(Letter To The Editor, published in the East Hampton Star, December 9. 2021)
So, we’re four weeks past the town board election. Anyone reading this letter likely is aware that a few key issues dominated the discourse over the many months leading up to the vote: affordable housing, cellular service, public beach access, and most of all, the airport.
It’s no surprise that the airport consumed our political and emotional airspace townwide, as it is not only a tangible environmental concern and a very real problem that degrades the daily life and transgresses the peace of mind and the property rights of a rather large swath of our population, but it is also a broader, symbolic rendering of the profligate, self-interested excess that is overwhelming and undoing our town with scorching levels of overconsumption and overdevelopment that remain unchecked.
But as we’ve all been gazing skyward looking for solutions to the noise and the pollution that rain down upon us from the incessant air traffic above, most of us have been overlooking that there is something big happening on the ground — right in the airport’s front yard — something that potentially could have character-altering impact on the future of Wainscott and beyond in East Hampton: the development project in the advanced planning stages known formally as the Wainscott Commercial Center.
For those who are not familiar, the commercial center is the proposed subdivision and development of a 70-acre mostly vacant tract of land into a 50-lot industrial park type complex on the site referred to locally and colloquially as the Sand Pit. This decommissioned sand and gravel mine (zoned Commercial-Industrial by the town) runs from the north side of Route 27 up to the Long Island Rail Road tracks and is bounded on the west by Wainscott Northwest Road and Hedges Lane to the east, both of which are existing residential areas.
The developers of this project boast that this will be “the largest commercial subdivision and development on Long Island’s South Fork.” Moreover, they tell us repeatedly their private profit-making project is proposed solely to facilitate the economic domination of East Hampton by the construction industry at the service of second- (third-, fourth-, etc.) home owners, as well as tourists.
So let that sink in for a moment: The single biggest commercial-industrial development ever here will be jammed into our smallest hamlet, right smack in the most disorganized, unaesthetic, least pedestrian-friendly strip of 27 in East Hampton, on top of one of our worst traffic pain points, and just yards from the fragile, already environmentally compromised waters of Georgica Pond in order to cement (pun intended) East Hampton’s servitude to the McMansion owners and our real estate and developer overlords who look only to extract dollars rather than sand and gravel from this land.
Though this project has been idling on the tarmac for many years — working its way through state, county, and local studies — it now appears the engines are revving and that the commercial center is getting ready to barrel down the runway for takeoff.
I’ll admit, even though I’ve spent the last couple of years educating myself and engaging pretty deeply in a lot of local East Hampton issues, I hadn’t heard about this project until an agenda item regarding it popped up on the Oct. 27 planning board agenda. At first I thought it was probably just me — that somehow I alone had missed this. But when informally I polled 10 people I know who I assumed would be knee deep in sand pit issues, their awareness level about the project also was slim to none.
The intent of my letter here today is not to promulgate any singular opinion about what should or shouldn’t happen at the Sand Pit. I write only to implore my fellow East Hampton citizens to “get grounded” A.S.A.P. on the topic.
And by get grounded I mean get educated by digging into the facts of the matter, read the key documents including the draft environmental impact statement, the planning board memos, and watch related town meetings; get engaged by alerting neighbors, connecting with local groups who care about our community so they also know that this issue is pending, and get active at town and hamlet meetings to advocate for an outcome on this site that also benefits citizens’ needs and sustains or even enhances quality of life and character of East Hampton.
The commercial center has been before the East Hampton planning board publicly now for four weeks in a row for several hours at a time to review the completeness of the environmental impact statement. One of the biggest challenges in the pending review process is that beyond the basic subdivision, the applicant’s proposed site plan buildout is hypothetical. Once subdivided, graded, and prepared with roads and utilities, each of the lots will be developed one by one, depending on tenants’ interests and economic conditions, over several years. As part of the hypothetical site plan, the applicant estimates individual lot building coverage will average 17 percent, equating to 376,000 square feet of structures and 40 acres of impervious surfaces at buildout.
However, without perpetual restrictive covenants around size and usage, in contrast to that 17 percent, town commercial-industrial zoning permits building coverage up to 50 percent and lot coverage of 75 percent. So, in reality (depending in part how waste streams will be treated on site), we could see density and intensity of use far greater than the applicant’s current estimates. And because full buildout might take a decade, East Hampton citizens not only will have to live through and around a perpetual construction zone, but we will also have to live with significant uncertainty and risk from this project for many years to come in an area of East Hampton which is already in dire need of re-envisioning.
There is an alternative vision for the Sand Pit site: the 2019 Wainscott Hamlet Study, adopted May 2020 into the town comprehensive plan. The study states one of its central priorities: “Redevelop in an environmentally sensitive fashion the former sand & gravel mine, promoting mixed use development & workforce housing, and delivering meaningful transportation/traffic and pedestrian access improvements.” Per Planning Department documents: “Both the board and the Planning Department have consistently favored a [Wainscott Commercial Center] layout that is in keeping with the recommendations of the Hamlet Study. . . .”
However, based on their comments at planning board meetings, the applicant looks to be trying to delegitimize the hamlet study as nothing more than a pie-in-the-sky wish list, deriding the notion it is actually a “plan” or even a set of recommendations the commercial center developers are beholden to consider, let alone incorporate. Messrs. Tintle and Eagan have indicated little motivation to incorporate critical town priorities and have stated that they’ve “no interest” in having affordable housing on this site.
All in, they reject the notion the town planning board has the right to delve into anything to do with the scope and scale of the buildout or possible incompatibility with the needs and the character of the town. At the Nov. 3 meeting, Mr. Eagan asserted, with more than a whiff of litigiousness, that the planning board has no jurisdiction over anything beyond what he declares to be nothing more than “a simple subdivision application . . . period.”
I suggest that no concerned East Hampton citizen assumes all will turn out well and that the applicant will be compelled to do the “best” or the “right” thing, as there will be those who will follow the scent of money or at least prefer to take the path of least resistance. As we see again and again, educated, organized, consistent, persistent, inspired citizen engagement is the one thing that can really make a difference in situations like these.
The Wainscott Citizens Advisory Committee is, of course, active and engaged in this matter and will provide the key thought leadership in the discussion. But residents outside the hamlet shouldn’t simply dismiss this as a Wainscott-only issue. Like the airport, the effects of the commercial center will wash across much of East Hampton.
Most important, this is not about fighting against things, such as owners’ property rights or a profit motive or the development of commercial and service businesses. Instead, this is about standing up and fighting for something: Consider that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to deploy a considerable part of this 70 acres to a multi-use outcome that better balances ownership rights and stewardship responsibilities in order to benefit and build value for a full range of community stakeholders.
So by all means, we should continue to keep our eyes on the skies and the fate of the airport, but from here on out, we need to have our feet firmly planted on the big pit in the ground.