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Oct 6, 2019 5:54 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

East Hampton Candidates Spar On Housing And Airport Noise

The Group for Good Government hosted the first public debate between candidates for the East Hampton Town Board on Saturday. Michael Wright
Oct 9, 2019 1:00 PM

The six candidates for East Hampton Town Board met for their first public debate on Saturday afternoon in a debate that saw the challengers casting aspersions on Town Board initiatives and the incumbents defending the weight of their accomplishments in office.

Saturday's debate, hosted by the Group for Good Government, spotlighted a number of long-standing issues of concern in East Hampton like affordable housing, airport noise, property tax assessments and senior citizens services, as well as some more recent ones like cellular phone service, offshore wind development and control of deer herds.

The debate participants were a politically odd lot. There are no Republicans running for the Town Board this year, leaving the lone challengers to the Democratic incumbents the slate endorsed by the Independence Party, which is composed of two Democrats, in supervisor candidate David Gruber and council candidate Bonnie Brady, and politically unaffiliated council candidate Betsy Bambrick.

They are facing off against three Democratic incumbents: Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc, who has been on the Town Board since 2011 and is seeking a second term as supervisor; Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, seeking reelection to a third four-year term on the board; and Councilman David Lys, who was appointed to the board in 2018, won the right to hold the seat in a special election last year and is now seeking election to his first full term in office.

Asked what they thought the two biggest issues of concern facing the town are right now, every candidate included in their answer the need for more affordable housing to help young adults remain in the community.

“We've basically lost a generation of Bonackers because of the cost of housing,” said Ms. Brady, the wife of a commercial fisherman from Montauk who serves as the executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association. She blamed short-term rental sites like Airbnb and VRBO for snuffing out almost all of the year-round rental housing opportunities. “If we don't find ways, and lots of ways, not just through duplexes and [accessory] apartments, we're going to lose everyone and then we're just going to be a bedroom community.”

Mr. Gruber said the current Town Board has not forced through the sort of housing creation that is needed to bring affordable living opportunities to areas where it as been eliminated, and that he sees the way to create affordable housing is through a concerted government effort to create large numbers of living spaces.

“We need to solve it by building housing densely, so it's affordable,” he said, blasting the Town Board for the nearly decade-long gap since the last affordable housing project was built. “It's going to take hundreds of years to solve this problem the way it's being done.”

Mr. Van Scoyoc disagreed. He noted that the current Town Board resurrected the town's affordable housing efforts with a 12-unit development that is ready to be occupied and said that he thinks the way to make housing more affordable is through smaller projects and a focus on making existing homes more affordable through subsidies.

“The way he anticipates solving the problem you will destroy the character of our town,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “It's much more important to keep the existing neighborhoods, the existing homes, at an affordable rate. We should be subsidizing the buying of homes in traditional affordable neighborhoods and protecting our town from the complete gentrification by McMansions. Let's not go clearing 80 acres and busting our zoning to build three-story apartments everywhere.”

Ms. Bambrick said that creating more senior housing developments like the one built at St. Michael's Lutheran Church in Amagansett should be a priority.

“I believe we should have a St. Michael's-type project in every hamlet,” she said. “It's the model for what senior housing should be.”

For those who already have housing, the debate hosts posed a scenario to the candidates that asked what should be done were a resident to sue and force the town to do a property reassessment — which has never been done in the town, in direct violation of state law. Every candidate acknowledged that reassessment is warranted and would bring benefits to some, but also carries the potential for downsides that could kneecap some vulnerable residents.

“Reassessment should happen but there has to be sensitivity and balance,” Ms. Bambrick said, nodding to the concern that the equalizing of assessments would raise the tax bills of those on fixed incomes to an extent that could be crippling.

Mr. Lys concurred, also nodding to the anticipated costs of conducting a townwide reassessment, which is estimated to be in the neighborhood of $4 million to $5 million.

“I agree with Betsy that we have to be careful of the unknowns,” he said. “If we did have to go to reassessment, I would want to look into special legislation in New York State law … to protect seniors, veterans and the vulnerable.”

Ms. Overby explained that taking on reassessment has long been a daunting task for town leaders because it is costly, has few offsetting benefits as far as the town itself is concerned and is politically unpopular even though many people would get substantial tax bill reductions as a result.

“Reassessment is a frightening prospect,” she said. “The concern is for longtime residents, retired residents and generational residents who can ill afford an increase in their taxes.”

Mr. Gruber said that regardless of the fears, the pain will have to be endured eventually since, as the debate question posed to them raised, it will likely be forced upon the town legally at some point anyway.

“Reassessment is inevitable because the law requires it,” he said. “Like so many problems in East Hampton, we are putting our heads in the sand and pretending that somehow we can avoid the inevitable. It should happen and it has to happen, because we have gross inequities.”

Mr. Van Scoyoc said that he has spoken with the town assessors about hiring a consultant to do an analysis of the town's assessment rolls to sharpen the picture of what effects a townwide reassessment could be expected to have.

On the future of the East Hampton Airport, none of the candidates said they would be in favor of closing the airport in 2022, when federal grant assurances expire.

Mr. Van Scoyoc said that he believes that the town should stay the legal course it has taken thus far and that the threat of a possible closure of the airport should eventually force helicopter operators to acquiesce to some limitations that will ease noise.

“In 2022 we'll have the power to close the airport or the leverage to force reasonable restrictions that our community supports,” the supervisor said.

Mr. Lys and Ms. Bambrick both said they would be afraid of the potential for side effects of closing the airport — like pushing traffic to Montauk or other places.

“If the airport closes it's not going to keep the helicopters from coming,” Ms. Bambrick said. “They will still come, they will just land in private areas where we'll have no control.”

Mr. Gruber said that he thinks he knows the way to get control of the airport, through understandings gleaned from 15 years spent sparring with the Federal Aviation Administration. But despite his long opposition to the airport, he said he would not be in favor of closing it.

“We can get control of this airport if we put our minds to it, and save it as a community asset,” he said.

When asked, the Independence Party challengers were stridently critical of the current Town Board's handling of a proposal to relocate the East Hampton Shellfish Hatchery from its current facilities in Montauk to a property on Gann Road in Springs that the town purchased last year. The plan is to construct the new hatchery building and renovate an adjacent home into an environmental education center — at a cost of more than $4 million, which the town has applied for state grant funding to pay for.

“This is just about the silliest project ever proposed,” Mr. Gruber said. “The savings projected from the new facility is $23,000 per year. So we're spending $5 million to save $23,000 per year.”

Mr. Van Scoyoc noted that the old hatchery building, which is more than 9,000 square feet and is zoned for commercial use, could be rented out once vacated, so the potential financial return of the move would be more than just the savings to the hatchery operations.

Ms. Bambrick said she liked the new hatchery plan, but thought the addition of an education center would overtax the property. Ms. Brady said the project should be presented to the Town Planning Board and subject to full environmental review, a step that Town Board members have not yet committed to taking.

On the construction of offshore wind farms, Mr. Van Scoyoc and Ms. Overby reiterated their support for the South Fork Wind Farm project and expanding renewable resources in general. Mr. Lys, who has twice voted against town approvals related to the wind farm project, said he supports more aggressively expanding renewable energy sources throughout the town, like solar and smaller-scale wind turbines on commercial buildings.

“What do we do about real sustainability: [The South Fork Wind Farm] is not going to do it,” said Ms. Brady, who has been one of the most vocal critics of the offshore wind project. “The whole point of the South Fork Wind Farm was to shave peak and increase resiliency and it does neither. Wind farms … are 38 percent effective of its nameplate, that means 46 megawatts and the power will not be in the summer when we need it.”

Ms. Overby said that climate change should be seen as the overarching concern.

“The biggest threat to marine life is climate change,” she said. “There's an ocean blob [in the Pacific] where the water temperature is 4 to 5 degrees warmer than the surrounding sea. Marine life is dying.”

“Personally,” she added, “I support the project, as do 70 to 80 percent of those who live in East Hampton.”

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