Pictured Above: The Group’s first office in Bridgehampton in 1972.
The East End has changed an awful lot in the 50 years since the Group for the East End first opened its doors in Bridgehampton, but what hasn’t changed are the tools necessary for citizens to protect the environment of the places they love.
The Group, which is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year, got its start in the early days of the environmental movement, just after the first Earth Day in 1970. But it was a decidedly local project — the construction of the Bridgehampton Commons shopping center, that galvanized their efforts.
“That project was the moment people said ‘there’s something happening here,’” said Group for the East End President Bob DeLuca, as he reflected on the environmental advocacy group’s history. “There had just been the extension of the Expressway, and the potential extension of Sunrise Highway. There was also a nuclear power plant proposed in Jamesport, which was of interest to people on the South Fork.”
The Group’s early supporters included cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder, renowned art collector Garrick Stevenson, Sagaponack farmer Lee Foster and banker Donald Petrie, who ran the environmental group with the philosophy that “they always wanted to have people with very strong backgrounds, who could go toe to toe with an expert and say ‘we have the same credentials and we see it differently,” said Mr. DeLuca, who first worked for The Group briefly in the mid-1980s before returning in 1992 to lead it through the next 30 years.
“They laid the groundwork for a very different future,” he said. “Their concerns proved to be correct. The zoning codes were not up to the challenge.”
The original name of the organization, “Group for America’s South Fork,” came about because the first trustees of the organization wanted to highlight the national importance of the South Fork, but over time, The Group’s organizers realized that most of the decisions they were interested in impacting were at the local level. They changed their name to Group for the South Fork, and then, in 2008, became Group for the East End, as they began to focus on more regional issues, as well as issues that affect the Peconic Estuary between the two forks.
“Back in the day, there was a divide between the North Fork and the South Fork,” said Mr. DeLuca. “But now I find people are coming over from one fork to the other pretty much all the time. Both ecologically and economically, it seems the two areas have definitely merged.”
While The Group’s core mission still revolves around impacting decisions made at the local land use board level, the pace of change has accelerated, along with the public awareness of the importance of protecting the environment, said Mr. DeLuca.
“When I worked for The Group the first time, there was a movie theater proposed on County Road 39 and we had six to eight months to work on that project. That would now be squeezed between nine other things today,” he said. “The speed, intensity and complexity have all increased. That’s a negative. I think the general public awareness of tenets of conservation are more widely accepted now, but there’s so much that people have to think about every single day. It’s harder than it used to be. I feel the public is often overwhelmed. It’s harder for them to show up and stay in the fight. There also used to be more of a middle that lived here, economically, and I think the demographic shifts have had an effect. But we’re still doing the same blocking and tackling of civic engagement.”
When Mr. DeLuca began working at The Group, there were just five paid staffers, and today there are just eight. But they leverage their efforts by engaging civic-minded people who have a stake in environmental issues, to help their voices be heard.
Mr. DeLuca said he believes the South Fork’s zoning codes are now up to the development challenges they face, but the struggle is still an uphill one in Southold, Riverhead and on Shelter Island.
“It took 11 years for Southold to get their comprehensive plan across the finish line. Now the real work is in getting it implemented,” he said. “It’s no longer a sleepy community that can take its time getting it done.”
“Riverhead’s comprehensive planning process is at the early stages, and it’s a different model,” he said. “They’re going to make a decision too, in the years ahead, about how far they are going to let development spread. Can they thread the needle between intense development and hanging on to the rural character that’s left? Shelter Island has tried a couple times to get a comprehensive plan off the ground, but they’re still struggling. Can they get the actual code adopted before they’re behind the Eight Ball?”
Mr. DeLuca said that he’s heartened by the engagement of civic groups on the North Fork, and The Group is working to help members of those groups understand the ins and outs of land use and State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) law.
“The North Fork has more exceptionally organized, intellectually capable civic organizations than I’ve ever seen,” he said. “There are a lot of smart people who are really engaged. The best we can do is help facilitate them to have their own voice. We’re trying to work with people. We’re the group FOR the East End. That’s what we should be.”
As The Group works with civic organizations, it also has picked a handful of regional issues to engage in, a tradition that has followed the organization throughout the decades.
In the mid-1980s, just after the first brown tide wave wiped out the Peconic Bay scallops, Jean Mariner of the North Fork and Jean Lane of Sag Harbor knocked on The Group’s door in Bridgehampton and insisted they get involved in researching how to counteract the brown tide, setting the stage for the creation of the Peconic Estuary Program.
Then, in the 1990s, Kevin MacDonald, who now works for The Nature Conservancy but at the time worked for The Group, set about the task of helping create the Community Preservation Fund, a real estate transfer tax that is used for land preservation.
“That started very locally, and then (State Assemblyman) Fred Thiele, who has always been stellar in this area, put together a legislative package that moved this along,” said Mr. DeLuca. “I remember being at hearings where people were saying “this is terrible and illegal and immoral, and that no real estate will ever transact on the East End again.”
That program has now provided more than $1.7 billion dollars to preserve thousands of acres of land in the five East End towns, and no one is saying real estate transactions won’t happen here.
Mr. DeLuca said two of the big things The Group is currently involved in are the effort to preserve Plum Island and to improve water quality.
“It’s one of the greatest privileges and and responsibilities of this job to chose your projects wisely, with our limited resources,” he said. ‘“That’s the part that I pray about most… getting the guidance to pick the right things and hang on. In my experience, these things rarely happen in less than five to 10 years. It’s tough to suck that up, but sometimes these things take a decade to get done.”