East Hampton Star Editorial

They Gave Us Rain Gardens


February 2, 2023

Tremendous public interest in advance of Wednesday’s East Hampton Town Planning Board hearing on the projected effects of a massive commercial development in Wainscott indicates that residents are paying attention. While the developers might have gamed the system so that the hearing is being held in the coldest time of the year, when much of the town’s property owners are in warmer places, the outcry has been loud and building.

That said, few voices, other than the developers’, have been heard in support of the Wainscott Commercial Center. The project, as planned, would be the largest of its kind in East Hampton history. The sense is widely shared that the project should be blocked, but it is not as if officials had not seen this coming long ago; why they opted not to make a move back then deserves a close look. It also suggests that the town’s entire regulatory system should be paused for a thorough examination of whether it can meet the challenge. Moratoriums have been used in the recent past while municipalities try to get their houses in order; the need for one in East Hampton Town is becoming clear.

The scale of the 50-lot proposal is of regional concern, with noise, water pollution, and traffic congestion top among them. In the plan, two existing businesses on the site — a cement plant and a masonry supply yard — would remain. The remaining 48 lots in the proposed subdivision would vary in size from an acre upward. Each would contain a “rain garden,” a kind of manufactured wetland designed to trap contaminants before they reach the water table. The developers rejected the idea of a central sewage-treatment plant, citing its cost. Instead, each of the 50 lots would have its own system.

The town planning board has planned for five hours of public comment Wednesday on a draft environmental impact statement submitted by the developers. The session at LTV Studios will begin at 3 p.m., with an hourlong dinner break at 5:30, then resume for as long as it takes. Public statements will be taken in person and via the phone, for those watching from home. The board has set a three-minute time limit per speaker; however, written responses of any length will be welcomed until the end of February.

The developers have said that if things go their way, they would grant the town “exclusive options” to buy the portions of the site designated in an earlier study for use as parkland, affordable housing, parking, and, possibly, a Long Island Rail Road station. A description of how that might work is found on page 268 in their draft environmental impact statement.

If a public purchase were completed, it would result in 27 commercial lots eventually hitting the market, not 50. This outcome might seem an attractive alternative at first look, but, according to the developers’ analysis, it would yield only a slight reduction in paved surfaces, a modest reduction in wastewater flow, shave off between a quarter and a half of projected road congestion, and have a negligible impact on the anticipated two-plus tons of garbage a day produced on site. The great risk is that a future town board might be unwilling to spend the money required to exercise its option, and the property owner would then go ahead with selling or leasing the balance of the land as it hoped in the first place.

Notably absent so far are the voices of the Wainscott property owners who were greatly opposed to an underground electric cable snaking through the hamlet. Also missing so far are the residents of South Breeze Road, who had sued unsuccessfully over a new entertainment center and restaurant that eventually was built at a tennis center near the airport. Beyond town limits, Sag Harbor and Noyac would also be affected. Residents from those areas should consider speaking out as well.

Wainscott is a gateway to East Hampton but its residents have already had to deal with more than their share of trials and tribulations — notably from the increase in loud air traffic at the town airport over the years, as well as traffic on the roads. The community owes it to them, at least, to do all it can to minimize the harm the Wainscott Commercial Center, if approved, would bring.