I spoke recently on the subject of Hampturbia at the East Hampton Library to an overflow crowd. As I prepared, it occurred to me that it had been a year since my initial column on that subject and that it might be a good time for an annual checkup to see how the symptoms of Hampturbia had progressed in the ensuing months.
For those new to the topic, in my two-part series in this paper last summer, I defined and then described the symptoms of Hampturbia in terms of congestion, traffic, village character, infrastructure, quality of life, and environmental degradation. I then proposed modest but targeted remedies for many of these symptoms.
So where are we 12 months after this prognosis and prescription?
It is clear from the headlines in our local papers, and the editorials and letters to the editors, that the myriad problems of a year ago remain intact. In fact, a case can be made that most of these symptoms have worsened considerably. Following is an assessment.
It’s difficult to see any improvement in terms of developmental controls. Decades of runaway commercial development and lack of political will to stem the tide remain a chronic problem, with town governments siding with developers over fierce community opposition time and time again.
It also isn’t difficult to see that many if not most of the recently completed commercial developments stand empty or only partially occupied. Wouldn’t it make sense to look at occupancy rates as a barometer as to whether additional commercial rental space was needed? Vacant storefronts throughout the South Fork do not a positive image make.
We are seeing changes in our villages, however, where this issue is center stage, and where citizen action committees have taken some heroic and productive stands against interlopers with commercial projects out of step with the historic and cultural nature of the community. Both Sag Harbor and Bridgehampton can report significant victories in this regard.
Time will tell, but more commercial development only brings more traffic, which is one of the biggest obstacles currently facing the East End.
Sometimes it feels as if there is simply no end to it. It just goes on and on for miles and miles. No day or location is immune to the quagmire of cars, trucks, buses, horse trailers, vans and construction vehicles of every size and description, with every stop sign or red light creating backups for miles in all directions.
It’s really shocking to see day after day after day.
Traffic is worse than even the dire projections of last year, and immediate attention is needed from all participating governing agencies, be they state, county or town.
One idea proposed herein last year was to install more roundabouts at critical choke points in an effort to keep some semblance of traffic flowing. Even along many of our so called “back roads” these traffic devices could provide enormous relief. Bold, swift and coordinated action is called for, as gridlock is here.
Boorish and insouciant drivers ignoring basic diving etiquette adds immeasurably to the problem. Be it speeding, ignoring stop signs or no-parking signs, or making U-turns to snag a parking spot, these drivers mean the traffic control teams in our village centers have their hands full. We can go for eight months out here and never hear a car horn, then suddenly they seem to be everywhere.
Forget traffic control, just protecting pedestrians in the village and hamlet crosswalks has become a full-time exercise.
Happily, there is some good news to report.
Following the lead of Sagaponack, the villages of Southampton, Sag Harbor and East Hampton have wrestled mightily with forces at play and emerged largely victorious in their efforts to limit house size and lot coverage and protect the character of long-established neighborhoods.
The new zoning regulations may not be perfect, and there are always exceptions allowed under duress, but basic benchmarks are now in place to stave off wholesale teardowns and maxing out of the building lot setbacks which had become standard practice in our historic villages.
The protection of mature trees in these villages is one area where additional governance should be added to prevent the destruction of these community gems. Any tree above a certain circumference or height should require approval prior to removal, and an inspection report by a certified arborist should accompany any such request.
As previously noted, village and hamlet citizens advisory committees have proven valuable conduits of community opposition to projects deemed inappropriate, and, in the case of Bridgehampton, instrumental in positively impacting the need for safer crosswalks.
Given that our collective infrastructure, or lack of it, remains an uncoordinated patchwork of numerous public and private entities, it is difficult to provide any concentrated solutions.
Our roadways remain in a disgraceful condition, largely due to the size and weight of construction vehicles constantly traversing them. It is troubling, year after year, to see one stretch of road finally repaired only to have it dug up a few months later to install some pipe or line below, then poorly patched so that the process begins anew.
There is clearly no coordination of efforts between the public utilities and governing highway departments, which is inexcusable and costly to the taxpayer.
The tangled mess of overhead wires along our few remaining bucolic stretches of roadways, in front of historic buildings and in our village centers is inexcusable. If only 10 miles of carefully selected burying of overhead wires were undertaken on the East End, a great public benefit would result. I can provide PSEG with a target list upon request.
Noise—be it on the roads, in the air above us, in the restaurants and shops, on the beach or on a neighboring property—is the greatest threat to the quality of life on these once-quiet shores.
Noise in its many forms rightly remains a hot topic at town and village board meetings and at CAC meetings throughout the South and North forks.
And as reported last year, quality of life is the fulcrum on which Hampturbia turns, and there is no greater threat to it, and to property values far and wide, than the noise generated by the East Hampton Airport.
And if noise were not enough, residents are now subjected to extremely low-flying aircraft literally strafing their properties when low ceilings prohibit aircraft from maintaining the 2,500-foot flying minimums.
When did the general population’s health, safety and welfare become less important than six passengers on a helicopter or seaplane flying just above treetop level? What criteria are employed and by whom, to determine that a given flight be diverted, or the airport closed, under such circumstances?
The East Hampton Town Board may have its hands temporarily tied pending litigation before a federal court on its airport regulations, but they should be able to at least protect the general public from irresponsible actions by its airport management.
Numerous calls to the airport manager, citing such dangerous activities, have yet to be returned. I continue to be an advocate for local pilots and flying enthusiasts for whom the airport was originally chartered, but the exponential increase in carpet-bagging commercial aviation interests whose only tie to East Hampton is the airport tarmac requires well-defined and enforceable restrictions as well as over-ocean flight paths into East Hampton airspace.
The taxpaying citizenry of Southampton and the North Fork have suffered long enough.
Pick up any local paper and the term “read it and weep” will apply regarding the tragic state of our environment. The poisoning of our once pristine ponds, streams, estuaries and bays has reached a crisis unimaginable even a few years ago.
No village or hamlet has escaped this fate, largely self inflicted through the use of nitrogen-rich fertilizers on lawns, and aging and antiquated septic systems in close proximity to these waterways. At what cost is that emerald green lawn rolling down to Georgica Pond?
A moratorium on the use of fertilizers within a quarter-mile of these bodies of water would be a good first step, and the current proposal to use future CPF monies to upgrade septic systems is a brilliant proposal going forward, and should be applauded in all five East End towns where it will apply.
Other environmental threats abound, particularly the loss of habitat due to overdevelopment and overclearing, where a building site is scraped clean for new construction. The loss is immeasurable and affects every link in the food chain, which in turns pushes wildlife further and further into oblivion. Many ground-nesting bird species have simply moved on entirely, such as the bobwhite and whippoorwills, both common here a decade ago.
The endangered piping plovers have also decamped from areas historically used as nesting sites, such as the Morton National Wildlife Refuge in Noyac. The culprit there appears to be noise generated by low-flying aircraft heading into East Hampton Airport altering their nesting and mating patterns.
So where does this leave us a full year into the prognosis for Hampturbia? We are clearly on shaky ground. As we have all witnessed of late, the fabric of society is very thin to begin with, and coupled with the cost of living on these beautiful shores, it is no wonder that an “us versus them” mentality is taking hold throughout the South Fork.
Even the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club has entered the fray under the guise of “safety” for its membership as related to a roadway that traverses part of the course. Shinnecock has always enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with Southampton, but now wants to separate itself and “buy” its privacy and exclusivity, which among other detrimental consequences to the public at large might deny the Shinnecock Nation access to many sacred sites.
How very shortsighted, and a regrettable land grab by a Southampton institution that should know better. Evidently the concept of noblesse oblige is lost on the current club hierarchy.
My closing from last year’s column is cogent as a reminder of the stakes at play, and I repeat it here:
An oft-published, and highly respected academic authority from Great Britain, Richard Butler, published a landmark study on tourism in 1980 and revisited the topic in 2010, in a two-part book entitled “The Tourism Area Life Cycle,” for which the Hamptons appears to be a textbook case.
I will avoid the minutiae contained therein, but suffice to say that we are at the critical tipping point of “tourist capacity leading to development restrictions, where a sphere of conflict exists between two distinct social groups, the entitled new moneyed class of visitors, and the local inhabitants and year-rounders.”
This is also referred to as “the period between flourishing and collapse.”
Sound familiar? I could not have said it any better.