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Achievements vs. Inaction Is Question at Heart of Supervisor's Debate

Thu, 10/26/2023 - 09:52
Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, left, and Gretta Leon, right
Durell Godfrey and Leon campaign photos

The Democratic candidate for East Hampton Town supervisor drew attention to the town board’s accomplishments during her tenure there, while her Republican counterpart criticized the Democratic supermajority for what she said was inaction on important matters like affordable housing and cellphone service, when the candidates met for a virtual debate on Oct. 18, as they vie to succeed Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc, who is not seeking re-election.

Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez is the Democratic and Working Families Party candidate. The deputy supervisor, she was elected to the town board in 2013 after nine years on the Springs School Board, the last two as its president. She faces Gretta Leon, the Republican and Conservative Party candidate, who is waging her first campaign for elected office.

The debate was hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, Shelter Island, and the North Fork. The league’s Susan Wilson was the moderator.

Asked about priorities for the community preservation fund in land preservation, water quality, and affordable housing, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez spoke of the importance of acquiring coastal land for shoreline protection, for agricultural lands for lease to farmers because “we need to be a sustainable community and we need to grow what we consume,” and for recreation.

“Mental health was a crisis prior to Covid,” she said, “and our kids are in distress. I think that the Montauk Skate Park project that we did as well as the Little League ball fields [in Wainscott] have been very welcomed by hard-working families in our community.”

She pointed to an upcoming public hearing on the water quality technical advisory committee’s recent recommendation to fund nine projects with the portion of C.P.F. money that can be allocated to such initiatives. “We need to reduce nitrogen” in the water, she said.

She also noted the November 2022 referendum in which voters approved a .5-percent real estate transfer tax, in addition to the 2-percent transfer tax on real estate transactions for the community preservation fund, to establish the community housing fund. The additional tax is projected to raise $4 million to $6 million in 2024 and is to be used to buy land and buildings for community housing, build new housing, issue loans to first-time homebuyers, and offer housing counseling services.

Ms. Leon said that despite millions in C.P.F. money allocated to water quality, “I don’t see anything that has been really impactful.” Members of the town board “talk about improving the water quality, they talk about doing everything, but there hasn’t been a lot of motion on that.”

On affordable housing, she said, “It’s been years. This should have probably gone on before so many people actually came to live here, and I don’t think the focus was there, and I don’t think the focus is there now. It’s really a shame to live here and to see that things don’t get finished.”

Ms. Leon frequently called for more study of issues, including battery energy storage systems, or BESS, three of which caught fire in New York State last summer, one of them at a Cove Hollow Road, East Hampton, substation. “That’s another problem that we have here,” she said. “We have to plan not for a year ahead, we have to plan for about 10 years, 15, 20 down the road.” She called for more staffing in the town’s fire and police departments “so that we have proper response going forth in the future.”

Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said the fire suppression system at the East Hampton BESS site “did exactly what it was designed to do. I think moving forward, we have professional planning staff, professionals in our Natural Resources Department as well as in our fire marshal’s office. There has to be very rigorous review and communication moving forward.”

To a question about making the town more environmentally responsible, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez referred to the town’s status as the first in the state to adopt a climate action plan to transition to 100-percent renewable energy, the board’s climate emergency declaration, the South Fork Wind farm, the solar farm at the former brush dump on Accabonac Road, the town’s ongoing transition to electric vehicles, and the BESS at the town’s Parks and Building Maintenance Department building. The goal for the town’s new senior citizens center, to be constructed in Amagansett, is to be net-zero in its energy consumption.

“I think we have to lead by example,” she said. “I think that we have been very responsible from an environmental standpoint, and there’s more work to be done.” As supervisor, she would “take a look at” another offshore wind farm should one be proposed.

“I’m not against the wind farms, I just think that you have to really review what people are doing elsewhere, in other countries, and you have to look into what the long-term outcomes would be, and what the long-term impacts might be for the environment,” Ms. Leon said. “Yes, they do help with it, but also I don’t think we have enough studies. I don’t think there has been enough studies done locally to address what the impact might be down the road of wind farms.”

The town trustees have commissioned a five-year study to determine if the South Fork Wind farm will influence fish populations or migration patterns.

The candidates clashed on East Hampton Town Airport, where the town board sought to implement restrictions on flight activity in response to years of residents’ complaints about noise and pollution. Responding to three parallel lawsuits against the town, a judge’s May 2022 temporary restraining order prohibiting any such changes remains in place.

Because of ongoing litigation, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said outside counsel has urged board members not to discuss the issue, but she did say that a community engagement effort in 2021 concluded that “80 percent wanted to see a modified airport” with curfews and other restrictions in place, but “we also have to be sensitive to Montauk, because we don’t want to create all that diversion” of flights to that hamlet’s small, private airport. The relevant question, she said, is “what does the community want, what is the community’s vision for the East Hampton Airport?”

The airport “creates 872 jobs, directly and indirectly,” Ms. Leon said, a figure cited in one plaintiff’s legal filing in support of the temporary restraining order. “I wouldn’t be okay with shutting that off and having 872 people lose their jobs. How the economy is right now and everything, I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that. Also, there’s so much waste on litigation, for years on end.”

Asked to discuss an issue that had not been raised, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez pointed to the working group that is studying the zoning code and recommending changes to address the proliferation of huge houses and excessive clearing and lot coverage. “We want East Hampton to remain a beautiful and healthy and extraordinary place to live, work, and raise our families,” she said.

Ms. Leon said she would like to see improved personal wireless and emergency communication service in the town. “It’s more than 10 years waiting for this to be solved,” she said. “I really would like to have these towers up and running and service for everyone.” She also criticized the pace of the zoning code revisions now under discussion.

The slow pace of municipal government is because “it’s designed that way,” Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said. “That’s the way the process works. There’s a lot of checks and balances because it’s taxpayer money that you’re spending.”

Election Day is Nov. 7. Early voting takes place from Oct. 28 through Nov. 5. The site for early voting is the Windmill Village housing complex at 219 Accabonac Road in East Hampton.

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