Present-day ideas about land rights on the East End can be traced back to the English, who set out their plantations on the Island in the middle of the 17th century. As with much of North America, the colonists themselves were beholden to a higher power — a royal grantee, whose emissaries on this side of the Atlantic, in turn, sold land rights to groups of Englishmen with an intention to establish small farming communities.
Independent at first, the East End townships soon answered to the authority of the Connecticut Colony at Hartford for a generation. The town governments, such as they were, divided land into allotments, which they then awarded, by drawing, to the resident white males. In East Hampton, the first division created 34 lots from eight to 12 acres apiece, laid out between what is today Main Street in East Hampton Village and Hook Pond.
It is always illuminating to see what laws came first in a particular place. After putting the screws to the first-people Montauketts, the East Hampton men elected a group of five representatives for “ye ordering of ye affairs of ye Towne.” Their first order of business was to decree that land could be occupied only by owners — no renters — and that they, the town fathers, would approve of any subsequent purchasers.
They got right to it. One James Still was turned away in 1651 when he sought to buy a lot from Goodman Meggs. That same year, a David Turner showed up only to be given 14 days to find work as a servant or else “Depart the Towne.”
Next they set a fine for any man who refused to attend town meetings. After that, they dealt with the collective cutting up of whales that washed ashore. Next was organizing a militia, soon followed by rules dealing with straying livestock, guns, dogs, and, of significance to this day, fences. From March 1650: “It is further ordered yt every man shall fence yt land yt hee Doth enjoy yt is to be vnderstood for the quantitie of his land on the plaine.” Today we might think of Chapter 255 of the East Hampton Town code, zoning, as the direct descendant of the 1650 fence law.
In her 1953 history of the town, my local-historian grandmother, Jeannette Edwards Rattray, posed the question “Why do so many ‘Bonackers,’ as East Hampton people like to call themselves, object so strongly to change?” This trait she attributed to an “inherited clannishness” and in part “because they know full well that increased competition in business would accelerate the pace of their lives. . . .”
Zoning laws, she wrote, were established to prevent outsiders from setting up industry within village limits: “No protection from within is needed, for the descendant of independent farmer-fisherman stock does not take kindly to punching a time-clock.” Whether that remains the case today is a good question.