The first substantive discussion of progress made by a work group charged with amending East Hampton Town’s zoning code happened at the town board’s work session on Tuesday, and many of the dozen residents who spoke about it during the meeting’s 90-minute public comment period tied the effort to curb development to the myriad manifestations of environmental degradation and climate change throughout the United States and around the world.
Councilwoman Cate Rogers had announced formation of the work group in May, citing a development boom that complies to the present code but is “unprecedented in mass, size, and scale,” she said at the time, hinting at reducing allowable house size, clearing of vegetation, and lot coverage. That announcement followed an aggressive campaign by Jaine Mehring, an Amagansett resident, to encourage the board to compel “rational restraint” and “more modulated proportions.”
But the proceedings seemed to illustrate a collective realization that unfettered growth is destroying more than the bucolic vistas and rural character of old. With the acrid smell of smoke from Canadian wildfires still fresh in people’s minds, temperature records broken almost daily, historic flooding in the Northeast, and predictions of far worse impacts from centuries of greenhouse gas emissions, much of the public comment tied an effort to restrain development to an emergency that is no longer an abstract or distant concern.
The work group’s objectives in amending the zoning code are many, according to a draft read by Ms. Rogers, including creation of a code to guide orderly development and redevelopment and to promote the goal of the town’s comprehensive plan “to reduce overall buildout to minimize adverse impacts on the town’s infrastructure and municipal budgets, and to protect natural and cultural features.” Proper use of land “to minimize adverse environmental and quality of life impacts of commercial and industrial uses” is another. Protection of “local ecological integrity and biodiversity” and minimizing “degradation of natural systems” is yet another.
Coastal resiliency, including the town’s vulnerability to sea level rise, flooding, and erosion, is prioritized in the draft, as are promotion of renewable energy, reduced consumption and waste, clean water, conservation of natural resources, and protection of ecosystems, ecological diversity, and open space. Avoiding undue concentration of structures and occupancy, reducing and preventing traffic congestion, and promoting and protecting the ability to walk and cycle safely are also covered.
Sustainability, for both residents and businesses, is a common theme, with a stated goal to “ensure that growth does not overwhelm the carrying capacity of human-made infrastructure or compromise the regenerative capacity of land, waters, and natural systems.”
Mirroring the town’s 2021 declaration of a climate emergency, the draft aims “to make climate mitigation a guiding principle and objective of all municipal operations and aspects of town business, as well as all policy.”
Leonard Green, the first speaker during the public comment portion at the start of the meeting, said that he was encouraged by the draft’s stated intention “to protect and enhance local and regional ecosystems and biological and ecological diversity by preventing to the maximum extent possible unnecessary disturbance and destruction” and “to promote the restoration, recovery, replenishment, and regeneration of natural resources, complex ecological systems, and native flora and fauna where they have already been removed, damaged, or degraded.”
“What we do with our yards does not stay in our yards,” he told the board. “That is the nature of regional ecosystems. In this, we are all connected by mutual responsibility to preserve and protect.” He said that he hoped all members of the board had read a report on the decline of fireflies in last week’s issue of The Star. “As it aptly reminds us, the collapse is symptomatic,” he said. “That means it is not just about fireflies. Fireflies are sadly one more thread in the fabric of our rapidly unraveling ecosystem.”
“We all know that we long ago passed carrying capacity,” said Biddle Duke, who emphasized the need for coastal resilience in the face of erosion.
Ms. Mehring, who is a member of the working group, spoke of her responsibility as a property owner to her neighbors, the community, the land, and nature, “of which we humans are only but a part.” The zoning code’s purpose is to balance the rights and responsibilities of stewardship and resilience, she said. She acknowledged the likelihood of pushback in the form of litigation by property owners and developers, and appealed to the public to participate “early, often, and full-throatedly” to restore balance and proportion to the code and, through it, the town.
But the discussion continually returned to the broader impacts of human activity on the environment. Public comment on the work group’s progress included discussions of the rampant use of pesticides in a place reliant on a sole-source aquifer for drinking water. “The unregulated use of over-the-counter pesticides is so prolific,” Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc told one speaker. “People don’t understand the impacts. While they seek to protect themselves from mosquitoes and ticks, they don’t understand that they’re killing everything else on the property as well, which could be a contributing factor not only to groundwater being poisoned but to other beneficial species that help maintain the forest and protect the trees.”
“This is the collapse of our environment right before our eyes,” he said, “where it’s not as apparent farther west because there’s so much development. We’re kind of like the canary in the coal mine, if you will.”
Jolie Parcher, an owner of Mandala Yoga Center for Healing Arts in Amagansett, told the board that she has been speaking with residents about the work group’s mission. “Almost everybody says, ‘Isn’t it too late?’ “ she said. She, too, likened the issue of overdevelopment to climate change. “It is too late, and of course it’s not too late,” she said, voicing the hope that “you’re going to be the board that gets to say ‘Look what we did. It felt like it was too late, and so many of us felt hopeless, and look what we did. We were the town that did this.’ “
She asked that the board enact a moratorium on construction. “We have to stop gigantic building,” she said. “Stop! A moratorium on building on our shorelines.”
Ms. Rogers later said that she opposes a moratorium, echoing her own comments when the work group was announced. While developers can work elsewhere, a moratorium would penalize residents in the construction trade, she said, “and I think they would carry the heaviest burden.”
The work group, she said, has demonstrated its commitment to balancing compliance with the comprehensive plan and the community’s needs, and will continue to review sections of the zoning code. At the same time, she said, the group will prepare a generic environmental assessment form under New York State Environmental Quality Review Act guidelines.