To hear all of the candidates tell it at Tuesday’s League of Women Voters debate for East Hampton Town Supervisor and Town Board, the town has become a victim of its own success — driving longtime residents away due to lack of affordable housing or good jobs, while the roads are taxed to the max with visitors and the shorelines and water supply are plagued by erosion and pollution.
The candidates’ solutions for those issues, however, were quite nuanced.
Incumbent Democratic Supervisor Larry Cantwell is seeking his second two-year term, while the town’s Republican Party Chairman, Tom Knobel, is seeking to unseat him.
Democratic Town Board members Sylvia Overby and Peter Van Scoyoc, both completing their first four-year terms, are running for re-election against Republican candidates Margaret Turner, the former executive director of the East Hampton Business Alliance, and real estate broker Lisa Larsen, the wife of East Hampton Village Police Chief Jerry Larsen.
Ms. Larsen was unable to attend the debate due to a personal obligation.
Mr. Cantwell began the evening touting his administration’s work to restore civility on the town board, after much infighting under former supervisor Bill Wilkinson’s tenure.
Mr. Cantwell said his administration had cut the town’s debt by $10 million, completed a wastewater study, preserved “hundreds of acres of critically sensitive land,” and expanded affordable housing in town.
But Mr. Knobel pointed to several long-languishing legislative initiatives, like a proposed rental registry and another proposal to limit the types of commercial trucks that can be kept at private residences, as proof that the current town board is out of touch with the community.
“Many of the local people are being driven out of this town or are unable to enjoy living in this town,” he said. “We don’t have housing for our children and we don’t have jobs that pay enough.”
Mr. Knobel added that he believes a rental registry would add more paperwork to residents’ lives, and the truck code, which has been bandied about for several years, would limit the ability of tradesmen to respond to emergency calls.
He said he was “flat-out opposed” to an early draft of the rental registry and is reserving judgement on a new draft until after a public hearing scheduled for Nov. 19.
Mr. Cantwell said the rental registry is aimed at preventing overcrowded year-round housing and party houses, which are making it more difficult for ordinary residents to find a place to live.
“It’s an overcrowding problem that is going to have a very serious impact on our quality of life and our economy,” he said, adding that the rental registry is “not a panacea, but it’s another tool in the toolbox of trying to keep this community from becoming overcrowded.”
“The disparity of incomes, to a large extent, has become a national issue,” he said. “The upper 1 percent is getting ahead and the middle class is left behind. I see the glass half full, not half empty here in East Hampton. What I find is a community that’s a special place where neighbors help neighbors in need… Tom says we’re only the facade of a local community. That’s not what I see. Every day that I go to work I try to make this a better place to live and work.”
Mr. Cantwell said the future of good-paying work in East Hampton is dependent on the development of new technology in the underutilized industrial park just south of the East Hampton Airport.
“Much of the economy is built on tourism,” he added. “I remember the days when we talked about building the shoulder seasons. The truth is its been a fairly successful effort. All you had to do was be anywhere in town this past weekend. The tourism season is growing.”
Mr. Knobel pointed out that The East Hampton Star newspaper is listed as the seventh largest employer in town, behind East Hampton Town, East Hampton Village, the schools in town and Gurney’s Inn in Montauk.
“And there’s the public sector aspect to three of those four,” he said. “We have to do better than that.”
On noise pollution from helicopters that use the East Hampton Airport, Mr. Cantwell said the town board’s work this year to wrest control of airport access from the Federal Aviation Administration was a “major legal victory.”
“The Town of East Hampton has the right to place restrictions on its locally owned municipal airport,” he said. “The fact that we brought that effort and the town’s position was sustained was a major victory.”
Mr. Knobel said he believes aviation interests don’t think the town is setting new restrictions in good faith, and he believes the town’s $1 million 2016 budget for litigation over airport issues may be too small.
“This has been an exceedingly adversarial fight with aviation interests.” he said. “The aviation industry have to acquire a stock of quieter aircraft. If you want to be a good neighbor in East Hampton, you have to get quieter helicopters. But the aviation interests, for whatever reason, do not think the town is acting in good faith. They want to talk with someone who they think has an open mind.”
Mr. Cantwell countered by saying that Mr. Knobel and his running mates had taken $50,000 in campaign financing from aviation interests.
Mr. Knobel said David Gruber, an active Democrat in East Hampton who has also been very vocally opposed to the airport, had contributed more than $300,000 to Democrats.
On the issue of whether the Community Preservation Fund 2 percent real estate transfer tax should be extended to 2050, with a provision that 20 percent of the money can be used for water quality projects, Mr. Knobel said he doesn’t believe water quality money should be commingled with money meant to be used for land preservation, especially given the town’s past mishandling of its CPF resources during former Supervisor Bill McGintee’s administration.
He added that he believes the CPF tax should not apply to home purchases under $500,000. East Hampton’s CPF tax currently kicks in after the first $250,000 in sales price.
Mr. Cantwell said there’s already a full CPF tax exemption for first-time homebuyers. He added that, if the water quality provision is added to the CPF fund, the town plans to put together a plan to address what to do about excess nitrogen in the water and failing septic systems, and present that plan to the voters in a November 2016 referendum.
Both candidates said they support the Army Corps of Engineers’ proposal to place geotextile sandbags along the downtown Montauk oceanfront, a project that was slated to begin this week but is currently awaiting a court hearing Oct. 14.
“In the ideal world that would have been a very large beach replenishment project, but that was not an option that the Army Corps of Engineers wanted,” said Mr. Cantwell. “It’s not the most ideal project by any stretch of the imagination, but downtown Montauk is in a very precarious position. Walking away and doing nothing, for me, was not an option.”
Mr. Cantwell pointed out that in some areas, like Lazy Point, the town has been able to purchase houses that are in danger of flooding through a $10 million grant for “floodplain restoration.”
“Those are the kind of long-term solutions that will hopefully become more prevalent,” he said. “In downtown Montauk, you’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars of oceanfront real estate that you’d have to buy.”
Mr. Knobel agreed.
“You don’t want the Atlantic Ocean lapping at Route 27,” he said, adding that the town should revisit its Local Waterfront Revitalization Program, which was drafted more than a decade ago.
Mr. Cantwell said that, while the town is in dire need of a town-wide reassessment, it can’t afford the $3 million to $4 million price tag.
“At the moment, I think there are other priorities, infrastructure investments that we have to make,” he said. “This town went through a difficult financial period, and there’s been significant retrenchment. We have buildings with roofs leaking, restroom facilities at public beaches, some of which are almost disgraceful. That has to come first. The current system is clearly a mess. At some point in time this is something the town should do.”
Mr. Knobel said one person he’d met on the campaign had asked him what value he places on inequality.
“I’m amazed there hasn’t been a class action suit,” he said. “There are houses south of highway, some of which haven’t been reassessed in a long, long time.”
In his closing statement, Mr. Cantwell said it had been his honor and privilege to serve as a public servant in East Hampton for 40 years, both as a town councilman and the East Hampton Village Administrator before becoming supervisor.
“We’ve had our challenges in the past year-and-a-half and I think we’ve faced those challenges wisely,” he said, adding that he is particularly proud of the town’s code enforcement, police department and fire marshals for their work to combat rampant drinking and partying in Montauk this summer.
Mr. Knobel took advantage of his last couple minutes to knock the supervisor.
“For an entire year-and-a-half prior, there had been a very great failure of enforcement down in Montauk, as evidenced by a huge decrease in fees in town justice court,” he said. “To then seek complements over the correction is almost inappropriate.”
Town Board Tussle
While Ms. Larsen wasn’t in attendance, a League of Women Voters member read a prepared statement that she’d submitted, which dealt with issues ranging from the need for affordable housing to why town employees hadn’t received raises since 2010 when supervisor’s budget gives town board members 2.5 percent pay raises in 2016.
Ms. Turner, one of the most devoted attendees at town board meetings for her decade at the business alliance, said she’d spent thousands of hours at town board meetings and was appointed by three administrations to the town’s committees on issues ranging from affordable housing to lighting to business needs and wastewater management.