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Uses of Fallow Farmland

Wed, 08/21/2019 - 14:26

The big field on Montauk Highway east of the Amagansett I.G.A. is quiet again following two large benefit events — the Soldier Ride fund-raiser and the East Hampton Library Authors Night book fair. It is hard to imagine that just a few weeks ago the land was at the center of a dispute over whether it is the correct place for events of any kind. There are two important factors to weigh to get close to an answer about the property’s use, and, related, what the matter reveals about East Hampton Town’s preservation priorities.

For background, the 19-acre property came to be called 555 after a developer bought it and proposed a luxury multi-unit residential project about six years ago. That went over about as well as might be expected. After a long period of wrangling, the town bought the site, using $10.5 million from its community preservation fund. In authorizing the deal, the town board promised to allow Soldier Ride to use the property indefinitely.

From a legal perspective, the sticking point has been that the land was acquired by the town specifically for agriculture and open space. According to the library book fair’s opponents, this would preclude its use for public events, even temporarily. For reasons that were never clear, several proposals for farming the property were rejected, and other than being mowed every now and then, the land has remained untouched.

We tend to agree with the critics on one point: Uses of preserved land other than those specifically allowed by the law and the town board’s purchase authorization is a slippery slope. A different group in Town Hall might see the 555 parcel and other sites as ripe for far more disruptive events. Consider, for example, the fuss being raised about art fairs on the Montauk green, which may harm some brick-and-mortar retailers nearby, as well as make bad traffic worse.

The 555 debate should make the lack of suitable publicly owned places for large fund-raisers obvious. It is time the town looks at this, and perhaps seeks to obtain or repurpose land it already holds. But however great the pressure, agricultural land bought with money from the community preservation fund should be off-limits.

In complaining about the library event on the 555 site, one resident described it as “a pasture.” While the ground there may be poor — there were rumors that all the choice topsoil was scraped off and sold long ago — it should be used for some sort of farming. Cows would do. They are far more attractive and environmentally correct than party tents and cars.

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