Peconic Institute Hopes To Be The Drum Major Of Sustainability

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Judging by the roster of local, state and federal government officials and local community leaders gathered in the Shinnecock Cultural Center and Museum last week for an announcement—that the Peconic Institute would lead the renovation of a shellfish hatchery on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation—one might think the institute was a seasoned veteran of the local organizing scene.

But it was, actually, the institutes’s first official public appearance.

With a charismatic young leader and millions of dollars in federal grants in its sights, the shellfish renovation project is an ambitious first step for the 18-month-old Peconic Institute, which some are already saying is positioning itself to do for the sustainability movement over the next 20 years what the Group for the East End did for the land preservation movement over the last 20.

“The East End has historically been a leader in forward-thinking protection of our cultural and natural resources and the environment,” said John Botos, the co-founder and volunteer executive director of the Peconic Institute. “Now, we’re looking beyond the Peconic region. We want this to be a center for smart planning and sustainability on the local, state and national level.”

The Peconic Institute formed in the wake of the closure of the undergraduate program at Stony Brook Southampton. The group was the brainchild of two of the school’s graduating seniors, Mr. Botos and East Hampton Town Trustee Deborah Klughers, who didn’t want to see the mission of the school’s Sustainability Studies Program leave the East End with the undergraduates.

The group’s mission is promoting “sustainability,” a burgeoning approach to careful social, economic and environmental planning intended to lessen the cost, in both dollars and natural resources, of human development and strengthen the roots of the region’s economy and culture.

“Sustainability can mean one thing to environmentalists who want to protect natural resources, and another thing to a homeowner who needs to worry about their home finances, and something very different socially: Can a Latino family read and write English?” Mr. Botos said. “We, as a community, need to be looking at all of those social, economic and environmental factors now, and talking about what we want the East End to look like 20 years from now. The Peconic Institute wants to be the connector in that process.”

The group has already been named to help with the education and community outreach effort of the Peconic Estuary Program by assisting the Group for the East End with some aspects of this year’s programs.

While the year-old Peconic Institute—formed after a public forum in late 2011 that was attended by representatives from nearly 150 local organizations and companies, and headquartered on the Stony Brook Southampton campus—may still be only on the ground floor of its potential tower of accomplishments, the group’s founders have laid an impressive foundation to allow for its growth. The group’s board of directors includes some of the region’s most influential players in fields as diverse as construction, environmental protection and community leadership, from bank presidents and school superintendents to labor advocates and environmental activists, as well as all five East End town supervisors and U.S. Representative Tim Bishop. Mr. Botos, with a certain affectionate swagger, referred recently to Congressman Bishop, State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle and State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. simply as “my BLT.”

“John Botos is a bundle of energy and good ideas,” Congressman Bishop said this week. “With Dr. [Nay] Htun and Frank Dalene, I think it’s a very good partnership. The institute is very well led, and with Stony Brook’s support, I think it has a good future.”

Nay Htun, Ph.D., an environmental studies professor at Stony Brook University, is the Peconic Institute’s co-president, along with Nature Conservancy conservation director and former Group for the South Fork (now the Group for the East End) Vice President Kevin McDonald. Mr. Dalene is a builder and director of the Hamptons Green Alliance, a grassroots group of businesses that promotes energy-efficient building practices and technology.

“The uniqueness [of the Peconic Institute] is that we’re not talking only about sustainability but about resiliency,” said Dr. Htun. “Social, economic and cultural resilience. The only way to get there is to have good partners.”

Thursday’s ceremonial announcement of the hatchery project was clearly intended not only to trumpet the somewhat unique partnership between the tribe and an outside group but also to showcase and invigorate the support of the partners the group will rely on as it moves to other projects.

Those partners went out of their way last week to tout the importance of the role the Peconic Institute hopes to play in coming years.

“Things happen for a reason,” Mr. Thiele said. “If the college hadn’t been taken over and that sustainability program hadn’t gotten its start there, there wouldn’t be a Peconic Institute today.”

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