Back in the 1980s, there was uproar when a Republican Town Board abolished the Planning Department. The subsequent voter backlash put the Democrats firmly back in power and set the town on an aggressively pro-environment, preservationist course.
The current Democratic Town Board’s recent decision to begin the process of dismantling the Department of Natural Resources bears only a superficial resemblance to the GOP’s inane and suicidal move a quarter century ago. There is no political subtext to this move. If carried out properly, it can be accomplished with no damage to the town’s ability to monitor, protect and regulate its natural resources.
A professional planning department is the agency that provides the technical expertise government needs to make informed, apolitical decisions. Planning boards and town boards cannot wisely set policy, establish regulations or rule on applications without the due diligence that a professional planning staff performs. The data and analysis that a professional planning staff submits to decision makers is a foundation on which good government depends.
A town that abolishes its planning department is gouging out its eyes when it comes to seeing its way to good land-use decisions. Without the facts, it can function only as a political arbiter of special interests. And if a town makes the decision to abolish its planning department in the first place, there can be no doubt which special interests are calling the shots: those who develop land with only the goal of profit in mind.
The Republicans never bothered to abolish the Department of Natural Resources. There wasn’t much need to because its functions overlap, if not duplicate, those of other agencies, and in some cases depend on them—especially the Code Enforcement Department, the supervisor’s office, the Town Board, the Town Trustees and the Planning Department, with which it is required to work closely.
The Department of Natural Resources, acting as a guide on environmental issues large and small, was created mostly to help the town’s various officials keep their eyes on the ball. According to the 1981 code amendment the Town Board adopted to create it, the department was meant to be “focused on the preservation, protection and conservation of the town’s natural features, resources and systems, both by providing leadership and by providing assistance to other departments, entities and individuals.”
It did not have a lot of power. It did not have a large staff or budget. It was meant, largely, to be a kind of noodge, there to cry foul when things were running off track.
Since that time, environmental protection has become so fundamental an element of town policy that a noodge is not necessary. Elections and referenda over the last 25 years have shown that a large majority of voters consistently favor preservation and policies that are environmentally sensitive.
Just as Democrats on a national level have learned to stay away from policies that might brand them as “liberals,” no Republican in East Hampton who wants to win election or stay in office today would dare suggest abolishing the Planning Department, ending the Community Preservation Fund or rolling back zoning changes that have been intended to reduce density and preserve open space.
At a time when the town has to find ways to cut costs, it makes sense to roll the Department of Natural Resources into the Planning Department. It’s not going to have any impact on town environmental policies, as long as there remain planning staffers who continue to act as ombudsmen for environmental protection.
As for the department’s director, Larry Penny, he deserves high praise for his public service and his long career in town government. He’s done a great job bringing attention to environmental issues over the years. But Town Board members and others say that it’s time for a change and the only way is to eliminate Mr. Penny’s job, which is protected under Civil Service rules. That’s a personnel decision the board says it has to make.
It may be open to debate and some second-guessing, but it’s nothing like an earlier Town Board’s outrageous decision to replace good land-use planning with pure politics.