It’s been a tumultuous month for Larry Penny and the East Hampton Town Natural Resources Department. When news spread that the town was favoring the consolidation of the department with its planning department, thus eliminating Penny’s position as director, residents and environmental advocates turned out en masse for a public hearing three weeks ago to pan the idea and support the town’s “environmental guru.”
The only problem was that it wasn’t an actual public hearing due to a mistake on the town’s part, but nonetheless people were allowed to speak their minds and the town board heeded their words. Last Thursday was the formal public hearing and the same people returned to praise Penny and his department. They were pleasantly surprised early in the evening when councilwoman Julia Prince informed them that the board had rethought their original proposal and the natural resources department would remain autonomous.
“I think the board clearly heard them the first time around,” said Prince on Wednesday. “As a whole we clearly understand the town wants us to keep the department and there are things we can do within the code that will enable that to happen.”
She said the most important thing is to eliminate the redundancy between the two departments that has increased over the years. She said the current code is not accurate in terms of the segregation of duties. She gave the example of lot flagging. If someone wanted to flag their lot to indicate a wetlands area, then presently they could go to either department.
“There is no reason for that,” said Prince. “And to be honest, natural resources never really does flagging. Planning has been doing that for years.”
She said the future role of the natural resources department would be more educational.
“I think it can act as an autonomous watch-dog unit,” she said.
As for Penny, Prince said he would not be going anywhere.
“He’s the nature guru of the town and there’s no reason we shouldn’t have that,” she said.
A number of speakers at the first hearing accused the board of simply eliminating the department in order to remove Penny. Because he is a civil service employee, he is protected from being fired, however the law allows for the position to be terminated instead.
On Thursday Penny was compared to Albert Einstein by one speaker, called an encyclopedia by another, and praised for being a benefit to the region as well as the entire world. His wife, Julie Penny, credited him for turning the department into “a one-stop shop” for all things environment related.
“The wonderful environment we share is no accident,” said Julie Penny. “It is a result of Larry Penny. He might not be Albert Einstein, but he is a genius.”
Jeremy Samuelson of the Group for the East End spoke at both hearings in favor of keeping the departments separate and eliminating overlapping duties. On Wednesday he said, “It was our hope going into the [last] meeting that the board had taken the time to really listen to the public and taken the time to rethink how we can best meet the needs of the citizens and the natural resources of the town.”
He said the group’s belief has always been that both planning and natural resource protection are vital functions of the town.
“There are overlaps in those missions,” he continued, “nonetheless the approach each has in living up to its mandate is distinct. Our hope is given that reality, we maintain a vigorous approach independent from planning that is dedicated to natural resource assessment, protection and outreach.”
At Thursday’s meeting supervisor Bill McGintee told the audience the issue at hand was never meant to undo the town’s commitment to the environment.
“If anyone in this room was believing we were moving in a direction to remove the protection [the towns has] given to the natural resources, they were sadly mistaken,” he said.
The revised code is expected to be discussed at the board’s next regular session.
“This board is open minded,” said Prince. “We take a lot of crap, but we listen. It’s unfortunate, but I think there is just this feeling out there that the town board is so closed and so arrogant. I don’t believe we are and I try my best [not to be]. I think the rest of the board does as well.”
Top photo: East Hampton Town Natural Resources Director Larry Penny