Pictured Above: A warning sign from Dune Road in Hampton Bays.

As billions of dollars in federal money from the Inflation Reduction Act begins to become available for local solutions to ween the country off of fossil fuels, proponents of Southampton Town’s new Climate Action Plan urged the board at a Dec. 12 hearing to adopt it soon, while many in the community, particularly west of the Shinnecock Canal, believe there hasn’t been enough public outreach.

After hearing more than two-and-a-half hours of testimony from about 40 residents, the board agreed to hold the public hearing open to its Dec. 21 meeting, which will be at 1 p.m. Board members said a resolution of adoption might be on the agenda for a vote at that meeting.

The Climate Action Plan is being prepared as part of the town’s participation in New York State’s Climate Smart Communities program, said the town’s Planning & Development Administrator, Janice Scherer.

It outlines the interplay of state and federal policies, sequestration of carbon and local initiatives to encourage energy efficient buildings and clean transportation that will be part of the puzzle of getting to carbon neutrality by the year 2040. If adopted, it will become a part of the town’s Comprehensive Plan and will serve as a guide for future zoning and policy decisions by the town. It will also put the town in line for grant funding from a variety of sources stemming from the 2022 federal Inflation Reduction Act, which includes more than $500 billion in funding for initiatives to combat climate change.

The plan, available online here, was prepared by the global consulting firm Ramboll Group, which quantified the town’s greenhouse gas emissions for a baseline year (2019), when the town produced 770,200 metric tons of carbon emissions, about 13.3 metric tons per person. It then worked backward to detail the variety of regulatory changes, changes to the electric grid, personal and community decisions and proactive steps that could be taken to get that number to zero by 2040.

A big chunk of those emissions would be reduced by programs already underway to decarbonize the electric grid, but local action would need to be taken to remove the remaining emissions. The town outlines a series of nearly 200 local actions that can be taken in the furtherance of these goals.

A big local solution would be to increase building efficiency, with the help of grant funding and tax breaks now being rolled out for improved insulation, upgrading electric panels and converting home energy systems to heat pump technology. (See rewiringamerica.org for an overview of efforts underway nationwide).

The plan also lays out a roadmap for the town to encourage public transportation and bicycling and other personal mobility devices, and carbon sequestration, a technology that is rapidly advancing but can also be as simple as encouraging home and municipal composting.

Environmentalists listened to the comments at the Dec. 12 public hearing.
Southampton environmentalists listened to the comments at the Dec. 12 public hearing.

“There’s a colossal amount of money available,” said Victoria Elenowitz of Southampton at the public hearing, a comment that was echoed by many other proponents. “The Climate Action Plan should be implemented now. The grant money is available now, and we must have a coherent plan (to apply for it).”

Darr Reilly, a longtime climate activist in Southampton, has recently been gathering together small groups of people together for five-week sessions of the Carbon CREW Project, where they make plans for how they can reduce their own carbon footprints through their Personal Climate Action Plans.

“What we need now is a Climate Action Plan for the town,” she said.

Sheila Peiffer, another founder of the Carbon Crew Project, agreed.

“Two-thirds of greenhouse gasses are because of decisions made on a household level,” she said. “How much more powerful will it be when the whole community is engaged in a climate action plan… This town will be well-positioned to take advantage of many incentives for climate action, and adopting this Climate Action Plan will provide an attainable pathway toward sustainability and resilience.”

Numerous residents, many of whom were involved in the recent battle to stop a large scale Battery Energy Storage System from being built alongside the cloverleaf of the Route 66 exit on Sunrise Highway just east of the Shinnecock Canal, said they believed the plan was too vague, wasn’t a plan at all, and that the public hadn’t been given enough of an opportunity to weigh in or learn more about it.

Rome Arnold of Southampton, who passed around a spiral-bound booklet called “Climate Action Plan Considerations” that said it had been prepared by The Between the Bays Community Association, said the plan was missing a framework and needed to examine the risks and tradeoffs of the actions it recommends. He added that he believed it was too broad-reaching.

“If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority,” he said, adding that he would like to have seen the plan look into how increased demand for electricity would affect the electric grid, and he thought some renewable energy projects could be built on land preserved by the Peconic Land Trust.

“Horses emit a lot of methane,” he said, adding that there are a lot of horses on the South Fork.

While Mr. Arnold said he wanted to make the conversation “cooperative, not confrontational,” he accused the board of stifling his free speech when they asked him to stop speaking at the end of his three-minute comment period, even though several other people in the room had ceded their time to him.

Rome Arnold was not happy that the board wouldn't let other people in the room cede their time to him.
Rome Arnold was not happy that the board wouldn’t let other people in the room cede their time to him. Seated behind him, (l0r) are Councilman John Bouvier Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, Councilman Rick Martel and Councilwoman Cynthia McNamara.

Kristen Mielenhausen said she was concerned that the town’s Sustainable Southampton Green Advisory Committee had the plan since July, but the plan was not released to the public until Nov. 13.

While the final draft was released to the public Nov. 13, Ramboll Group had presented a draft to the public and accepted feedback at a Zoom information session in March of this year.

“There are a lot of red flags. The more I hear, the more I learn, the more I question. I contacted all my friends in my phone and said ‘have you heard of the Climate Action Plan’ and none have. I’m fully engaged. I want to learn more,” she said. “Like the BESS situation (with the Battery Energy Storage System), you had the information provided for you, you passed it on to the planning board, and we had to dissect it and rewind. I don’t want this to be like that. Community members need to have the right to review this.”

Kristen Bashen of Group for the East End said The Group is generally supportive of the plan, which “illustrates the source of carbon emissions and highlights actions that will best reduce them,” but also believes there should be a “well-defined implementation plan,” along with a newly hired staff member to “ensure the plan’s priorities and goals come to fruition.”

She added that The Group believes findings of the town’s current review of its code regarding BESS facilities and the Climate Action Plan should be consistent with one another, and asked that the record be kept open.

“We all have some responsibility for climate change,” said Bridget Maher. “Forcing ideas on people is never an effective way to solve problems. The Climate Action Plan is a wonderful starting point, but it is by no means a plan. The message is being delivered in a careless and patronizing way. People were called to arms here today. We’re taking sides when we should work together.”

“I read through it. I think it’s ambitious, exciting and references a wide array of nascent technologies that make me consider what I can do differently in my home,” said John Leonard of Hampton Bays. “In implementing this plan, when we eventually get there, we need to take into consideration education of the public as to burgeoning technologies. Many of us don’t know what these technologies are. We need to do a real risk/benefit analysis on the dangers… Bring all the stakeholders to the table. Encourage public buy-in… Implementing any of these technologies affects people, your constituents, and they need to know what’s going on. They need to have input at the table.”

“My girls, the bees, are on the frontlines of the climate crisis,” said Mary Wolz, a local beekeeper. “We need a rapid deployment of people and resources to face the challenges ahead of us. One dollar invested in abatement saves $6 in loss and damages.”

“This is not a plan. This is aspirational,” said Steve Crispinelli of Hampton Bays. “All through the plan, we hear words like “ambitious but attainable.” He then asked why there was a picture “that none of us would dare keep in our pockets” of Town Councilman John Bouvier, a strong proponent of the plan, on page 81 of the plan, along with a photo of a ship named Patriot on the final page.

“Is this a mistake? This is a publicity document,” he said. “This is a joke. It needs a lot of work, and please do it.”

Another member of the public stated that Patriot is a local commercial fishing vessel home-ported in Hampton Bays.

“We’re all way behind the eight ball,” said Gary Goldstein, who worked on climate planning with USAID and Brookhaven National Laboratory. He said Ramboll Group did “a really great job” in determining the town’s carbon footprint and what can be done to reduce it.

“Create a plan. Create a vision, then drill down and come up with specific actions,” he said. “One thing is extremely critical. There is money out there right now…. Let’s keep moving forward. I’m delighted by the response today. There has been zero negative response.”

He said he’d be happy to serve on the town’s Green Advisory Committee, after which someone in the audience called out “if you live east of the canal, you can get on it. If you live west of the canal, you can’t get on it.”

Ray D’Angelo said that he was confused why people were saying the debate wasn’t political when the Southampton Town Democrats had sent out an email blast asking members to come to the hearing.

“I’m a Democrat, but I don’t understand what the rush is with this plan,” he said. “It’s not really a plan. It’s an aspirational group of things. The debate shouldn’t be ‘if you don’t support the plan, you’re a climate change denier, which is not true. I live west of the canal, which is more of a working and middle class area. I know the sustainability committee is mostly people east of the canal, and made up of people in the industry. I think that’s a conflict of interest.”

“One of the first speakers said the plan used language that talked down to people — words like “wholistic” and “synergistic,”” said George Lynch. “I agree… All that is style, not substance, and the substance is what counts.”

He added that the town’s planning administrator, Janice Scherer, had said that it “states aspirational goals. It’s not a law, not a regulation, and it does not require anybody to do anything or not do anything.”

He added that many opponents had asked ‘where are the teeth?’ in the law.

“That’s backing up what I’m saying,” he said. There’s no law. There’s no teeth. And that’s fine.”

He added that he had listened to Councilwoman Cynthia McNamara say that she was concerned people who opposed the plan were being painted as not caring about the climate, while Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said the clock is ticking on the climate crisis.

“Yes, indeed, if we hold any of this up, we are not caring about climate change,” he said. “Let’s move this thing along.”

“There’s still verbiage in this plan that says ‘require,’ and ‘mandate,'” said Ms. McNamara, who added that, while Sustainabilty Committee Chairman Dieter von Lehsten had told the board the committee had no budget for outreach, it could have met with community groups without outlaying any money.

“These are zero costs, and no one took that initiative in six months,” she said. “The public engagement process of this plan is probably where we will see the most buy-in from the public, to understand what they can do and how they can achieve these goals. We rush through this and we pass it and it’s buried in a plan somewhere. Who’s gonna care? We need buy-in from you to achieve these goals.”

“If it gets buried, it’s because you guys bury it, not because you don’t know it was there,” said Councilman Bouvier, whose term ends at the end of this year, while Ms. McNamara, long a populist voice, will remain as the only Republican on the new board.

“We’ve been working on a Climate Action Plan since before you were on the board,” he added.”It’s a toolbox. You can reach into that toolbox any time you want. That’s what it’s for. There’s no secrets involved. The reason it’s important now is we in history have never had this kind of money available to do this job. If we don’t take advantage of it, we’re going to lose it. It’s in the billions of dollars, and I think that’s critical.”

Mr. Bouvier said there “might be” a resolution of adoption on the agenda after the Dec. 21 continuation of the hearing.

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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