I started my organization Build.In.Kind/East Hampton in January, with the founding objective to build citizen engagement around what I believe to be the most critical issue facing our town: accelerating, unrelenting overdevelopment -- both residential and commercial.
The specific goal I set for the organization is to deliver to the town board a tangible set of proposals about changes to zoning code and secure their commitment to begin, with a sense of urgency before year end, the serious process of rethinking and amending that code
Our Town zoning code now seems underpowered relative to current dynamics
At that time, I wrote a letter to the editor of the East Hampton Star entitled "At Code Red" published in the January 13 edition. In it I wrote:
“Over the last three to five years, owners and developers have slipped the bonds of rational self-limiting restraints. The shift in mind-set has been sharp and swift, and the voracious appetite of applicants to max out or even break through the dimensional ceilings has become the norm. That radically-altered mind-set is threatening to break our venerable and valid zoning code. We’re at Code Red…Given these seismic shifts, our zoning code now seems underpowered relative to current dynamics as well as the fact that the town last year declared a state of climate emergency.”
Build.In.Kind emerged from nearly two years of pre-work: studying building activity across the town; learning core principles of land use and planning; building working knowledge of East Hampton Town zoning and building codes, and since mid-2020, watching nearly every session of the zoning, planning, and architectural review boards.
As I familiarized myself with the many important issues in front of our town board: the airport, beach access rights, the affordable housing crisis, coastal resilience planning, threats to our water quality and natural resources, the straining of our essential town infrastructure, etc., I came to understand that these are not stand alone, disparate issues, but instead, they are all linked together in that overdevelopment is a fundamental root cause of all.
Feelings range from dismayed to distraught to disgusted as people watch developers and their enablers disrespecting and dismantling much of what we love about this place and most everything that supports quality of life
The year before launching BIK, I started speaking publicly about the need to address overdevelopment, commenting at town board meetings as an individual resident, and speaking monthly as a member of the Amagansett CAC. But made clear to me by our Town Supervisor was that if I hoped for board action, it couldn’t be based just on what were perceived as my personal pet peeves; I was told “You’re the only one I hear complaining about this.”
But I knew then as I assert now, it isn’t just me -- I am not “the only one.” Build.In.Kind is a conduit to ensure the powers-that-be know it too. I am proud to say nearly 500 people are now engaging with Build.In.Kind via my website and/or the Instagram page; the number continues to grow steadily each day.
I know there are hundreds, and believe there are thousands, of people across town who have real concerns about the pace, scope, and scale of what they see being built around them. Their feelings range from dismayed to distraught to disgusted as they watch developers and their enablers disrespecting and dismantling much of what we love about this place and most everything that supports quality of life. Many are realizing that this extractive strip-mining yields extraordinary profits for a few but undermines sustainable value for the rest of us.
But we cannot continue to talk only amongst ourselves. We need to flip the conversation from horizontal to vertical…by that I mean people must speak up directly to our town board, the other boards and planning department
Folks have asked me why Build.In.Kind isn’t a “.org” and if I’ll start fundraising to further the cause. Maybe one day I might find the need to do that, but for now, my goal here is not to raise money—my sole purpose is to raise voices.
Anyone who reads the comments on town-related social media posts will sense the seething collective frustration. You can hear discontent all around town, whether you’re at the supermarket or the salon, at the fishmonger or the farm, the beach or bagel store, in a neighbor’s backyard for a BBQ or a bar for a beer, or just queuing up for a cup of coffee.
Mentioning coffee reminds me of that old SNL skit “Coffee Talk” – “I’m feeling farklempt-- tawk amongst yourselves. I’ll give you a topic: ‘houses are too big’…Discuss!”
But we cannot continue to talk only amongst ourselves. We need to flip the conversation from horizontal to vertical…by that I mean people must speak up directly to our town board, the other boards and planning department.
We need to flip the conversation from horizontal to vertical…by that I mean people must speak up directly to our Town Board
Some people tell me they’re angry that board members haven’t already made changes, because “aren’t they seeing what we’re seeing?” But government officials do need to be persuaded…and pressured. Just as we want to be informed by them, they need to be informed by us. Politics is often pragmatically reactive rather than creatively proactive.
Over the last few weeks, however, it seems the change of season has brought with it first hints of a shift in attitude at Town Hall, driven I think by public discourse starting to take shape; more letters, editorials, and articles being written (locally and beyond); and even as reported last week, a petition in Amagansett that’s emerged.
That the very two town officials who would lead any decision-making process to amend zoning code have gone on the record this way should not be overlooked or underestimated
“There’s a broader question here for all of us who live in East Hampton…If we as a community are not satisfied with what current code allows, then we should work together to come up with amendments to the code that align with our shared values.”
“At this point in our history, the newer houses are being built to the absolute maximum allowable…That’s what is shocking. Previously, people didn’t build to the absolute maximum allowable. They were more concerned about scale and compatibility with the community.” He’s quoted further about “having another look at maximum coverage and perhaps even clearing . . . given the speed at which this trend is expanding. It’s time to have another look. It’s disconcerting that people’s focus is so much on expression of their own wealth rather than the place where they are going to live, which is where the value has been.”
That the very two town officials who would lead any decision-making process to amend zoning code have gone on the record this way should not be overlooked or underestimated. These quotes should be viewed by all concerned citizens as a formal invitation; a welcome mat is rolled out and the door cracked open. I for one plan to walk through it and do everything I can to help ensure land use and development evolve to align not only with “shared values,” but with imperatives of climate, coastal resilience, affordable housing, and protection of natural resources, quality of life and rural character.
Our boards and departments do need to hear from many. They need to know that the community at large really freakin’ cares -- only then will our priority become their priority. Now is not the time for cynicism or timidity. Don’t hush, don’t keep it down now, because, as the song goes, voices carry.
(A version of this post appeared first as a Letter-To-Editor entitled "The Community Cares" in the September 29, 2022 edition of the East Hampton Star)