Reality Check - 27 East


Reality Check

authorStaff Writer on Mar 30, 2022

Last week’s Express Sessions event had a focus on Southampton Village, with the topic being preparations for the upcoming summer season and the annual onslaught of visitors. Questions arose that will be asked in every community on the South Fork: Will the pandemic’s impact in the past few years wane this season? Will it unleash a pent-up demand for mask-free celebration in the sun? Will lingering worries about a new variant in Europe, along with the stunning devastation in war-torn Ukraine, increase numbers here this summer? Can we handle an increase?

Southampton Village has its own challenges and advantages in looking ahead, but the truth is that the conversation was one that touches on a regional present, and future. Nobody has all the answers — and if they find any, they definitely should share.

Southampton Village Mayor Jesse Warren made a point of encouraging participation in the village’s last event, held over the weekend, to give the public a chance to provide input on the village’s Comprehensive Plan. Last written in 1999, it was supposed to be a blueprint for development that was to be updated at least a few times since then. Instead, the village will start fresh in 2022.

Both towns and most villages have similar documents, most from around the turn of the 21st century, too, and many echo the same basic ideas about how the communities should develop. One guiding principle: that as South Fork communities plan for the future, they should prioritize the “needs and aspirations” of residents over tourists or other visitors.

Maybe these 20-year-old planning documents don’t need updating. Maybe they need to be shredded.

It’s scandalous to suggest a different priority — who would ever put visitors’ wants and needs over those of the very residents who pay the taxes that fund not just the studies but everything they recommend? It would mean the death of small-town Southampton — and East Hampton, and Sag Harbor, and Westhampton Beach, and everywhere in between. The end of “quality of life.”

Or would it? Perhaps it’s simply semantics, but the old planning terms, even the base principles, seem so outdated as to be silly. Who are “residents,” exactly? Who are “visitors”? “Tourists”? The lines are so blurry as to be nearly nonexistent in 2022.

Certainly, full-time property owners, or year-round renters, who work locally are in the first category — and they remain the community’s lifeblood, no argument, and should be the priority. But has planning truly put these families’ needs first? It can be argued that the only ones who benefited have cashed in whatever property value they could and fled, so they’re no longer here. Those who remain are on a knife’s edge, struggling to find an affordable place to live and a full-time job with benefits to support it. And those who bought the houses belong to other groups.

Are part-time homeowners still residents? Or are they “visitors”? The “snowbirds” have always had a special place in local society; most are considered “locals” after enough seasons. What if they are now renting out their houses for a few lucrative months of summer instead? What does that make them?

“Tourists” have mostly been priced off the beaches and discouraged by traffic. But can a resort destination really demonize a group of adults with money and time to spend, perhaps without even staying the night? Who benefits from such extreme inhospitality?

From the Southampton Village Comprehensive Plan of 2000: “There has been a reversal in the village’s character: It is no longer a small farming and fishing community with only a minor role as a summer recreation locale for New York City residents.”

Even then, it seems precious to try to cling to such a vision of any South Fork community. This hasn’t been primarily a “small farming and fishing community” for well over a generation. It has long had more than a “minor role” to play in tandem with the five boroughs. Aspiring to preserve what used to be isn’t just bad planning — it’s the cause of bad planning. It’s fantasy.

It’s time for a reality check. East Hampton and Southampton towns, and the villages within them, are still special places, but there are only ghosts of their past lives. They are something different today, in 2022, than they were in 2000. They’re vastly different, even, than they were in 2010.

Effective planning has to recognize and acknowledge this. It must see, clearly, that short-term rentals are happening. An absence of hotels and motels is a blessing, mostly, but short-term rentals are where the stress of that absence explodes. Pretending that everyone here, on the streets and beaches in the summer, is “living” here might have worked in 1995. It’s no longer true.

That’s not a plea for more transient housing, or an argument against the “residential resort” aspiration; beach parking lots, for instance, should be for residents, first and foremost. But only someone with blinders sees this as a healthy, functioning place for people to live and work these days — and that’s the primary goal of master plans in the last 20 years. Something fundamental went wrong.

It’s a new time, and it’s time to start making plans, comprehensive or not, based on what’s really around us — not just in our memories.