Sustainability Plan Pushback Continues In Southampton Town

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For the third time in as many months, a large crowd of skeptics blasted Southampton Town’s plans to update its Comprehensive Plan with what it has dubbed a “sustainability element.”

The update would focus on progressive policies to increase energy efficiency and protect the town’s natural resources, and lawmakers and planning experts have repeatedly tried to reassure doubters about the plan’s flexibility and lack of mandates. However, opponents continued to paint it as a legislative effort to seize development rights, impose new controls over a variety of property rights—from landscaping to water usage—and herd residents into hamlet centers.

“Most of this thing looks extremely dangerous,” Southampton resident Jim McLauchlen said. “You’re being very elusive in your answers. You say, ‘Oh, it’s just a framework,’ but the key phrase in that was you have to pass it to see what’s in it. We heard that in 2009. That was ObamaCare, if you didn’t know. Once the genie is out of the bottle, you can’t stuff it back in.”

Other residents among the dozen or so who spoke in opposition to the plan spotlighted portions of the sustainability update that speak to reducing carbon emissions, targeting development density around hamlet centers and curtailing water use as hallmarks of a government positioning itself to wrest personal freedoms from residents.

They dismissed changes to the plan made in recent months intended to emphasize that the update, and the Comprehensive Plan itself, are just handbooks or guides for future legislative steps, each of which would have to stand on its own merits in the court of public opinion before it could become law.

“A lot of these changes are just semantics,” said the Reverend Donald Havrilla, pastor of the Southampton Full Gospel Church. “You’re just saying ‘consider’ instead of ‘do.’ But we know that governments have the power to enforce their recommendations.”

Rev. Havrilla and several other speakers nodded to a section of the code that references “carbon offsets” as a worrisome concern for business owners that harkens to the national debate over carbon credits. Town planners tried to reassure the critics that the offsets in the Comp Plan update were little more than a suggestion for ways a local business could voluntarily take steps to offset its own carbon footprint, by planting trees or the like, just “to be a good neighbor.”

But the critics persisted. Former Town Supervisor Linda Kabot also seized on the discussion of carbon footprints.

“I find it bothersome that the town is considering trading carbon rights in future land use decisions,” said Ms. Kabot, who is challenging Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst for her old seat this fall. She nodded to a section of the plan that discusses possible avenues to reducing the town’s carbon footprint and also pointed to other sections as suggesting creeping regulatory control over matters such as landscaping, lawn sprinkler systems, regulation of pesticide and fertilizer use and the creation of special taxing districts to help fund water quality improvement initiatives.

“Many of the goals outlined here are already on the books, but there are other newer items that need more discussion,” Ms. Kabot said.

For the first time on Tuesday, the number of supporters for the sustainability plan seemed to equal or even outnumber those who objected to it.

“I’m very concerned about some of the comments about taking away property rights,” said Frank Dalene, holding up a well-worn, pocket-sized copy of the U.S. Constitution. “I’m a Constitutionalist. I read it often and I find no problem with the sustainability plan.”

Others nodded to the dozens of other communities and hundreds of corporations that have incorporated sustainability guidelines in their long-term planning.

“If you did not include a sustainability plan in your Comp Plan, you would be among the few who don’t, and in corporate America the first advice you would get would be that you do it,” said Roger Blaugh. “When I was a Boy Scout, we were told that you leave that campsite in as good or better conditions as you found it.”

Prior to Tuesday’s meeting, town Planning Department officials submitted several pages of responses and explanations of parts of the plan that came up during previous public discussions. The responses reinforce the town’s efforts to emphasize that the vast majority of the suggestions and recommendations in the update are just extensions of guidelines already in the Comprehensive Plan, which was last updated in 1999, and that none are mandates that would take effect when the plan is adopted.

The full text of the responses are available at Town Hall or on the town website.

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