order to eliminate waste that, in the case of plastics, will remain in landfills for up to 1,000 years.

The slow food movement, defined as production and preparation of food using high quality, locally sourced ingredients and in accordance with local traditions, is a small but positive trend, Mr. Chaskey said. "Probably the greatest impact would be on the overall health of the populace," he said. Only in recent years "has food and health been spoken about in the same sentence. The awareness . . . is passed on right from kindergarten now," he said. "We've got to keep that up."

Mr. Davison agreed. On his forays into supermarkets, "seeing people walking around, the products they're buying, the chemicals they're putting into their body, it blows my mind. . . . In the farming sense, it's exactly what we're doing to the earth, to the environment: We're polluting it, just like we're polluting ourselves. Until the collective consciousness awakens, and hopefully that's soon, it's going to be status quo."

Individual decisions, such as dietary choices and use of reusable rather than disposable products, add up to collective action and change, panelists said. "Individual change adds up," Mr. Bluedorn said. "If enough people start to change, you arrive at a tipping point, critical mass. That is really important."