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Not One More

On February 17, 2022 the East Hampton Town Board held a public hearing to discuss the proposed Community Preservation Fund acquisition, in a 50-50 split with the Peconic Land Trust, of a 2.7-acre wooded, undeveloped parcel on the shoreline of Georgica Pond at 18 Jones Creek Lane in East Hampton Village.

This parcel would otherwise likely have been developed into a very large house/compound; as the real estate for-sale ad stated, plans were in place to "feature a modern, 9,000 sq.ft. home, not including the lower-level spaces, as well as a 1,590 sq.ft. accessory building and swimming pool."

Below are the comments I addressed to the Town Board at this public hearing:

Members of the Town Board,

I would like to offer comments as part of the public hearing regarding the proposed acquisition of 2.7 acres at 18 Jones Creek Lane in East Hampton Village.

The last few times I offered public comments to you regarding proposed CPF acquisitions-- specifically the transactions on Green Hollow as well as the Muchmore parcels--I know to some, I might have sounded a bit “Debbie Downer” when I raised a series of very specific, transaction-related concerns about valuation methodology, lack of transparency, questions of usages inconsistent with CPF definitions, and what (in the Green Hollow buy) was too great a skew of benefits to a handful of private interests primarily at public expense.

Today, however, my comments are not that.

I am enthusiastic about the CPF purchase of the 2.7 wooded, undisturbed shoreline acres proposed on Jones Creek Lane.

This parcel was indeed already prioritized by the town: if not for a full-out purchase, it was clearly in CPF sightlines as a part of the “target list.” And I also understand that our friends at the important group Friends of Georgica Pond have advocated for this particular conservation acquisition for some time and they see it is an important accomplishment. Moreover, I see this is an example of a legitimate public/private partnership -- of a type clearly favored in the CPF plan -- to get this done.

Though the Town’s contribution at 50% of the total “lessens the blow,” the $8.5 million total price tag is a big one, though not surprising as this Hamptons real estate market remains overinflated by blistering levels of development overall and speculative development in particular.

However, notwithstanding the price tag, much as the enthusiasm I felt about the recent CPF purchase of the 1.7 acre wooded shoreline parcel at 495 East Lake Drive you announced a couple months ago, I do think it is important to put this CPF stake in the ground, or line in the sand, and say loudly “not one more” … That our Town does not want to see ever more acres of woodlands or dune land or wetlands along any of our shorelines clear-cut or excavated or filled to make way for another oversized compound.

Related to this, I’d like to take the opportunity to emphasize a couple related points:

First, extreme levels of development continue apace in East Hampton Town and East Hampton Village. Today, happily, we have one sensitive and important parcel saved…but what are we to do about all the other sensitive and important parcels and acres?

Even with our stated environmental imperatives across East Hampton, and even with everything we know about the extraordinarily degraded state of the waters of our beautiful Georgica Pond, still, parcel after parcel are being developed or redeveloped all around its shoreline and close by in the surrounding area. These newly constructed compounds include not only very oversized houses, but also significant clearing, multiple other structures, pools, tennis courts, and other big areas of impervious surface, as well as swaths of land landscaped with sod and ornamentals that yield significant irrigation/landscape chemical runoff.

Some data. I took a quick look back at real estate sales that have taken place in this area over the last 2 or so years. Looking just at the relatively small area directly around and close in to the perimeter of Georgica Pond: At a minimum I see that 21 properties were sold that were (a) newly developed, spec-builder constructed houses built, some on undeveloped land, with houses ranging from 6,000 to 12,000 sq feet; or (b) vacant land to be developed with extraordinary sized structures; or (c) marketed specifically to be tear downs and to be redeveloped with much larger homes. Moreover, currently, I see at least 10 properties active for sale right now on the market that fit these same criteria—and there are likely a number more for sale behind the scenes in the pipeline. And none of this sales-related growth includes all the expansions by existing owners that have been permitted by the Village and Town

I note also that this past summer the Village Board majority pushed through, with most minimal vetting, an astounding series of developer-favorable changes to their zoning code that all-in significantly expands allowable GFA between 19% to 75% on their R80 and above parcels. In addition, the last of the changes they enacted added permission to expand below-grade basement space 25% beyond the footprint of the ground floor of the house in any or all directions and also permits digging deeper to add more feet of ceiling height in the below-grade space. This code change regarding basements could displace large amounts of groundwater as well and drive greater occupancy/intensity of use.

We just heard the comment from the Peconic Land Trust about the abysmal and shameful state of water quality in Georgica Pond; there is an absolutely critical need to reduce nitrogen levels by 60%. We know that I/A systems can help curb nitrogen effluent, but they certainly don’t eliminate it. And any I/A benefits are far outweighed as a house gets so much larger.

Also, I note, the environmental expert Dr. Christopher Gobler of Stony Brook University recently made a presentation to the Village Board about treating wastewater and remediating water quality in EH Village water bodies including Georgica Pond. He stated clearly that residence occupancy is the main driver of toxicity and water quality degradation. And we know that increasing number of houses as well as expanding house size are the main drivers of higher occupancy.

My point here is that though CPF and other preservation/conservation purchases are wonderful and are an essential and powerful tool in the toolbox, the reality of the current real estate development situation—and our current zoning codes-- in East Hampton likely means that we cannot rely on conservation alone—we will not preserve our way out of this problem.

What sense is there to spending tens or hundreds of millions of public preservation fund dollars if unwise development is allowed to continue unchecked at ever increasing orders of magnitude?

This CPF acquisition today inspires me to state my hope that a preservation mindset thread can be woven through the fabric of our land-use regulations and zoning code, especially when it comes to protecting our shorelines, protecting our woodlands, protecting our community character, and reversing the degradation of the water quality.

As a second point related to this PLT/CPF purchase: I know this acquisition is designated as “open space,” but we haven’t heard anything more specific regarding a potential management plan. So, my question today is: will the public be able to access and enjoy this reserve, in combination with the lovely Fulling Mill ag preserve property it abuts? Nearly all Georgica Pond shoreline is inaccessible or off limits to the public because of the ultra-exclusive shoreline development. And we know that along much of the western shoreline of the Pond, all public access by car, on bicycle or on foot is forbidden, as it is confined within the private Georgica Association. I think it is important that some sort of access to allow gentle and passive enjoyment of Georgica Pond for Town and Village residents be a part of this PLT and Town CPF plan.

Thank you very much for considering my comments.

(Photo credit: Friends of Georgica Pond, satellite image)


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