“I wish,” said Nat Miller, “that whoever it is would be a man and come and talk to me, or yell at me, or something.”
In recent months, multiple acts of vandalism have targeted the boat, mooring line, nets, and truck belonging to Mr. Miller, a 13th-generation bayman and, since his election in 2011, an East Hampton Town Trustee. Last winter, windows were broken at the Lamb Building in Amagansett, where the trustees meet. Floodlights were cracked, a fence rail was broken, and a tire iron was found on the floor of the meeting room.
Mr. Miller, and Diane McNally, the trustees’ clerk, firmly believe that the ancient governing body’s enforcement of existing laws is behind the vandalism. “I think because Nat is a bayman and people know where his equipment is kept, it makes him an easier target,” Ms. McNally said.
This year, the trustees moved to improve and enforce the mooring grid system in Three Mile Harbor, in an effort to tighten regulations from which boaters had drifted. The action, Mr. Miller said, was taken to preclude the State Department of Environmental Conservation from closing the entire harbor to shellfishing should the agency decide the water was polluted.
The grid, Mr. Miller explained, was established in the 1980s. “If you put the boats in a mooring grid, if the D.E.C. feels there’s too much pollution, they just shut off the mooring grid instead of the whole harbor. We were afraid that with boats being all over the place, they would close down the harbor. We’re just bringing back the mooring grid.”
In October, Mr. Miller had expressed concern at a trustees’ meeting about scallop poaching in protected sanctuaries or prior to the season’s opening. Another activity, the powering of softshell clams (using an outboard motor to churn the seabed), is in some circumstances “a wonderful thing,” he said. “But when you start powering clams in eelgrass beds or when there’s planted oysters, that application doesn’t do good. There’s the possibility of a lot of bug scallops in Napeague, and we don’t want to affect them. There’s a right time and a wrong time for everything. Just going and doing it is not the answer.”
Taking the long view, Mr. Miller said, is consistent with the trustees’ responsibility to manage the town’s common lands. “A lot of people were so used to doing what they want,” he said. “A lot of people like to go and make that initial dollar now, and they’re not thinking about the ten dollars down the road, of the future.”
If he has learned one thing as a trustee, he said, it is that “you’re never going to make everyone happy. Everyone that pays taxes in this town has a right to go get a mess of clams or scallops to eat, but to have one greedy person, whether it’s somebody who wants those small clams for that night’s pasta, or a commercial guy, or somebody from out of town, it doesn’t matter. It’s a resource, and you’re fighting all the pollutants that are in the water.”
“I’m trying to do my best,” he concluded.
Ms. McNally denounced the vandalism at the trustees’ July 2 meeting, calling on the “cowards” responsible to speak with the trustees if they were unhappy with the body’s decisions, which she emphasized were made collectively. “It’s odd that occasionally people will take it upon themselves to do this,” she said Tuesday. “It’s as though you somehow are allowed to harass a public official if you disagree with them.”
The recent vandalism is occurring against a backdrop of the annual influx of summer visitors, putting greater strain on both the environment and those charged with enforcing the law and maintaining order. Hurricane Sandy and the extreme weather events that followed last fall also made for an especially heavy workload for trustees as owners of waterfront property urgently sought to repair and bolster manmade and natural barriers against the sea.
For the trustees, all of this means more applications to scrutinize and approve or disapprove: for bulkhead and staircase construction and repair, the installation of shoreline fencing, and mass-gathering permits, for example. The group monitors water quality and vector-control spraying, and routinely fields requests and complaints from individuals and businesses that utilize the beaches and waterways under trustee jurisdiction.
“We have not made one new law,” said Mr. Miller. “We have just tried to reinforce every old law. Everything that we, and the other trustees, have done has been laws that are on the books, that were put there for a reason and a purpose. For so long, people did whatever they wanted to. There are so many people around, we just can’t do that anymore. If you do, the resource is going to be gone. My personal thing is just to try to keep what’s left.”
Town harbormasters, said Ms. McNally, “have the boating rules to do, they’re patrolling our nature preserves, now they have beaches as well. Their responsibilities have increased, compared to their numbers going down and the population going up.”
Ms. McNally worried about the chilling effect harassment of public officials might have. “It’s quite a conundrum here in this town,” she said. “It’s hard enough to get local people to want to seek public office, because you put your name out there. If it’s not just your name people can drag through the mud but your livelihood and family, we’re going to have a harder time finding competent people to do that.”
At a meeting of the trustees last month, Mr. Miller acknowledged that in light of the vandalism to his property he had considered quitting his position. But, he told his colleagues, the anything-goes attitude of some commercial fishermen, contractors, and homeowners were behind his decision to run for office in the first place.
“I’m not going to give up,” he said last week. “I think if there’s one person angry at me, there’s 100 that are happy with what I’m doing.”
At press time, calls to the East Hampton Town Police Department seeking comment on its investigation of the van