The rallying cry to “Save What’s Left” of the unique character of the East End is one that many of us who’ve lived here a long time have been hearing for our entire lives.
It began decades ago as the slogan that defined the North Fork Environmental Council, but has since become woven into the public’s consciousness as an ethos that defines this place.
But “what’s left” is a constantly shifting paradigm, and for someone who moved here yesterday, it’s a far cry from what was left when the nascent environmental movement prompted the creation of local environmental advocacy groups in the early 1970s.
Most decisions about saving what’s left of the East End’s rural character inevitably fall, parcel by parcel, on land use boards in individual towns and villages.
The members of these boards, mostly unpaid civic-minded residents with some history in construction or architecture or real estate, are charged with making sure new development meets the codes that are on the books. But it’s become painfully clear in recent years that many of these codes are inadequate to face the onslaught of newly proposed development.
While South Fork lawmakers have been wise for several years to the tactics used by developers of large-scale projects, the sudden explosion of popularity of the North Fork has already overwhelmed the ability of existing zoning to regulate what can be built there.
We are already behind the Eight Ball, and if this doesn’t change quickly, it will be too late to enact meaningful changes.
Both Riverhead and Southold towns have been at work putting together comprehensive plans to serve as a road map for how the towns can best balance development and preservation in the coming years. Riverhead, which is currently seeing a massive boom in interest, and in construction of multi-story housing downtown, is in the midst of a dramatic change to a once-blighted downtown.
The constant expansion of the Big Box shopping district on Route 58 is a cautionary tale about the possibility of overdevelopment in downtown Riverhead, and the town will need, in the years ahead, to ensure that the still intensely rural areas outside of these central districts don’t succumb further to suburban sprawl.
Southold Town adopted a comprehensive plan that was a decade in the making at the height of the pandemic in 2020, but that plan, which was in many ways outdated by the time it was published, did not include the implementation of zoning changes. Southold is just now beginning the process of hiring a consultant to get zoning changes off the ground, a process that we anticipate will likewise take years.
You need look no farther than a proposed code change limiting the size of houses in Southold, an idea shepherded along for more than a year now by a coalition of North Fork civic associations, to see inaction at work. At work session after work session, this code change was been kicked around by the Southold Town Board without being put up for a public hearing.
In the meantime, if you drive through just about any neighborhood in town, you will see houses that dwarf their neighbors being built. And once these newer, bigger houses become the norm, it will become more and more difficult to argue that new ones don’t fit in with the character of the neighborhood. The board seems poised to set these hearings as soon as its next meeting on May 10, and we hope they’ll follow through. It is long past time for the public to weigh in on this proposal.
The civic engagement that we’re seeing around these issues is heartening. New civic associations are beginning to take root in Southold, Cutchogue and Greenport, augmenting the work of veteran groups like the Orient Association, the East Marion Community Association and the Mattituck-Laurel Civic Association.
Dozens of dedicated, often retired, professionals, have been volunteering their time and effort for this task, offering to form a volunteer committee to shepherd community support for implementation of the comprehensive plan. This proposal has been rebuffed by Southold Town.
We are already playing catch-up with this effort. It is time to put all hands to work to truly live up to the mantra of saving what’s left.