East Hampton Town needs to make clear what it is up to in buying a nearly 19-acre piece of vacant land off East Lake Drive in Montauk. At least two people raised suspicions at a town board meeting last week that the plan was to trade the property for county parkland elsewhere in Montauk where a sewage treatment plant could be built. In the meeting, board members did not dispute the allegation. If accurately described by critics, the plan should not go forward, and, at a minimum, the town must explain what its goals are.
The red flag for the critics was that the town board, which first voted in June to purchase the East Lake property with money drawn from the community preservation fund — which carries strict limits on how land can be used — abruptly switched to buying it with unrestricted cash. This would, in theory, allow a land swap with Suffolk County for a wastewater plant site. It is highly unusual for the town board to have okayed a preservation fund deal, then ice it for months, only to suddenly change its mind in this way. Much more needs to be known about what went on behind closed doors — as a side note, this could be a prime example of why absolute one-party rule of Town Hall is not in the public interest.
We and others have deep concerns about Montauk sewage treatment, particularly any undertaking that would serve the present downtown. Creating expensive infrastructure like this would only help keep in place the exposed and low-lying commercial district, even though the town’s own plan is for its eventual retreat from the shoreline to higher ground. A solution to the wastewater problems there would produce more development pressure, not less. For example, health regulations that limit the number and size of guest units might no longer be applicable, leading to a construction wave.
To much fanfare, the town recently put forward a Coastal Assessment and Resilience Plan, which observed that sea level rise “will transform East Hampton into a series of islands with permanent submergence of low-lying areas as early as 2070.” Additional development could put the cost of compensating property owners during a “managed retreat” from the shore beyond the town’s reach, even with state or federal assistance. A key concept in a plan would be the transfer of development rights — if more and bigger buildings were allowed by sewage treatment options, the price of those additional “rights” could make retreat impossibly expensive. This could lead to calls for shore-hardening structures, which carry their own costs and can eliminate public use of the beaches.
As elsewhere in town, sewage treatment proposals have followed the money, as opposed to putting the environment first. Indeed, one of the ideas for paying for a Montauk project has been to tax businesses within a newly created district centered on the downtown area. In East Hampton Village, a sewage plant is being talked about, also for the commercial center, with scant attention paid to where drinking water comes from and which water bodies, such as Georgica Pond, really need protecting.
A third and equally disturbing issue is the town’s willingness to remove land from the parks. For example, a pair of ball fields off Pantigo Place in East Hampton were handed over to Stony Brook Southampton Hospital for a new medical center. A supposed substitute for Little Leaguers and softball players at the far west end of town in Wainscott is inadequate and an insult to parents and fans going there from the hamlets farther east.
The point is, we need to know what the town plans for the East Lake parcel. In the absence of information to the contrary, what appears to be the case is unacceptable.