Pictured Above: Town Supervisor Candidates Kathee Burke-Gonzalez (l) and Gretta Leon (r)

The Republican challengers in this year’s town elections in the Democratic stronghold of East Hampton are making a case for a change in the direction the town is headed, while Democratic candidates for Town Board and Supervisor, two of whom already serve on the Town Board, are pledging to continue on their current course.

Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, a 10-year veteran of the board who serves as the town’s Deputy Supervisor, is running on the Democratic ticket for Supervisor on a platform of continuing the town’s work achieving sustainability goals with regard to renewable energy and coastal resilience, updating the town’s zoning code for the future and preserving the community that’s here.

Dr. Gretta Leon, who grew up in East Hampton, was trained as a dentist in Costa Rica and came home with the hopes of ensuring that her peers can continue to stay in the town that she “absolutely loves,” she said in her opening statement at an Oct. 18 League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, Shelter Island & the North Fork Zoom debate moderated by LWV President Susan Wilson.

Ms. Leon is joined on the Republican ticket by Scott Smith, an East Hampton cabinetmaker who hopes to “deviate the ship in a direction that holds to the values of the Bonackers,” and Michael Wootton, a Wainscott resident and Columbia Business School graduate in finance who has worked in banking and commodities training. 

“I love our town, its people, culture and heritage,” he said. “We’ve had one-party rule for over a decade, and critical ideas and critical thinking are simply not heard.”

Ms. Burke-Gonzalez’s running mates are incumbent Councilman David Lys, who runs two local small businesses with his wife and served on the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals and as the chairman of the Amagansett Lifesaving Station and Coast Guard Society, and Thomas Flight, who owns a bookstore and apparel retail store in Montauk, and serves on the Montauk School Board and as an EMT with the Montauk Fire Department.

Democratic Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, who has served on the town board for 12 years, opted out of seeking re-election earlier this year as she was facing cancer treatment. Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc is not seeking re-election.

East Hampton has long been a leader in land preservation on the East End, with hefty income due to frequent land sales from the Community Preservation Fund (CPF) 2 percent real estate transfer tax.

Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said she hopes in the future to prioritize use of the CPF for shoreline protection and purchase of agricultural land “to lease to farmers to be a sustainable community and grow what we consume.” She also said she would like to see more properties for recreation because “our kids need outlets and our kids are in distress.” She added that eight or nine businesses and institutions will receive funding for water quality projects in the coming year — 20 percent of the CPF funding can be used for water quality projects.

She said the town’s new Community Housing Opportunity Fund, paid for through a half percent real estate transfer tax approved overwhelming by voters last year, will bring in an estimated $4 million to $6 million per year.

“It’s not as far as we’d like it to go,” she said, adding that the town could enter into public-private partnerships when using the funding for housing.

Ms. Leon said she believes water quality should be a priority.

“I don’t see anything that has been impactful that way,” she said, echoing a refrain that she continued throughout the debate. “I would like to know where have we been for 10 years? … I would like to have more studies in place and work with people who are experts.”

Mr. Wootton said he hopes to see a townwide ban on pesticides.

Mr. Smith said he “believes the fund has been abused a little bit by buying small tracts of land. By doing that it decreases the availability of land for our residents. So many families are leaving East Hampton because they can’t afford to live here.”

He added that he thinks the town should use some of the money to bring clean water to Ditch Plains, which he said “hasn’t been addressed for 10 years,” and said he doesn’t think the town should have the half-percent tax for affordable housing because “adding more taxes to the people out here makes it more difficult for them to live here.”

Mr. Smith’s comments drew sharp criticism from Mr. Lys.

“There’s a lack of inherent knowledge by our competitors about how the CPF is actually used,” he said, adding that the town is using water quality funding to help Ditch Plains and “does not buy quarter acre lots unless they have multiple wetlands or high environmental criteria.” He added that the half percent tax was for housing, not CPF, and the town does not govern the use of pesticides.

Mr. Flight said the town’s CPF priorities have made “this area such an outstanding spot. It’s those kinds of policies that should continue.”

On the town’s renewable energy goals, including promoting offshore wind and battery storage, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said she was proud of the town’s record, citing its work becoming the first municipality in New York State to adopt a Climate Action Plan, bring ashore offshore wind to power 70,000 homes and build the first megawatt solar farm on the Accabonac brush dump.

“We have been very responsible from an environmental standpoint,” she said, adding that the town’s fire marshals have told her fire suppression system at a Battery Energy Storage System (BESS) in East Hampton Village this spring “did exactly what it was designed to do.”

“I know that we have fire marshals and everything, but we need to have more staff on the fire department and first responders. That also comes with housing and all of that,” said Ms. Leon. “We do need to staff more of the fire department, police department, so we have proper response going forth into the future.”

The East Hampton Fire Department is a volunteer fire department.

Ms. Leon added that she doesn’t think “there’ve been enough studies done to address what the impact might be down the road” of the town’s environmental goals.

“All this has to be planned around problems we already have, such pressing issues like affordability, housing, we have to address the first,” she added. “The town is trying to implement us having electric stoves, but if you don’t have a house, it’s hard to do.”

She added that “electric vehicles are pretty expensive. Not everyone has the opportunity to do that.”

On the future of the town’s municipally owned airport, which has been mired in litigation since East Hampton tried to impose curfews and flight restrictions several years ago, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said that, as parties named in the lawsuit “sitting town board members are constrained as to what we can talk about… The role of the town board member is to get the information out to the community to help them make informed decisions. eighty percent of the community wanted to see a modified airport, with curfews, and they didn’t want to create a diversion to Montauk.”

Airport proponents have been running attack ads against the incumbent candidates this election season over the cost of the town’s legal defense of its airport stance. Those ads do not make clear that the litigation is paid for out of the town’s dedicated airport fund, which is funded by user fees at the airport, not out of taxpayers’ pockets.

Ms. Leon said the airport “creates 872 jobs, directly and indirectly. I wouldn’t be ok with shutting that off and having 872 people losing their jobs…. There’s been so much waste on litigations for years on end…. Once you create a hostile environment to negotiate, you’ve just created a barrier to communication.”

She added that the airport is necessary for emergency deliveries and Medevac helicopters, though such helicopters usually land in a cleared area as close to the incident location as possible, which isn’t necessarily at an airport.

On the town’s decision to opt out of allowing cannabis dispensaries by a state-mandated deadline at the end of 2021, Ms. Leon said people “would just have to travel to buy it somewhere else… I just don’t have enough information. I would have to review studies.”

Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said that, in the two years since East Hampton opted out “I haven’t had one community member come to us and make a case to opt back in. I don’t think it’s a priority for the community and I’m comfortable with the current stance.”

Mr. Flight said that, as an EMT, he’s dealt with many difficult calls involving people who have imbibed alcohol and become violent, but there have been “very few calls about marijuana.”

“I think we’re better off with a regulated industry, but I absolute understand why the board made the decision originally, with so much still up in the air,” he said.

He added that many people turn to alcohol and drugs due to underlying mental health crises, and the town should “implement mental health resources to help people through difficult times.”

Mr. Lys said the town could opt back in.

“It might be decided by a future town board, but any decision made would have to be with the appropriate zoning in place.”

“We banned it on lifeguard beaches, along with nicotine and vaping — that’s important, because that’s where the kid go,” he said. 

“I’m against legalization. It’s not a motivator for children,” said Mr. Smith. “When I grew up, they always said it led to other drugs. It’s a horrible thing to teach our children it’s ok.”

“I would like to see ways to attract teenagers to healthy activities,” said Mr. Wootton. “I agree with the town decision. Marijuana use does not help teenagers one bit.”

When asked how the relationship between the town board and the town trustees could be improved, Mr. Lys and Mr. Flight said active communication was important, and Mr. Lys said he believes it’s getting stronger.

Their opponents took the opportunity to pivot the question to morale among town employees, which Mr. Wootton said “is very, very low.”

“There’s a lack of pride, camaraderie and feeling they’re a part of something,” said Mr. Smith. “I want people to feel appreciated, loved and part of a movement.”

When asked if there was one thing they wanted to address that wasn’t asked in the debate, Ms. Leon said that in the last ten years “nothing has been done about house size… It just goes slowly. It’s almost as if the town board doesn’t want to touch this.”

Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said the town had reduced the maximum house size about eight years ago during former Supervisor Larry Cantwell’s administration, but “nobody was building to the maximum.”

“What we’re really seeing, since Covid, is a lot of money is coming into the community, private equity money, and they’re looking at it as an investment, not to call it home,” she said, adding that the town board is planning to address this issue in their current code update.

She added that, while she understands why Ms. Leon may be disheartened by the slow pace of change, “things go slowly in municipal government. It’s designed that way. There are a lot of checks and balances because it’s taxpayer money you’re spending.”

Ms. Leon said that most of the people she knows in her generation had to move away, and she wants to fight to make it possible for them to still live here because “I love this community with all my heart.”

Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said she believes “our community needs experienced and compassionate leadership… I have a proven record of service and working collaboratively with others.”

The debate can be viewed on LTV’s YouTube channel.

Read Our Full Election Coverage

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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