Pictured Above: At the end of Long Neck Boulevard in Flanders on Oct. 29, 2012, the day after Superstorm Sandy.
The Southampton Town Board approved an ambitious Climate Action Plan in a contentious 3-2 vote Thursday evening, Dec. 21, setting the town up to be able to take advantage of a portion of $522 billion in federal aid for local climate change readiness.
The vote came after two days of comment at public hearings, on Dec. 12 and again at the Dec. 21 meeting, in which many members of the public said they hadn’t been given enough time to digest a document that contains hundreds of recommendations for how to set the town on a path to carbon neutrality by the year 2040 — the final draft was first released to the public in mid-November, though the town’s Sustainable Southampton Green Advisory Committee has had a draft since mid-summer.
Many climate activists who spoke at the hearings said the town has been working toward the plan for years and they did not want to see further delays at a time when so much grant funding is available to implement it.
“I’ve been working on this eight years, and it’s taken this long to get to this point,” said Councilman John Bouvier, who sponsored the resolution, adding that, from his perspective, “that’s eight years we’ve lost.”
Mr. Bouvier, along with Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, is leaving office at the end of this year after being term limited out after eight years, and the vote came at the end of a marathon, six-hour town board meeting that was the last regularly scheduled meeting of their terms. Both Democrats, they voted for the resolution, along with Democratic Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni. Mr. Schneiderman and Mr. Schiavoni also added their names as co-sponsors of the resolution just before the vote.
“If not now, when?” said Mr. Bouvier. “This is critical. We do face an existential threat to our community. We are a coastal community.”
He added that the Peconic Estuary Partnership has prepared numerous maps showing the local sea level rise.
“We have lost civilizations in the Pacific. This is really happening,” he said, then added to the public and board members who will remain in the new year: “It’s up to you guys to reach into this toolbox going forward and do the right thing.”
Mr. Schneiderman said he had just visited Dune Road in Hampton Bays, where “the county recently put in 60,000 yards of material there, and it’s gone.”
The Suffolk County Department of Public Works has been working this week to shore up areas that had suffered coastal erosion during the weekend storm.
“I just feel we don’t have the luxury of time,” said the Supervisor. “I have two kids who are worried that they’re inheriting an unlivable planet. We have to take serious actions. This is a road map… We have been working on this for years.”
“It is a crisis worldwide,” said Mr. Schiavoni, adding that the northeastern United States is in a 700 day snow drought and the Peconic Bay scallops are all gone, with climate change likely to blame.
“I was ok with this the first moment I saw it,” he said. “This board should move forward.”
Republican Councilman Rick Martel, who was defeated in this fall’s election, voted against adopting the plan, along with Republican Councilwoman Cynthia McNamara. Both said were not opposed to it, but thought it hadn’t been vetted thoroughly by the public.
Ms. McNamara added that she had not been provided with a copy of the latest draft of the plan, which town Planning & Development Administrator Janice Scherer said was changed in a handful of places where it had recommended “mandating” items to a recommendation to “consider mandating.” Ms. Scherer said the changes were made after Ms. McNamara requested them at the Dec. 12 hearing.
“I have to take your word for it because I haven’t seen it, and I’m being asked to vote on it today,” said Ms. McNamara.
“Had we been presented this in September, and vetted it for the past several months, this would be an easy yes for me,” said Mr. Martel. “I agree with 98 percent of this, but I think it needs a little more time.”
The plan, available online here, was prepared by the global consulting firm Ramboll Group, which quantified the town’s greenhouse gas emissions for a baseline year of 2019, then detailed the variety of regulatory changes, changes to the electric grid, personal and community decisions and proactive steps that could be taken to get that number to zero by 2040.
A big local solution would be to increase building efficiency, with the help of grant funding and tax breaks now being rolled out through the 2022 federal lnflation Reduction Act for improved insulation, upgrading electric panels and converting home energy systems to heat pump technology.
(See rewiringamerica.org for an overview of efforts underway nationwide).
The plan also lays out a roadmap for the town to encourage public transportation and bicycling and other personal mobility devices, and carbon sequestration, a technology that is rapidly advancing but can also be as simple as encouraging home and municipal composting.
Many who spoke at the Dec. 12 public hearing reiterated their positions again on Dec. 21, and there was a clear divide between supporters of the plan and many Hampton Bays residents who were suspicious of the town’s methods and motives after fighting back this past year against a large Battery Energy Storage System (BESS) proposed to be installed near the Shinnecock Canal.
Ms. McNamara pointed out that, when the town adopted its Southampton 400+ plan for a sustainable future a decade ago, the process took several months, involved outreach to every Citizens Advisory Committee in town, and included eight continuations of the public hearing, during with substantial changes were made to the document.
Many residents in 2013 were suspicious that the plan was part of the United Nations’ decades-old “Agenda 21” plan that was the subject of many conspiracy theories at the time.
Opponents of this draft of the Climate Action Plan didn’t say they thought it was part of a conspiracy, but instead questioned how it would be implemented, how the action items in it would be prioritized, and whether the community would be allowed to be involved in the process.
Kristen Mielenhausen of Hampton Bays said she had hoped the town would hold a second public workshop before adopting the plan, as had originally been planned.
“From June through August, my community was devoting thousands of man-hours to the BESS moratorium,” she said. “The BESS site was borne out of poor process and lack of inclusion. We were treated at first with disdain and criticism. We were called Wickapedians and NIMBYs. There are many people today that wanted to be here and could not. We’re still in the dark about the plan.”
She added that the town’s 70,000 residents “deserve better than this.”
Ms. McNamara said she was concerned that she had heard members of the sustainability committee say they shouldn’t let “ignorance stand in the way” of the goals after hearing concerns from members of the public, whom she said had asked important questions about costs and public safety measures.
“To the naysayers, you aren’t ignorant. This isn’t how good government operates,” she said. “This should be celebrated as something we all did together, not something that got railroaded through at the end of the year.”
Hampton Bays resident William Muir, who said he had been a “junior participant” in the plan to send a man to the moon, said the document wasn’t a plan but an “aspirational manifesto” and the “details will be myriad and the devils will be legion.”
“Kennedy’s vision depended on identifying incremental priorities,” he said of the moonshot. “At this time the Climate Action Plan is a vision, a grand dream, but it’s only that, and if it remains only that, it will fail.”
Former Town Planner Michelangelo Lieberman, who worked extensively on the Climate Action Plan before leaving his job at the town earlier this year, thanked the board for taking on the project.
“This isn’t easy,” he said. “Your personal ambitions probably didn’t include adopting a plan to save the world. It’s a big deal. When you look in the mirror, when you’re long done with public service, be proud of yourselves…. It’s a good first step. I’m proud of you all.”
Dorothy Reilly, a Southampton climate activist and a founder of the Carbon Crew Project, which helps individuals draft their own personal five-year Climate Action Plans, said the Sustainable Southampton committee meetings are always open to the public.
“If you’re saying ‘how come I’m not a member,’ come on down to the sustainability meetings,” she said. “This is fabulous. This is what we were waiting for. It’s not done but it’s a start.”
She said the plan was not requiring “years of sacrifice for marginal gain,” as Mr. Muir had said earlier in the evening.
“All this life is going down the tubes unless we do something now. Lay it out there. Find out what’s feasible and what’s not,” she added.