Editorial: When the Really Big Money Comes to Town

For decades now, we’ve been hearing cries of “Save What’s Left” of the East End.

This phrase is not only the longtime slogan of the North Fork Environmental Council, but it’s also been the guiding principle behind the Community Preservation Fund, which pays for land preservation here through a two percent real estate transfer tax.

When you think about it, Community Preservation Fund actually means the same thing as “Save What’s Left.” 

But what is really left to save?

In a historically big-monied area, it’s become an old saw to hear the phrase “the big money is coming in and taking over.” The big money has always been here. The problem we are having now is a global one. The biggest “big money” is on an order of magnitude greater than we’ve seen in the past.

All of us who’ve stood up at public meetings and begged for an end to overdevelopment have long been pushing just a little shoulder against the tide of change, and our local zoning codes are a flimsy defense against the moneyed interests that we expect will change this region in the future. 

Many of us have long dug in our heels and demanded that things stay the same, and of course, things changed regardless of our protests. But in the past the public outcry has slowed change down, and made it less of a monster than it might otherwise have been.

The only tools local governments have to keep dramatic change at bay are our zoning codes, which are a clumsy hodgepodge of regulations that have changed incrementally over the course of decades. These codes are really just a framework, a stopblock defining what the community deems too big, too garish or too intense. And they are often reactive as well — people get motivated to stop change when they see a large building under construction blocking the view they’ve been accustomed to for years, and by that point it’s often too late.

But is it views we are really trying to protect when we talk about not wanting to see change? That’s definitely part of the equation, but it’s not the whole thing. It is difficult to argue with the owner of a boatyard who is looking to replace an aging work barn along the waterfront, and it’s difficult to argue with an oyster farmer keeping his gear along the shore, or a farmer on the land looking to house field workers. These are the things that define hard work and the historic industries of this place. These are among the most important things we are trying to save when we say Save What’s Left.

All around the world, climate change is creating refugees, some of whom had once been solidly middle class members of society whose luck ran out when they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

To be a working class person on the East End now is truly to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and the people who’ve fled the rising prices here face much of the same mental anguish as those who have been displaced by acts of nature. It all happens so, so fast.

The pandemic sent the big money rushing out to the tip of Long Island, and so much of it is here to stay. The chorus of outrage at town meetings over the changes this is continuing to cause has also been muted by the fact that these conversations are now happening via Zoom instead of in person. 

If we are to continue to work to save what’s left, we need to ask what it is that we are fundamentally preserving here. Our communities are intrinsically shaped by the people who have long lived on and with the land. As they leave the area in droves, what institutional knowledge do they leave behind? Who is building on their legacies? And what do the developers who take their place owe the people who are still left, screeching the wheels of change as best they can but knowing much of their work is likely for naught.

When we who are left here to shout Save What’s Left leave, who will take our place?

East End Beacon

The East End Beacon is your guide to social and environmental issues, arts & culture on the East End of Long Island.

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