In my prior blog piece entitled "Brass Tacks," I wrote about a particular real estate listing for 472 Further Lane in Amagansett. Here again is the full text of the listing as posted by Compass Real Estate:
"Located within steps of both Indian Wells ocean beach and Amagansett village, this 2.5+/ acre property is a virtually blank canvas on which you can develop a true Hamptons Estate accentuated by mature privet hedge, an abundance of massive specimen trees across rolling lawn as well as pre-existing 100% clearing. This remarkable offering currently includes plans for a new home with approximately 12,000 sq ft of living space. If more space is needed, this rare estate sized parcel can potentially accommodate a primary structure of up to 20,000 sq ft with pool, pool house, accessory structures and tennis. The enclave of Amagansett is considered by many to be one of the most quaint hamlets in all of The Hamptons with great restaurants, boutique shops, a pronounced art scene and the fabled Amagansett Green, all within a quick stroll. Rarely is a property this unique and with this much potential introduced to the market."
This ad (as discussed in the last blog) like so many others we see every day, highlights several elements of East Hampton zoning-code I believe need some adjustment. But this listing also shines a light on something else, beyond code, that begs changing -- our overall mindset about land use and development.
There are several samples of the oft-seen perverse point of view. There is the notion that 12,000 square feet of living space just might not be sufficient for someone, and that instead, 20,000 would be "needed." The broker extols the "abundance" of beautiful mature trees on the property, but then assures the potential buyer that the whole lot can be clear cut 100%. Then Compass lauds the unique and coveted "quaintness" of Amagansett, all the while shilling for the developer's proposed quaintness-crushing compound.
But it's this one sentence in particular that sums up the prevailing attitude: “this property is a virtually blank canvas on which you can develop a true Hamptons Estate.”
I see this “blank canvas” trope regurgitated by many Hamptons brokers: the notion that a parcel of land is just a clean sheet of paper upon which buyers can sketch their “masterpiece,” or on which developers can print their money.
But the idea that any plot of land in East Hampton is a blank page, or empty stage, upon which one can act without regard for the impact on others or the community more broadly, is anathema to a balanced view of land use and a proper land ethic.
A parcel of land, especially in a place like East Hampton that’s defined by natural resources, shorelines, and centuries of rural history, is anything but a vacant lot just waiting for someone to dig into it with gold-plated shovels, build it out from corner to corner, and stuff it full of “amenities” to suit 40-days-a-year, jet-in-jet-out wants and whims. Nor is a parcel of land in East Hampton an empty mirror to reflect, like a Narcissus pond, an inflated sense of greatness, or from which to snort one’s own supply of giddy and grandiose entitlement.
Not only is a parcel of land in EH not “blank,” but it’s the very opposite: it is a work of art, full and alive with the complexity of nature, climate, history, and the precious character of our Town.
Indeed, a parcel of land in East Hampton is a canvas already painted -- with the purples of ripened beach plum, the yellow of the golden rod, the autumn gold of the silver beech, the red of the winterberry, the indigo of highbush blueberry, the apple greens and chartreuse of spring budding, the deep dark greens of cedar, pine and holly, and, like a sepia-tone photograph, the 50 shades of brown that is our extended winter.
From dawn until dusk each day, the magical, shimmering East End light illuminates each parcel and paints its warm chiaroscuro. Sea-laden mists roll over it, rendering moody, vaporous tableaus. And at night, the land glows under the moonlight and a vaulted ceiling of stars.
Glacial till, sandy soil or rich agricultural loam carpet the parcel; moorlands, woodlands, wetlands, dune lands, meadowlands or an old field will define it.
A parcel exhibits the sculpture of natural features like moraines, bluffs and fluted hoodoos, the topographic contours of dunes, swales, kettle holes, and our shape-shifting shorelines.
Our life-sustaining aquifer streams beneath the parcel, ground waters bubble mere inches under the surface, while vernal pools fill and recede.
Parcels rustle and babble and whisper the ambient sounds of critter talk, of breezes and birdsong, and the ancient language of trees; they broadcast the ocean’s rowdy persistence in the distance or the rhythmic lapping of a bay close by.
Each parcel of land sways and surges with the movement of native grasses, windswept shrubs, and the swirl of leaves.
Far from vacant, every parcel is home to a top-to-bottom ecosystem. It is habitat to the wildlife we see — deer, bunnies, turkeys, frogs, and the occasional fleeting fox — and also to what is not apparent to our eye: myriad insects busying themselves in the understory, all the way down to the organisms teeming beneath leaf litter into the ground.
Each parcel is varnished with the layers of time: the progression of geological and archeological eras, the lives and traditions of indigenous inhabitants, the plunders and pursuits of colonists, the travails of farmers and fishermen, the colorful stories of so many prior generations, and each lot is a curio cabinet filled with the memories and nostalgic musings of so many of us today.
And finally, while a single parcel is its own framed landscape painting, each is also one pixel of the bigger picture: the compelling and cherished view sheds that characterize East Hampton at the most fundamental level. It is these vistas that define us and sustain property values.
So, properties are not empty canvases. But you know what is “empty”? -- the soulless mega boxes, erected one after another, having chewed up acres of natural resources, consumed extraordinary amounts of building materials, and generated tons of construction waste, but now idle vacant -- uninhabited nine months of the year, guzzling energy and water while discharging emissions and effluent aplenty. Notwithstanding the heady level to which these parcels are bid up by aggressive and speculative buyers at any given time, in reality, the proliferation of these oversized and overwrought monuments-to-self undermine the character and erode the value of our bigger picture.
If we are able to own a home in East Hampton, we do have the right to make our own marks upon a parcel of land within its defined boundaries; we add new features and we write new stories where we dwell. But, as climate has been telling us with more urgency each year, what we think we own – what some might think is theirs and theirs alone-- we’re merely renting from Mother Nature. So, the marks we leave -- our fingerprints and footprints -- or reshaping we attempt, should be wrought with restraint and minimally necessary impact.
Yes, I embrace that individual property rights have been and remain core to American democracy, but that fundamental proposition has been twisted and exploited for centuries by conquerors and corporations, and more recently and locally, by a hegemonic culture of egoistic, extractive elitism and excessive consumption. The notion of individual property rights has become so entrenched and overextended that many have stopped thinking critically about it, even as we come to understand we’ve shifted into a new and more challenging era on the planet that demands evolution of our mindset about land use and resources.
So, it’s time we consider construction more constructively. It's long been understood that individual property rights often conflict with the rights of others and the common good. Happily, also a part of American democratic tradition is a process, generally via discussion in the “town square” and the mechanisms of the town council, where communities convene to debate and decide appropriate boundaries to individual property rights.
Two things need to be altered in East Hampton: our zoning code and our mindset. The process to change zoning code can be arduous and tedious, and it might be a blistering, political hot stove on which an elected official might place his or her hand. But the basic steps in the process are well-defined. On the other hand, the process of shifting hearts and minds is indeed more nebulous.
But both can and will be shifted when citizens speak up and ask for change, and when there is full and honest debate around well-reasoned ideas. This year, I started the citizens’ engagement group Build.in.Kind/East Hampton specifically to work to enhance both. It is my goal that we can come together to build, from the ground up, a new consensus about building.
(A version of this piece also appeared as a Letter to the East Hampton Star, May 19, 2022 edition.)
William Merritt Chase, American, 1849–1916
The Big Bayberry Bush (The Bayberry Bush), ca. 1895
Oil on canvas; 25 1/2 x 33 1/8 inches
Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, N.Y., Littlejohn Collection