The East Hampton Town Board held a public hearing on August 19, 2021 to discuss the recently released East Hampton Town Community Preservation Project Plan 2021. This document, produced by the Planning and Land Acquisition and Management Departments, updates the last comprehensive CPF plan published in 2011, and it re-establishes the fund’s priorities and criteria for land acquisition activities, including conservation of open space, agricultural land, natural resources, historical/significant structures and vistas, public access, and water quality.
As required by statute, the document enumerates the list of specific “target” parcels across each of the five districts of Amagansett, East Hampton, Montauk, Springs, and Wainscott to be preserved either by outright purchase with the public CPF funds, the securing of various types of easements and development rights, or through activity by private conservation funds, such as the Peconic Land Trust. The 700-plus individual target parcels cited in this new document range from as large as a single 170-acre property in Springs to a material number ranging between 30 and 65 acres each, and many, many others at an acre or smaller.
For anyone not familiar with the CPF, in short, its mission is to contribute to preserving community character through the acquisition and preservation of land, and to help protect and improve environmental integrity in ecologically sensitive areas in the Town of East Hampton. As the document states: “This is significant progress toward our goal of protecting the town’s agricultural, scenic, natural and historic resources for the public. However, many sensitive and important parcels remain. We also have the potential to restore the integrity of some of our important natural areas that have been damaged by unwise development.”
More in-depth background on how the CPF came to be more than 20 years ago can be sourced from The East Hampton Star and the Peconic Land Trust. In short, it was established in 1998 by a voter referendum across all five towns on the East End (North and South Forks) approving a new real estate transfer tax of 2 percent on each purchase of improved or vacant property occurring in these towns. At the time, CPF revenue was projected to be about $15 million per year, but the fund has generated multiples of that, averaging about $70 million annually.
According to reports from Assemblyman Fred Thiele’s office, so far the entire region has raised $1.6 billion in CPF monies and preserved 10,000 acres of East End land. Annual collections for the entire region reached an all-time high in 2020 of $139.42 million — a 79 percent jump over 2019. So far in 2021 collections have remained very robust. Focusing just on our Town of East Hampton, 2020 CPF revenues grew 80 percent vs. the prior year to $41 million, and In the first seven months of 2021, our CPF revenues jumped nearly 160 percent year-over-year to $44.7 million.
So, when we see the CPF coffers brimming with cash and consider the breadth of the CPF agenda and recommended preservation list, it is easy to feel downright giddy when contemplating the wonderful impact it would have on this town should all, or even half, of this plan be realized over the coming years.
I’m not looking to splash cold water or to minimize the importance of this long-term preservation work. As we saw in the important and hard-won preservation of the open space vista of the “555” property in Amagansett, even a single parcel preserved can yield a dramatic positive impact for our community. But the reality of the current real estate development situation in East Hampton creates concern and likely means that we cannot rely on preservation alone.
Even with all the money that will be spent and all the effort that will be expended to execute this plan over the next 5 to 10 years, and even if the town is able to preserve all these parcels and do all the water quality projects listed, if real estate development continues to run amok at the current blistering pace and scope, then we are not just running on a treadmill, but we will be thrown backward off that treadmill and really hurt ourselves.
CPF preservation is a slow and often painstaking process: Acquiring an individual target parcel can take years or even decades to negotiate and complete. The annual revenue intake is cyclical. Moreover, though CPF revenues have surged, so too has the cost of acquisitions. The price tags on the two most recently announced CPF acquisition deals — for a sizable swath of agricultural land just north of the center of town in Amagansett and for two contiguous undeveloped parcels on the Bell Estate — ranged between $795,000 for development rights and $915,000 to $2.6 million for outright purchase per acre. The town board has scheduled a public hearing this week regarding the approval of a proposed CPF acquisition of a 0.33 acre parcel in the village for a dollar amount that would equate to a per-acre price of more than $8 million.
To put it all in perspective, consider the following summary passage from the new 2021 East Hampton CPF document: “The Town of East Hampton has preserved 2,223.8 acres of land to date. . . . Included are more than 285 acres of farmland and 400 acres along our shorelines. We have also protected nine historic sites.” For context: East Hampton, which spans 25 miles from Wainscott to Montauk, encompasses 70 square miles or about 45,000 acres and has 70 miles of shoreline. In other words, over a two-decade period, just 0.5 percent of town land has been preserved via the CPF in East Hampton. (Note, it is a bigger proportion of “developable” land, but I don’t have enough data to do that calculation.)
Based on comments I’ve heard in a few town meetings, it appears that less than 10 percent of currently unimproved but developable property across East Hampton remains.
Not only is the pace of development and redevelopment continuing to accelerate, but the scope and size of building is exploding, bringing tremendous increases in the density and intensity of use of parcels. For every CPF acre acquired, for every parcel protected, and for every easement established, dozens more acres are excavated, chewing up massive amounts of natural resources, and developed or redeveloped with ever larger houses. A combination of seemingly unlimited wealth, the insatiable American appetite for supersizing, and speculative building activity fuel a current trend to max out properties relative to our current dimensional building codes.
Meanwhile, it is becoming clearer that when it comes to essential services, East Hampton Town has become under-resourced relative to all this development. The town’s infrastructure — including our roads, cellular service capacity, our supermarkets, our local businesses and services, our critical teams including police, Marine Patrol, code enforcement, building and natural resources field inspectors, and even litter control — is groaning under the weight of the explosion in development, the surge in occupancy, and the rapid expansion in population (full-time residents, part-time residents, renters, vacationers, and day trippers).
So, bottom line, I have to ask: What sense is there to spending tens or hundreds of millions of public preservation fund dollars to try to restore and undo the damage done by previous “unwise development” if that unwise development is allowed to continue unchecked at ever increasing orders of magnitude?
A committed group of preservation-minded and environmentally aware land management and land trust groups are no match for today’s profligate hordes of speculators, developers, and new homeowners who seem to have no understanding, or perhaps more likely no regard, about how to balance what they consider their inalienable land ownership rights to do whatever they want on the parcel they just bought, with their responsibilities to protect the community character and the fragile natural resources of the land on which they intend to drop a dozen thousand square feet of residence and accessory structures, a country-club-size pool, a soccer field’s worth of driveway and hardscape, and enough irrigation dripper cable to stretch from the Shinnecock Canal to the Montauk Lighthouse.
Therefore, the CPF and other preservation activities, while absolutely essential, cannot be considered in a vacuum. The goals as stated in the plan cannot be achieved by preservation purchases alone, no matter how big the fund or how ambitious the target list. Retaining a sense of open space, maintaining the special character of our communities, realizing our environmental, energy and natural resources imperatives, and ensuring that our housing stock fully addresses the yawning affordability chasm are a function of both parts of the equation: land preservation purchases and rational restraints and improved oversight of the scope and scale of real estate development going forward.
While we are preserving the good, we need to be pre-empting the bad.
The way I look at it, a preservation mind-set needs to begin the minute someone puts pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to fill out a building permit application and should continue across the entire set of review and approval processes. It is my hope that a preservation thread can be woven through the fabric of our land-use regulations and building code.
(Published as a Letter to the Editor in the September 23, 2021 edition of the East Hampton Star)