This week, there is news about two East Hampton traditions in trouble, and a third, a village institution, which had been in trouble due to the recent behavior of the East Hampton Village Zoning Board, just brought up short by a Judge deciding the Zoning Board’s behavior was irrational and baseless.
These are not good times for this village. There are a lot of decisions that needed to have been made differently and were not. Things need to be thought through more carefully in my opinion.
The first of the two traditions in trouble is the annual Fourth of July fireworks at East Hampton Village Main Beach. This is an event that was held at that beach for nearly a century, every year on the Saturday night of Fourth of July weekend, until four years ago when the fireworks were moved to Labor Day weekend because of the presence of a very tiny endangered bird.
Few people came to the Labor Day weekend fireworks and donations to hold them dried up. One man sent two pennies as a donation and said his two cents were to tell the Village to move the event back to the Fourth of July where it belonged.
Now, this week, the Fire Department says they will probably cancel the event altogether after this summer.
For those of us who used to go to the fireworks on the Fourth of July here, this is a great disappointment. As many as 3,000 of us would drive down to the beach, park for those few hours that evening on all the roads nearby—parking regulations would be suspended—and carry lawn chairs and blankets and snacks out through the darkness to the beach. There we would settle down on the blankets, mingle with friends, cook and enjoy the food and the festivities. This relaxing of the laws so the townspeople could enjoy the celebration of our independence was one of the great annual family events in this community. Nothing else is like Main Beach in East Hampton.
Why was it changed? It was the damn bird. In the spring four years ago, a pair of endangered piping plover birds nested at one end of Main Beach back by the dunes, and as the law is interpreted for these birds, wherever they nest they get priority. If they nested by the front door of the home of Mayor Paul Rickenbach, he and his family would not be able to get out. There is no other endangered species in America that gets to decide to settle in this way with everybody else getting out. When they do show up, the nest is encircled by The Snow Fence of Doom, a circle set up so nobody can get to within 10 feet of the nest. Getting inside the 10 feet can get you a jail sentence.
But a strange thing goes on at Main Beach in East Hampton. The fireworks get cancelled because of the plovers, who are there until late July, but the thousands of beachgoers on Main Beach do not.
This contradiction occurs because the Village has ruled that the sudden loud noise of a fireworks display is extraordinary and would frighten the plovers and cause them to fly off for those 30 minutes. I’m sure it would. Fireworks displays can frighten everybody. Humans, elephants, lions, maybe even endangered tiger salamander would perk up their little ears and temporarily skitter off.
This is a reason to cancel a fireworks display? The displays take a half hour. The animals get scared. Then they come back. That’s it. This happens everywhere, with many other fireworks displays near to many other piping plover nests in this area. And yet every town on the East End celebrates with fireworks on the Fourth of July. But East Hampton Main Beach does not.
I have said since this village cancelled the fireworks for this reason four years ago that the answer to this is to gently and with great fanfare and care, move the piping plover nests farther away from where the fireworks are supposed to go off. I have also suggested that perhaps we should use the new silencing technology, where anti-sound waves are emitted to completely quiet a section of property for a half hour or so. Not a peep has emerged from the East Hampton Village Government to either consider this or do anything other than postpone the event. Now it will likely be cancelled entirely. What a loss.
The second thing that’s a problem in East Hampton Village is the situation involving the single most important visitor attraction in town—the Hook Mill Windmill.
There are 11 old English windmills on eastern Long Island, all of them built between about 1705 and 1720. One imagines that they might have each taken a crew a month or two to build using the tools at hand in that era. Many of these windmills have been lifted up and put in wagons to be moved around from place to place as they have been bought and sold over the years. All of them get restored from time to time as their wood has gotten old.
In this generation, Richard Baxter is the go-to man who has done this work. A master woodworker, he has repaired about half our mills during the past 20 years, almost always by taking bits and pieces of them to his barns and shops, using tools to remake them in the old-fashioned way and then bringing them back to fit the new pieces back in. For periods of time a mill has been without its arms or its fantail and we’ve gotten through it.
But the repair of this mill, right smack on the green in the center of town, has involved plastic sheeting, steel I-beams, giant suspender-type nylon straps holding it in compression from top to bottom, huge holes in the various sides of it from time to time and other insults to this beautiful antique just too awful to see. Last week, after a year and a half in this condition, it was announced that Baxter would need still more time to finish the job, and the cost, which had been estimated to be $200,000, would have to increase. It would at least continue on like this through the summer and into the autumn and beyond. This will be a project of at least two years.
The windmill is about 15 feet in diameter and about 30 feet high. There are, for example, only six giant wooden posts that extend from the ground up to the top in the corners to hold it up. It is hard to imagine that you could work on this for two years like this, but that is what is going on. Turns out that to be certain that the work is done right, Mr. Baxter has allowed that only he himself will do the repairs. This is a totally unfair thing to say, but it’s a fact that the Empire State Building, all 102 stories of it, got done in just nine months.
I am not here to suggest that Mr. Baxter is doing this job wrong, or that the job could have been done piecemeal. What I am suggesting is that the mill is in unimaginably decrepit condition and the village has been delinquent in not repairing this for quite some time.
Under the circumstances, it is hard to understand why if the scope of this job and the time it was going to take to complete was a known quantity, the village did not decide to build a plywood screen around the mill with a painting on it of the fully repaired mill. The town requires plywood screening of major repairs to all storefronts on the street. They did not require this of themselves.
It might have been said at a town meeting that to leave it under construction would be a good lesson for the school children, as they could watch Mr. Baxter at work. This argument holds up if the mill is in decent condition at the get go. But for a two-year plus repair it brings up other thoughts—not the least of which is the derelict condition it was allowed to fall into and how this repair mars the scenery of the most beautiful village in America for this long length of time.
Finally, we come to the East Hampton Library at the far end of Main Street from the Hook Mill catastrophe.
This library was built around 1912 by the wealthy folks of East Hampton Village as a small but beautiful structure housing a few thousand books for all.
It sits amidst other cultural institutions in a separate district at the most southerly end of Main Street. There you find the John Drew Theatre, Guild Hall, Mulford Farm, The Episcopal Church, the Gardiner Mill, the Town Pond and Cemetery, the Clinton Academy Museum, formerly a little schoolhouse, and the venerable East Hampton Star newspaper office.
None of these institutions cost taxpayers a dime. They are all privately supported by Boards of Directors who raise money from the private sector or from grants they receive from others, or in the case of the newspaper, from subscriptions and advertising.
Over the years more than half of these institutions have undergone expansions. All have been approved by the Village and its zoning board. But when it came time for the Library Board to put in a children’s wing for the kids there—times are changing for libraries and they are more and more adding educational components, mostly for children—the Village would not give its okay. Its reasons made no sense. Pages and pages of reasons were filed. And it left people scratching their heads. What was this all about? Over a period of nine years, the Board of the Library, to get approval to spend their own money on this, appeared before one or another board in the Village more than 40 times. And the answer remained no. Finally, the Library Board sued. They felt it was a violation of the law to prevent a cultural board from spending its own money to provide more culture in a community. Last week, State Supreme Court Judge Thomas Whalen agreed. He described the Village Zoning Board’s objections as “irrational, arbitrary and capricious,” and not in compliance with the results of the studies done showing there would be little impact on the town by doing this. He declared that the children’s wing would have to proceed. And the Village then said they would not take this to the Supreme Court. The courts have spoken, they said, and they will abide by their decision.
People are left to wonder what in the world the Village was thinking as it stonewalled this project all these years. Some say it had to do with the influx of new immigrants into the community. There are many of them and they have many kids. They are stretching our school systems thin. And many of them might want to, and have a legal right to go to a public library that had a children’s wing. Was this a matter of “if you don’t build it they won’t come?” Others said the wealthy community just wanted to have the library as it was, all peaceful and quiet with just a few people in it and with nothing to do with the newcomers.
But this is East Hampton, supposedly a regional center for five hamlets located all around it. It needs to serve that greater community, and the board of directors, who fund the place, also came to that conclusion. This was nine years ago.
And so, in the absence of anything rational the village presented to the judge, there doesn’t seem to be any other way to explain this.
The behavior of East Hampton Village in problem solving in these regards seems to me to be substandard.
Ah, but there is a ray of hope. Last week, the Village gave permission to a group of young entrepreneurs who wish to provide an electric car shuttle that could take up to five passengers at a time on a 20-minute loop between the railroad station, Main Street and the beach. The service began Saturday. They have three of these vehicles, made by Chevrolet, which look like elongated golf carts. Considering that you usually need one out for charging much of the time, the other two will ferry up to this number of people at 10-minute intervals from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week—a much-needed service.
Indeed, for four years, up until two years ago, the Village itself provided this service, using a rather bedraggled looking 30-passenger county bus to do it. I don’t recall if they charged anything or not. But in the event, they lost money because not many people used it and so they gave it up.
In this case, the private service with its cute golf carts, provides the service for free but intends to make money by putting advertising on the sides of the vehicles, brochures in pockets by the seats and little video screens that play commercials for the passengers to watch.
If the service succeeds, more people will want to use it, more vehicles will be needed and the time for departure will get reduced to five minutes or even less. This could well be a continuous shuttle for beachgoers and a very good thing too.
What I hope is that, if not this year next, the Village finds a way to share in the profits of this venture, much in the way that the City of New York shares in the profits of the taxicab companies there. Clear, creative thinking is in order. Hope for the best. [/expand]