Supervisor Takes Stock, Looks Ahead to 2019

Water quality, climate change, and affordable housing topped the agenda and are likely to remain there
East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said that the town board made good progress on a number of difficult challenges in 2018. Durell Godfrey

East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc looked back on his first year at the helm of the town board with a strong measure of satisfaction and plans to continue working on multiple fronts in 2019. 

Efforts to address and mitigate myriad impacts of climate change, water contamination, and affordable housing occupied much of the board’s attention in 2018, and are certain to demand more of it in the new year and beyond. 

One year into his two-year term, Mr. Van Scoyoc would not comment, in an interview last month, as to his plans to seek re-election, preferring to wait until after the New Year to make any announcement. Two of his colleagues, Councilwoman Sylvia Overby and Councilman David Lys, are also up for re-election in November. They, along with Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez and Councilman Jeff Bragman, make up the town board’s present 5-0 Democratic supermajority. 

“There’s always something that will pop up to surprise you,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said, “but for the most part I think we’ve had a very successful year.” The town faces a number of challenges, he said, “which I think we’ve made good progress on addressing, both short term and long term.” 

The year was brand new when a “bomb cyclone” dumped snow across the South Fork. “I guess it should have been foreshadowing — a state of emergency declared within the first couple of days being in office,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “Of course, one never knows how the weather is going to be in any given year, but we certainly had a very strong storm season, a number of northeasters — four in three weeks in March.” 

Erosion was substantial. The geotextile bags installed by the Army Corps of Engineers at the ocean beach in downtown Montauk in 2015 were once again exposed and the beach considerably narrowed. “That’s an issue that’s not going away,” the supervisor said. “It’s one that’s been around for some time as well,” but Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, “really lowered the elevation of that beach quite a bit.” 

“We rose to that challenge,” he said, “and met the short-term demands of making sure there was nice, white beach for the summer season.” 

Short-term weather events aside, the long-term impacts of climate change will inevitably force a reckoning, not least in coastal communities. The Army Corps apparently plans to provide significantly less sand to replenish Montauk’s downtown ocean beach, in its decades-in-the-making Fire Island to Montauk Point Reformulation Plan, than town officials had hoped, prompting last year’s establishment of the Montauk Beach Preservation Committee, which is exploring creation of an erosion control district and its funding mechanisms. 

Parallel to that exploration is the Montauk hamlet study, part of the examination of each hamlet to be incorporated into the town’s comprehensive plan. A key component of its recommendations is a planned retreat from downtown Montauk’s ocean shoreline. “There is a vision about what to do in Montauk long term,” the supervisor said. An erosion control district would “help bridge that transition from development right on the edge to pulling back.” 

In a public hearing last month, some Montauk residents criticized the plan. Those against it, Mr. Van Scoyoc said, “are worried that creation of an erosion control district will just delay the inevitable. That is kind of the purpose of the next step, to give us time to make that transition without it being highly disruptive. If you got a big storm — which can still happen in any given year — you could lose that whole front row” of oceanfront resorts on South Emerson Avenue. “Either we’re going to adapt or nature is going to help us adapt,” he said. “It’s going to force our hand.”

The district “should be tailored as narrowly as possible so that those who have the most at risk and gain the most monetary benefit are also the ones who pay the most for replenishment,” he said. “I think that’s only fair.” 

In 2018, the town board continued the course set in 2014 with its Climate Action Plan, a goal to meet all of its energy needs through renewable sources. The first megawatt-scale solar farm on the South Fork, at the former brush dump on Accabonac Road in East Hampton, has come online. Parallel to that, “We’ve encouraged rooftop solar on residential and commercial properties by aggregating and offering 20 to 30 percent below market cost of rooftop solar,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “As part of the Energize East Hampton effort, we’ve encouraged people to change their pool pumps out with significant rebates for that equipment, helping to shave power demand.” 

Public participation “has been good,” he said, and is gaining momentum. “People are understanding that not only is it just really good for the environment, but it’s really good for their bottom line. People can hedge the costs of future energy increases, and reduce their bills and have more spending money in their pockets.” 

The town’s initial goal of achieving 

its electricity needs through renewable sources by 2020 cannot be met, he conceded, given that the South Fork Wind Farm, a proposed 15-turbine installation to be situated approximately 35 miles from Montauk, will not be operational before late in 2022. “That would probably be the soonest that we would meet our 100 percent renewable energy goal.” 

The larger aspiration, to meet the equivalent of 100 percent of economy-wide energy use with renewable sources by 2030, including electricity, heating, and transportation, “is a little more difficult to get at,” the supervisor said. “With regard to the fuel side, we have been encouraging the expansion of electric-car charging stations.” The town has installed charging stations, is planning more, and is entertaining proposals from Tesla Motors to augment that infrastructure, and “the town itself is in the process of changing out some of its automobile fleet with electric cars.” Five Nissan Leaf electric cars will imminently replace various town departments’ gas-powered vehicles. 

Water contamination remains a front-burner issue. In addition to the Suffolk County Water Authority’s recent installation of approximately 45,000 feet of water main after the discovery of perfluorinated chemicals in many private wells around East Hampton Airport in Wainscott, several waterways experienced harmful algal blooms in 2018, as in previous years. Nitrogen loading from aging septic systems is a primary culprit. 

“We would all hope that the 360,000 septic systems in Suffolk County be upgraded as quickly as possible,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “On a per capita basis, East Hampton leads the county, which I don’t think should be surprising: We also have the most restrictive waste codes in the county. We require upgraded systems on all new construction and substantial renovation and reconstruction.” 

He referred to the County Legislature’s vote to expand the scope of the 2017 Residential Septic Incentive Program, which happened one day after the interview, and for which the town board signed a letter of support. The program offers grants for the installation of innovative and alternative onsite wastewater treatment systems. Its expansion “would increase the number of people who are eligible for that grant, and have an additional amount of $5,000 for those who qualify as low income. It also would make rental properties eligible, and others.” 

The supervisor admitted to a need for “a lot of public relations work to promote” septic system replacement and its modest economic impact, given available incentives, as well as the environmental benefit. “Getting people more conscious about disposal of that waste and how they can improve it is an ongoing effort.” Several property owners around Georgica Pond, as well as along Hog Creek and Accabonac Harbor, have installed or are in the process of installing low-nitrogen systems, he said. “Those are priority areas in terms of seeing the most immediate improvements in surface waters.”

A parallel goal for 2019, he said, is to expand the town’s aquaculture infrastructure, expanding the program under which residents grow filter-feeding bivalves in town waterways, “which really makes a huge impact on habitat restoration and water quality, not to mention an economic impact as well, in terms of fisheries.”

Affordable housing remains scarce, but Mr. Van Scoyoc pointed to the imminent completion of the 12-unit Manor Houses on Accabonac Road in East Hampton and the Jan. 17 public hearing on the town’s acquisition of a site off Route 114 just outside Sag Harbor, at which 20 to 30 units could be built. Another 38 units are slated for occupancy by the end of 2020, at 531 Montauk Highway in Amagansett. “We know there’s more to do,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said, “but you have to get the work into the pipeline. We’re also looking at a couple of other, additional affordable housing properties for acquisition.”

Along with that effort, continued build-out of rooftop solar systems on residential and commercial buildings, and a further transition of the town’s vehicle fleet to electric models, Mr. Van Scoyoc wished for “some more headway on having safer, saner modes of transportation around town” through improved public transportation and more bicycle and pedestrian paths. “I’d really like to see a recreational bike path joining hamlets,” he said. “It would alleviate traffic. We’re an outdoor community, particularly in the summertime. Many people would take advantage of riding bikes if they felt safe. We’re going to try and figure out how we can start working on that.”