The East Hampton Town Board is picking on kids. It is not intentional, to be sure, but in sticking with the idea of allowing an emergency-lite medical facility to replace a pair of side-by-side baseball diamonds and offering an insufficient replacement near the far western edge of the town, it sure looks that way.
There was a time that parkland like the two ball fields off Pantigo Road was sacred. And, in fact it is — the suggestion that new fields be laid out on a large piece of community preservation fund-purchased land in Amagansett was on absolute reserve for strictly limited uses, such as walking or farming. At the moment, you will see folks running their dogs there or flying drones and model aircraft. But at the same time, the board has thought it fine to allow the East Hampton Library to host its Authors Night benefit there. But kids, playing ball in the spring, oh, heavens no.
Another potential location for the displaced Little League-standard fields is at a town sports site off Stephen Hand’s Path in what we suppose should be called the greater Wainscott area. Montauk parents and coaches are not enthusiastic about having to play away games that far from home, and we get it. While the season for the games begins early in spring, the finals are in mid-June, right about when it starts to take twice as long to get anywhere by car. Players generally gather for games on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at about 4:30 p.m. to warm up before a 5:30 start. We can’t image that the town board really means to jam parents and spectators into the westbound afternoon Trade Parade. As it is, there is scarcely time after school for players to gulp down a glass of orange juice and change into uniforms, find their bats and mitts, and get to the more centrally located fields. Teams are fielded to represent Montauk, Amagansett, Springs, and East Hampton; Wainscott has yet to be represented, though there is no reason not to put additional ball fields there.
What makes the loss of the well-situated location at Pantigo so infuriating is that alternatives exist. Some have suggested the former Stern’s department store property just to the east of the existing site. And there could be an alternative right next door behind East Hampton Town Hall. Exploring behind the Justice Court, one discovers a jumble of garages, asphalt, and utility buildings. There are parked Sanitation Department trucks, police vehicles, piles of dumped topsoil, various things awaiting an auction or disposal, in short, a mess — and a site that should have another look for the medical facility. Forethought seems never applied back here, nor the question answered of whether the equipment and offices could be moved elsewhere, for example, to the former Child Development Center of the Hamptons school recently used as a Covid-19 vaccination center. But that would be too far to travel, town employees might protest — yet it is okay to ask Little Leaguers’ parents, supporters, and coaches to go out of their way?
As far as sports and recreation go, there is the overarching issue of a town board willing to reduce the number of recreational sites. Common sense should have informed them that this was a bad precedent and that we need more facilities, not fewer, and more centrally located to where their users actually live. It is on paper, too, in official planning reports, adopted by previous town boards, calling for additional parks, play areas, and open space for less active pursuits. A medical center may well be needed, but it is frankly a shock that the current town board would be so willing to offer up such a prime and well-loved location. And it did so without subjecting the plan to strict environmental review.
And then there is the lingering objection concerning parkland alienation, which the town quietly received for the property in late 2019. Under New York State law, selling or changing the use — even temporarily and with an intention to restore the site someday — requires legislative approval and the signature of the governor. In short, the use of parkland by a municipality for a non-park purpose is considered an alienation, even if the use has public benefit or purpose, as in a medical center. Past alienations have drawn the attention of the state comptroller’s office on the lookout for abuse, and citizens have the right to sue a municipality when they think that the process is improper.
Town officials and Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, which hopes to construct what has been described as an emergency room annex, are missing the point in still charging ahead with the plan. Parks must remain parks and as it grows and becomes more of a year-round community, East Hampton needs more of them, not fewer. Save the fields. Put the annex elsewhere, and everybody will be happier in the long run.