Tighter code enforcement, quality of life issues, balancing business and community needs, protecting the environment, bracing for powerful storms, and improving infrastructure were among the hot topics at a “Listen In” forum held by the Democratic candidates for East Hampton Town office on Monday night in Montauk.
The event, held at Gurney’s Inn Resort & Spa on Old Montauk Highway, was the second in a series of such forums the Democrats are planning throughout town in the run-up to this fall’s election.
Larry Cantwell, the Democratic candidate for supervisor, who also holds the endorsements of the Independence and Working Families parties, and Town Board candidates Job Potter and Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, each of whom is also endorsed by the Working Families Party, fielded comments from the public for two hours.
Hamlet resident Stacey Brosnan, whose sentiments as the first speaker were echoed by several subsequent speakers, said she is concerned that the quality of life in Montauk is threatened.
“In the last couple of years in Montauk—and I have to say I hold responsible the current Town Board—I feel that commercial interests have outpaced the interests of the community and the taxpayers and the working people,” she said. She criticized lax town code enforcement, citing issues beginning with the large crowds at the Surf Lodge, among others. “I think that our downtown now is overrun with bars and nightclubs and I don’t begrudge anyone the right to make a living, but not at the expense of our quality of life,” she said, noting music at all hours, trash strewn about, and cars parked everywhere.
Mr. Cantwell said he agreed and pointed out a need for balance as well as stricter code enforcement. Mr. Potter pointed out the positive: new businesses opening and old buildings being rehabilitated, but stressed that the key word is balance. Ms. Burke-Gonzalez did not comment on this issue, and spoke the least of the three candidates. “You learn more when you listen,” she said in her opening statement.
Mr. Potter, a past board member, highlighted in his opening statement a desire to acquire more open space and named various properties the town had protected when he was on the board. He said there is $40 million of unspent Community Preservation Fund money sitting in the bank that needs to be put toward this purpose.
Jay Levine also spoke of the “degradation of our community as a result of the mushrooming of the tourist business. We’ve all heard the phrase, ‘death by a thousand paper cuts.’ I’m worried that we’re confronting death by hundreds of nightspots,” as well as the dramatic environmental threats that face Montauk, he said.
“Had Hurricane Sandy landed 100 miles to the east, we may not have had the opportunity to hold the meeting in this building,” he said, adding that he blames previous administrations for being “delinquent” in not addressing the risks to the town that are inherent with climate change and inevitable huge storms. Along that line, he expressed concern that elected officials have failed to embrace science to educate decision-making with regard to environmental threats. He named the substantial degradation of Lake Montauk as an example.
“I believe that climate change, sea-level rise and more frequent occurrence of storms like we’ve seen in two consecutive years is potentially the most devastating threat to East Hampton,” Mr. Cantwell replied, adding that the town needs much better emergency planning and a hazard mitigation and recovery plan.
Mr. Potter noted that even though the current board has gotten two professional studies under way on Lake Montauk, if it doesn’t act on them, nothing is accomplished. “I think what I can promise you is that this new board is going to be very environmentally concerned and dedicated and will address these issues as best we can.”
Mr. Cantwell, in response to a comment about the need for creating a central sewage system, said that a town-approved waste water management plan will shed light on nitrogen loading from cesspool waste seeping into the ground and waters.
He praised current Town Board Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, a Republican, for balancing the town’s budgets after inheriting a massive deficit, but noted that a byproduct of that was letting the town’s infrastructure—its parking lots, sidewalks, beaches and public restrooms, for example—seriously deteriorate.
Asked about Fort Pond House, a town-owned waterfront property that is currently up for sale, Mr. Cantwell said that he and his two fellow candidates are “completely opposed” to selling it, noting that it’s a community asset. Mr. Potter added that current Democratic Town Board members Peter Van Scoyoc and Sylvia Overby have been trying diligently to get a vote from a third board member to take it off the market.
Paul Monte, Gurney’s general manager and CEO, pointed out that as a businessman and a resident, he felt the business-versus-residents issue is a misnomer and that issues should be resolved in the best interest of the hamlet as a whole. He praised the candidates’ talk about political bridge-building and environmental protection, but also urged the need for balance. Just a few years ago, he said, Montauk was on its way to becoming a “blighted outpost.”
“We could use a lot less partisan politics in Town Hall and a lot more trying to do what’s right for the community and Montauk,” Mr. Cantwell concluded, to applause.