As this image from NASA shows, the reach of New York City to the East End has grown intense.
According to Google, the first use of the word Hampturbia" occurred in my year-end column in this paper in December, wherein I wrote, "I am hard-pressed to think of another 12-month period where so much happened on the East End as related to architecture, quality-of-life issues, zoning battles, assaults on local character, and a general feeling among the year-rounders that the East End is slowly becoming Hampturbia."Having invented the word, it seems only apropos that I give it a proper definition, lest someone else beats me to it.
Hamp-tur’-bi-a (noun). The evolution of Long Island's East End (aka the South Fork, aka the Hamptons), long known for its bucolic charm, unique environment, distinctive historic villages and hamlets replete with farmers, fishermen, artists, writers, captains of industry and socialites coexisting without social barriers, into one homogeneous and overcrowded enclave of suburban sameness and exclusivity.
Having moved to Bridgehampton full time in 1984, I have seen firsthand the steady erosion of what made the South Fork so very special. I was asked in 1989 to write a piece on local architecture for the Parrish Art Museum’s Summer Party Journal. In that piece I described the primary East End villages of Southampton, Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor, East Hampton and Montauk “as a string of pearls, each different in size and luster, and each contributing equally to the strand.”
Not so today, as a sense of sameness has descended, along with an unrelenting scourge of aircraft of every description, traffic congestion beyond anyone’s concept of a bucolic existence, and the general feeling between locals and second-home owners alike that the long-held concepts of fairness, politesse, largess, and noblesse oblige have given way to arrogance, personal gain at the expense of others, one-upmanship and ostentation. And just when you think it can’t get any worse, there is Montauk.
A quick perusal of each of the front pages of our local papers in concert with their weekly editorials and letters to the editor provides a glimpse of the many issues at play. If one views these conditions as an illness, what symptoms might be evident for evaluation and eventual prognosis? Here are a few to ponder.
Overcrowding and lack of vision in local government at all levels to stem the tide of development, both residential and commercial in nature, have reached the tipping point.
The entry corridor of Highway 27 is a textbook example of decades of lack of political will and vision in the development of this important gateway to the Hamptons. Yet there remain numerous large-scale projects either under current development or pending approval which will further congest and exacerbate the problems along this dangerous highway corridor.
Wainscott recently discovered firsthand how a simple process such as a site plan review can go terribly wrong with its new HomeGoods megastore, and Bridgehampton has at least temporarily dodged a bullet in the decision by CVS not to occupy the historic epicenter of its hamlet, at arguably the most congested intersection on the East End.
Residential developments along sleepy farm roads and lanes in Water Mill, Bridgehampton and Sag Harbor seemingly sprout up overnight with cookie-cutter homes cheek by jowl with nary a distinctive architectural feature among them. From a distance these developments look like one big house, as the roofs merge together with little or no mature landscaping to separate them.
Meanwhile, the cul-de-sac-ization—thanks to my fellow columnist Marshall Watson for creating that word—of the Hamptons continues at a relentless pace a la Wisteria Lane—gratefully without the ensuing drama, at least for now.
East-west traffic is for all practical purposes at gridlock levels, and this includes back roads as well as the primary artery of 27, with each traffic signal or stop sign creating many-mile-long backups through Water Mill, Bridgehampton, Noyac, Sag Harbor and East Hampton. Depending on the time, one can expect to “sit” in traffic regardless of day of the week or location.
Additional development brings additional traffic in the form of construction vehicles of every size and shape as well as deliveries and service and maintenance calls, be it gas or oil trucks, or landscapers with their tandem trailers, trash collection or pool companies. All a far cry from the farm equipment most back roads were built to handle. Commuter buses and horse trailers further complicate these fragile confluences of country lanes across the once-rural landscape.
There really isn’t any, at least on the scale required to accommodate the seasonal population explosion experienced in the summer. Be it parking, or lack of same, police, or volunteer ambulance and fire crews, or the much needed traffic control, all are stretched to the limit.
With all due respect to the young adults employed by Sag Harbor and the traffic control teams in the other villages and hamlets, entitled drivers ignore them as well as the established and posted traffic and parking regulations. After all, what is a $75 fine to someone driving a $250,000 car? Forget traffic control in our village centers, just protecting pedestrians in the crosswalks has become a full-time exercise.
Cell service is spotty and undependable, and the much-maligned electrical grid appears to be holding up despite the unsightly entangled mass of overhead wires one would expect to find in a third world country. As to our roads, be they primary or secondary, maintained by the state, county or town, they remain under repair from last winter—and it’s August.
In Southampton, Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor and East Hampton, local village character is under assault from developers and private homeowners alike through demolition and the rebuilding of homes completely out of scale for the neighborhoods in which they uncomfortably reside.
Not even 100-plus-year-old trees are immune to the concepts of bigger, wider and higher, as can be evidenced throughout these villages, where stately trees once ruled. The concept of a blank slate on which to build is the new normal regardless of heritage or provenance—look no further than Elaine Benson’s historic Victorian manse and towering maples across from the Bridgehampton Post Office, removed while the ink was drying on the stop-work order.
Building permit moratoriums are currently in place in Sag Harbor, where a sea change in village character is Issue 1 with the local community, as well as in Southampton Village.
At press time, East Hampton Village appears on the verge of adopting a similar stance until lot coverage, building mass, setbacks, maximum house size and pyramid envelopes can be studied and recommended to stem the tide of overdevelopment.
PSEG’s recent unapologetic and callous desecration of East Hampton Village is yet another example of entities from outside this area—in this case New Jersey—not understanding the virtues that make this area special.
Who would have ever thought that quality of life could ever be under assault in the bucolic Hamptons? Not me 31 years ago, and most likely none of the true old-timers whose families have lived here for generations. How and why would anyone want to alter and threaten the very reasons one comes to live here to begin with?
But here we are with a deluge of offensive behavior, be it on the roads, in the air above us, in the restaurants and shops, on the beaches, on the neighboring property and most notably in the streets of Montauk, where it is no exaggeration to state that chaos reigned over the recent Fourth of July weekend.
Residents from diverse locales such as North Sea, Noyac, North Haven, Shelter Island, Sag Harbor, Bridgehampton, Sagaponack and Wainscott have found common cause in the assault on one’s senses and right to privacy which is the boorish, reckless and insouciant behavior of commuter helicopter operators that use East Hampton Airport as a cash cow.
Noise in its many forms remains a hot topic at town and village board meetings, and at citizens advisory committee meetings throughout the East End.
It is no exaggeration to say that environmental damage, loss of native habitats, introduction of invasive plant species, and misuse of precious natural resources caused by the rapid development noted above is at an all-time high. Numerous bird species have completely disappeared and others are stressed to find an adequate habitat, even in many of our protected woodland and wetland areas.
Turn off 27 onto David Whites Lane in Southampton and enter the new paradigm in holding the marauding herds of deer away, 8-foot-high wire enclosures to protect crops, landscape materials, flower farms and orchards alike. With the automobile as the only “natural “ predator of deer, and with their habitat diminished, this appears the only way to salvage one’s investment in agriculture, or one’s prized collection of day lilies, hosta or hydrangea. And these internment-style enclosures stretch for miles through the once open farms and fields of Water Mill and Bridgehampton.
And all those acres of lush green carpets of manicured lawns don’t get that way naturally. Yes, the land is rich, and perfect for growing crops, but lawns require fertilizers, and weed and insect control, all of which eventually filters through the layers of soil and sand to the aquifer, or runs off into nearby waterways or streams. And those lawns require water, lots of water to maintain their lush and verdant texture.
Invasive plants are choking our ponds and bays, and overwhelming the natural vegetation of undeveloped and often town-owned properties. Many open vistas in our communal landscape are under threat from those who would annex protected agricultural reserves and block the visual enjoyment of same by the general population who paid for them through their taxes. A land grab by any estimation.
Is it all simply too much? The fabric of society is very thin to begin with, and coupled with the enormous cost of living on these beautiful shores it is no wonder that an “us versus them” mentality is taking hold throughout the South Fork. When this happens, the erosion of good will, established for generations between the local year-round population, second-home owners, and seasonal visitors, can create an avalanche of animus and, in the case of Montauk, disgust and outrage.
Not a recipe for improvement by any stretch of one’s imagination.
Is it too late? Can the pendulum of excess and carefree development reach its zenith and begin the long swing back to some semblance of normalcy, good planning, and courtesy, or at least to 2001, when everyone tried particularly hard to be a good, caring and respectful neighbor?
I shall report on the options available next time in "Hampturbia Part Two: Prescription & Prognosis." In the interim, please speak and act thoughtfully among yourselves.
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One fine body…