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Guestwords: Rethinking Preservation

Wed, 11/16/2022 - 16:59

On Nov. 3, residents of Sag Harbor approved a board of education proposal to purchase a series of contiguous lots next to Pierson High School. With additional support from the community preservation fund, the school would build a single large athletic field for use by students and open at other times to the community. The Southampton Town Board must now approve the C.P.F. contribution.

This proposal, though primarily impacting Sag Harbor, where I am a resident, is significant for the broader Southampton and East Hampton Towns. It forces all of us to rethink what “preservation” means for the East End. Simply put, we need a new approach to local preservation because the old model no longer works.

For context, the vote authorized the Sag Harbor School Board to contribute $3.325 million to purchasing five lots — the C.P.F. would add the remaining funds necessary to meet the seller’s asking price of $9.325 million.

The Nov. 3 vote generated strong opposition by residents and community organizations, many arguing that there would be adverse environmental impacts and increased traffic congestion. Those in favor believed a field would address the lack of recreational facilities for local youth. It was a close vote — 638 in favor, 521 opposed.

There are a few lessons that apply to the region.

First, we need to redefine how we talk about and approach preservation so it fits with the region’s current need. Numerous stakeholders objected to the Sag Harbor proposal because “preservation” funds supported the construction of a school athletic field. Most were surprised that C.P.F. money already supports parks and school districts. And that the C.P.F. subsidizes sewerage and infrastructure projects, and even assists golf courses.

I believe this makes sense given that the C.P.F.’s mission is to preserve “the community character,” but the C.P.F.’s website doesn’t explain its approach well. And it does not disclose the rationale for selecting projects. Instead, the decision making is opaque and the language is stuck in 20th-century environmental discourse, which was principally about the natural ecology. Today, we know that housing, public space, racial/ethnic equality, and parks are critical components of the community character that must be preserved.

The C.P.F. needs to overhaul its mission so it fits with the 21st century. Think about it. If a school can be supported, why not acquire land to build housing for public school teachers? Or to subsidize a public transportation hub? Or a skateboard park?

The point is that, without doing better to educate the public about how it operates and for what purpose, the C.P.F. will lose legitimacy just when it is most needed. And it will lose a valuable opportunity to ask the public for feedback on what preservation means to them.

The misperception of the C.P.F. mission was one of many inaccuracies and misunderstandings that shaped the debates in Sag Harbor. In community meetings and across social media, people struggled to obtain answers to the most basic questions: Is the purchase allowed? What are the building costs? What other ways can residents leverage C.P.F. money? With no single, impartial entity to provide answers, residents shared all kinds of misleading information with one another.

Worse, according to public statements made by the school board, the C.P.F. requested that board members not disclose the project to the public in the early stages. They wanted to conduct their real estate negotiations privately, which apparently is allowed by New York’s Open Meetings Law.

This is a textbook definition of poor governance. Sag Harbor’s school board has worked very hard to be transparent and inclusive. This process of muffling our publicly elected representatives generates mistrust and the loss of public confidence. The C.P.F.’s intentions may have been defensible, but it is the responsibility of government to educate and prepare constituents for the future. Not blind them to risks and opportunities — or worse, ask for input after the most consequential decisions have already been made.

The last two years have created an unexpected set of pressures on the region that no one could have predicted. Across the country, the pandemic is redefining our relationship to work, family, and community. At the moment, the East End looks to be in shock. Traffic patterns, land use, and the demand placed on public and private facilities no longer conform to the patterns of the last 30 years.

The C.P.F. could be an excellent tool to address these changes. But first we need to better understand our overall needs. I would encourage the Town of Southampton to issue a temporary moratorium on any further C.P.F. projects or, at the very least, initiate a rigorous review of the community needs and priorities. And this review should not just be “environmental” — in the limited sense of the natural ecology — but societal and long term.

Afterward, with data in hand and widespread input, we can initiate an informed public dialogue to determine how best to preserve our wonderful community character.

Sudhir Venkatesh is a professor of sociology at Columbia University. His latest book is “The Tomorrow Game.”

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