Pictured Above: Amber Brach-Williams and Gordon Gooding are running for Shelter Island Town Supervisor

The perils of overdevelopment are a refrain that we’ve been hearing over and over again on the East End in recent years, and these perils are being keenly felt on Shelter Island.

The public sense of being left out of a comprehensive plan process currently underway, along with construction of massive houses by people (and their limited liability companies) with the money to fight for what they want to build and ever-present concerns about the island’s aquifer have the attention of island residents this election season.

Around 200 people turned out to the Shelter Island School on Oct. 22 for a debate between Town Supervisor and Town Board candidates sponsored by the League of Women Voters of The Hamptons, Shelter Island and the North Fork.

Incumbent Democratic Town Supervisor Gerry Siller, whose management style has won him enemies across the island, was defeated by a two-to-one margin by Arnott Gordon Gooding, Jr. in a Democratic primary this spring. Mr. Gooding, a retired businessman, has headed up the town’s Community Preservation Fund Advisory Board for the past eight years.

Councilwoman Amber Brach-Williams, an accountant who has served on the Town Board for seven years, is seeking the Supervisor’s seat on the Republican ticket.

Joining Ms. Brach-Williams on the Republican ticket are former Town Supervisor Art Williams, who is also an accountant, and retired Shelter Island Town Police Officer Tom Cronin. Mr. Williams, who is undergoing treatment for cancer, has not been actively campaigning, though he has stated he expects a full recovery. He was not present at the debate, but a friend read a statement on his behalf.

The Democratic Town Board candidates are Benjamin Dyett, a lawyer and former local restaurateur, and retired environmental project manager Albert Dickson, who became known for his commitment to the environment while serving a prior term on the Town Board.

Every candidate running for office said they don’t want to see the comprehensive plan rushed through before the end of this year, and said it was important to get more community input and consensus before the plan is adopted.

All candidates thought the current town board’s decision to cede its authority over wetlands permits to the town’s planning board was a mistake.

“We already know how it’s doing,” said Mr. Gooding, pointing out that the planning board is already considering a permit for a house in the wetlands.

“I would like to take it back,” said Ms. Brach-Williams of the board’s decision.

“I would have voted no,” said Mr. Cronin of the town board’s decisions. “As an elected official, I’m the one who’s accountable.

Mr. Dickson also said it was a mistake. 

“Not to disparage the planning board, but I don’t see an environmental or planning professional on that board,” he added.

“I understand the town board’s reasoning — they have a huge workload, and they’re a lot of very smart, capable people trying to solve problems that are outside of their expertise,” said Mr. Dyett. “But the first thing you learn as an entrepreneur is you don’t know everything. Find out who has the answers, and use their knowledge. If things were different, their load would lighten and they would be more efficient.”

Both Supervisor candidates said they’d like to hire a town planner, though Ms. Brach-Williams said the budget is very tight this year and it’s something the town could “consider for the future.”

“If we ever needed a town planner, this is the time,” said Mr. Gooding. “A town planner will save us money and keep us out of trouble.”

The two Democratic town board candidates agreed that a planner would be helpful.

“We desperately need a town planner, at least on a consulting basis, when faced with complicated projects,” said Mr. Dickson.

Mr. Cronin disagreed.

“We’re up here to do a certain job,” he said. “That’s what you’re electing me for. If I can’t do my job, you elect me out.”

Shelter Island Town Board candidates Benjamin Dyett, Tom Cronin and Albert Dickson. Candidate Art Williams, who is undergoing cancer treatment, was not at the debate.
Shelter Island Town Board candidates Benjamin Dyett, Tom Cronin and Albert Dickson. Candidate Art Williams, who is undergoing cancer treatment, was not at the debate.

On the issue of the town’s role in keeping construction from going overboard in areas that have access to public water, Ms. Brach-Williams said she believes the town can regulate that through its zoning code, and called for a supermajority vote on the town board when it considers zoning changes.

“We really shouldn’t fool around with zoning,” said Mr. Gooding, adding that the town needs to learn how to say no to variances. “There’s no need to have the infrastructure” of public water, he said, adding that Suffolk County Health Department rules in areas without public water or sewers dictate what can be built.

“I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves” with the idea of an island-wide water district, “until we have a full environmental understanding of what’s taking place,” he added.

Ms. Brach-Williams said individual neighborhoods can now negotiate with the Suffolk County Water Authority to provide water to their neighborhoods, and she would like to “negotiate so they have to go through the town.”

Mr. Gooding added that he believes the town’s existing laws limiting irrigation should be enforced. Ms. Brach-Williams said she believes the town needs to make it more strict, perhaps by only allowing irrigation from cisterns.

“Let’s make brown lawns sexy again,” she said.

Mr. Cronin said he was in favor of a town wide water district “to an extent, but I’m not in favor of the Suffolk County Water Authority coming to Shelter Island.”

Mr. Dyett said he believes water quality issues should be addressed “on a localized basis, rather than blanket Suffolk County Water Authority across the whole island and making everybody pay for it.”

A six-month moratorium on construction of large houses is currently in place on Shelter Island, but it is soon scheduled to expire. Ms. Brach-Williams said she’s in favor of extending it another six months while the town finishes the comprehensive plan. Mr. Gooding said he believes a proposal for changes regarding large houses should already be on the table.

Mr. Cronin said he would like to see house size permitted on a sliding scale based on the size of the lot. 

Mr. Dickson said he would set a limit on house size, and added that, when he first joined the town board in 2018, he voted no on an application for an 11,000-square-foot house near the water. He said he soon received a phone call from Shelter Island Reporter Editor Ambrose Clancy, who said he’d checked town records and found he was the “first person ever to vote no for one of these projects.”

Mr. Dyett said he was in favor of extending the moratorium to give the town time to “finish the comprehensive plan in a smart, diligent way.” He added that, since the board has gotten into a habit of approving all applications, the completion of the comprehensive plan will give the town legal ground to “reset everything.”

“We need to stiffen the code and start saying no,” he said.

The candidates all said welcoming public opinion would bring civility back to town hall.

“That is what government is here for. We work for you folks,” said Mr. Gooding. “I want the public to talk first (at meetings) rather than waiting for three hours. A bigger part of this issue is a breakdown in trust. We’re unwilling to listen to different points of view.”

Ms. Brach-Williams said that when she runs town meetings “everybody does get an opportunity to talk. I will have an open door policy so people can come and talk to me.”

Mr. Dyett was one of three members of the comprehensive plan advisory board who recently quit after about 140 people showed up to a public forum asking for more of a say in the document.

“I was upset with the direction, and the process. I didn’t feel like enough public opinion was being gathered and put into the plan,” he said. “I was concerned about it being rushed.”

Mr. Cronin said the board needs to listen.

“A lot of the time, people speak to us about things we don’t agree with and we shut down right away,” he said. “We need to accept we’re not going to agree with everything.”

“We need to involve our committees in our government, and let them speak their minds,” said Mr. Dickson, adding that he would abolish the three-minute clock on public comment at town board meetings.

Mr. Williams said in a statement that he “has no dog in this fight other than this is my community too.”

“We’re now facing seemingly insurmountable issues, and I will devote myself fully to vetting the issues, and working with the voters to get the answers,” he said. “We can save the beauty that is left.”

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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