Pointing to a history of resolutions and advisories from the group that were, according to chairwoman Pamela Harwood, “Not even acknowledged,” members of the Bridgehampton Citizens Advisory Committee resigned en masse this week.
An October 18 memo to the Southampton Town Board and Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, signed by 15 members, reads, “While it has been an honor to be appointed to and serve on this committee, we believe that the operating restrictions and mandates imposed on the CAC have not been met with the proper responsiveness to the numerous advisories and resolutions we have submitted to the Town Board and the land use boards it appoints, the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals.”
The memo was delivered Monday morning, by that afternoon, Harwood said, they’d received no response to the resignation missive.
Concluding that, as a town-appointed CAC, they were unable to get their voices heard, members decided to pursue the formation of an independent civic association.
“They seem to have wanted to play a different role than they were chartered to play,” Schneiderman offered. “They wanted to advise the Planning Board. They want to advise the Zoning Board, and they want to be an independent voice.”
The supervisor said he’d recommended the group form a civic association “so they can be completely independent and free to comment on whatever they want.”
“I think it’s a better structure for those individuals who want to play that role. I don’t see it as a bad thing, I see it as a positive thing. I certainly appreciate the service that they’ve given, but I think they’ll be freer to speak their minds,” Schneiderman opined.
The supervisor attempted to clarify the difference between a CAC and a civic association. The town board doesn’t advise its own planning and zoning boards; they’re independent and act without interference. To have a Town Board appointed group like a CAC advise boards the Town Board can’t would create a conflict, he said. By becoming a civic association, they resolve that conflict, Schneiderman said.
The group has been discussing the move for quite some time, Harwood said. But, she said the recent approval of the Sag Harbor Fire Truck Museum at the site of a once popular farm stand was “the straw that broke the camel’s back for us.” The CAC had vehemently opposed the plan. The museum organizers, Harwood said, “were basically turned down in their own village, then coming here to do things … We don’t believe they legally qualify as a museum.”
That the town gave permission to Bay Street Theater to host outdoor performances in Bridgehampton on gateway property last summer left CAC members with the sense that, said Harwood, “There are times when we are feeling that Bridgehampton is in the unincorporated hamlet of Sag Harbor rather than Southampton Town.”
For Harwood personally, the group’s efforts on a tree initiative, and the need for a town-wide, cohesive, tree planting, replacement, positioning, and selection program was, she said “never even acknowledged.”
The lack of enforcement of many aspects of the Southampton Town Code is among the group’s main frustrations, the chair said in an email.
When reviewing boards like the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals grant variances and special exception permits for certain projects, CAC members question whether they weren’t, in effect, rewriting Town Code without legislative or due process.
“And is this also true of some of the special events permits issued by the Town Board?” Harwood wrote in an email to The Press. “Most land use area variances are granted without any demonstration that the benefits to the applicant will be greater than the detriment to the neighborhood. We have seen instances when the Building Department, the Planning Board, and Code Enforcement department are slow to follow up, sometimes resulting in violations that are not cured on agricultural easements for years, if at all, including on residential properties, on aquifer protection overlay districts, with noise and dark skies compliance, and illegal signage, etc.”
Beyond the fire truck museum plan, the CAC wrote in opposition to the Atlantic Golf Club plan to site employee housing near a pond that would impact scenic views along Scuttle Hole Road. Members support a proposal for preservation through the CPF of the Gateway property across from Bridgehampton Commons that would protect the wildlife and wetlands of Kellis Creek and Kellis Pond and preserve the scenic views that are the gateway to Bridgehampton, rather than allowing development. They called for an historic overlay district for protection of historic properties throughout Bridgehampton, including on back roads. And finally, said Harwood, they wrote to the Town Board outlining, “health, safety and quality of life concerns, including with respect to traffic safety such as the addition of needed stop signs to assist at intersections that have become busier as the population has grown, additional speed limit signs, increased heavy-equipment traffic on back roads that were not built for that purpose, gas leaf blowers, and other noise and light pollution.”
Letters went unacknowledged, she said.
“As a Civic Association, we hope to be more effective on these issues, including by educating the community at large, and look forward to continuing the very cordial relationships we have developed in our years of volunteer service with many of Southampton Town’s elected and appointed officials and staff members and with those who may be elected in the future,” she said.
The decision to resign was discussed over the course of months. “It was over a long period of time that we were growing frustrated,” the chair explained.
There are, said Harwood, “so many mandates and restrictions on our behavior.”
She theorized at the outset of the creation of CACs there was a quid pro quo in exchange for adhering to such restrictions as refraining from candidate endorsements. In exchange, the Town Board would work on things that were a priority for the community. “You let us know what the community is concerned about and we’ll work on it,” she said. “I’m sure there was a time when that happened, but it has not been happening for the past several years at least.”
There didn’t seem to be any upside to being an advisory committee, Harwood reported. The town added a new layer, she said, sending legislative aides to meetings and having members speak with them instead of Town Board liaisons. “We don’t speak with elected officials anymore,” Harwood said.
Other hamlets like Noyac, Hampton Bays and East Quogue have civic associations, and engage with reelected officials just as successfully as CACs do, she said. That’s the Bridgehampton group’s intention.