Showdown at Duck Creek

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East Hampton was on the auction block during the mid-1970s and 1980s. Our open land was being carved up for development by the highest bidder. I was an outspoken environmentalist appointed to the Planning Board by the Town Board in 1980. It was immediately apparent to me that our town was not prepared to deal with this tidal wave of development pressure.

East Hampton’s Comprehensive Plan, a blueprint for future land use, was woefully out of date, having been adopted in 1967, and allowed a total of 90,000 residents at build-out, which would have quadrupled our current population. If the hundreds of applications before the Planning Board in the 1980s were approved, you would not recognize each of today’s East Hampton hamlets.

As I describe just a few of these developments, take the time to close your eyes and picture the profound impact they could have had on the rural character and natural resources of the town we love.

In Northwest, all of Barcelona Neck was being carved up into large lots for mini-estates lining the shores of Northwest Creek and Northwest Harbor, like giant piano keys. Condominiums would be visible at the peaks of Barcelona’s magnificent bluffs. Ancient Trustee roads were to be paved over, cutting off access for the public.

The Grace Estate, 600 acres of intact forests and natural ponds, steeped in local lore as our first settlement, had received preliminary subdivision approval. More than 200 condominiums were to be erected, creating a fortress of development circling Northwest Harbor’s unspoiled beaches. A private golf course, polo field and restaurant were planned for the enclosed gated private community. While the natural ponds were to be “preserved,” the developer wanted them “cleaned out” and goldfish added for color.

In bucolic Wainscott, the bulldozers’ blade was being sharpened, ready to checkerboard the best soils in New York State to grow second homes.

Amagansett was not spared. The Bell Estate subdivision map showed housing lots blanketing the bluffs overlooking Gardiners Bay. Complex and vital wetland systems were to be bulldozed, and a lot line bisected the famous Broadview mansion. The developer did offer the required 10 percent minimum open space—as a thin line 25 feet deep outlining the property.

It gets worse. The old zoning code allowed more than 1,000 condominiums on the Napeague stretch (imagine that scene in a hurricane) and along old Montauk Highway. The small mom-and-pop motels were to be torn down and replaced by Miami-type condos, fulfilling Carl Fischer’s dream to recreate Montauk as the “Florida of the North.”

East Hampton’s largest tract of open space, Hither Woods, was smothered with proposed subdivision lots. In fact, the 800 dwelling units to be created in this beautiful, unspoiled ecosystem triggered a state requirement to set aside 10 acres to build another school in Montauk.

But it was a proposal targeting The Springs on Three Mile Harbor, where 60 condominiums were about to be erected on Duck Creek next to East Hampton Point, that burst the dam of public anger and fear that developers were determining the fate of our community. Duck Creek was a popular and prolific clamming spot for local people. Citizen groups coalesced, placing full-page ads in local newspapers alerting the public to a hearing that could clear the way for approval. Because of the outdated zoning code, 600 motel/condos were possible on the eastern shores of Three Mile Harbor. So the people of East Hampton took matters into their own hands.

Enter Tom Lester, an authentic Bonacker and bayman, part of the “Round Swamp” Lesters who have fished and farmed in East Hampton for generations. Tom was a bear of a man, more than 300 pounds and solid as a tank. He didn’t speak much, but when he did you listened.

The night of the public hearing for the Duck Creek condominium site plan, the meeting had to be moved to the East Hampton High School’s auditorium because of the overflow crowd. Baymen, businesspeople, young people, and local families with three generations represented filled the auditorium. Neighbors, environmental groups and civic organizations eloquently urged the Town Board to slow development until a new, more environmentally sensitive Comprehensive Plan could be developed.

When Tom Lester was called to speak, a hush fell over the crowd of 300. He walked slowly down the aisle. It was said later that Tom evoked images of the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk. He passed the podium. Tom didn’t need a microphone. His baritone sounded like he was holding his breath and pushing each word out to fall over the heads of seated board members looking up at him.

With one motion, he raised his arm and plopped a wet, full burlap bag on the table. “I got a mess of clams at Duck Crick this morning,” he said. “Your decision seems pretty clear to me. You can have clams in the crick or condos, ’cause you can’t have both.” The roar of support that burst from the crowd came from deep inside and released a feeling that at last our community’s future would reside in the hands of the people. We were certain the board members had heard us.

But that was not to be. Instead, the Town Board abolished the Planning Department, and the Planning Board approved the Duck Creek condominium project.

We were now more vulnerable than ever. The community heard Tom Lester’s challenge, yet it fell on deaf ears. The choice was clearer than ever—and we were getting ready to make that choice.

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