A Conversation with Larry Cantwell
By Stephen J. Kotz
With his retirement just around the corner, East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell looks back on a 42-year career of public service, reflecting on the successes town government has achieved during his two terms as supervisor and offering his thoughts on some of the challenges that lie ahead.
You have been one of the most familiar faces in East Hampton government for more than four decades. How did you get your start in politics?
In 1975, I ran for bay constable and won. A year later, in 1976, I ran for town board. John Lester had been appointed to the board to fill a vacancy and I ran against him to finish a three-year term. I was re-elected in 1979 and left in 1982 to work for East Hampton Village.
But when I was elected in 1975 to bay constable, there hadn’t been a Democrat elected to that position in 42 years. I ran as a Democrat and won by, I think, 100 votes. Politics was a lot different then. In those days, Republicans outnumbered Democrats by two to one. Today, it has been turned upside down.
You served as East Hampton Village clerk-treasurer (the job title was subsequently changed to village administrator) for more than 30 years. Why was that job attractive to you?
I’ve always liked the administrative side of government, the management side of making sure the organization and the finances were in a position to serve the public interest, and that’s what attracted me to that job. Plus, at that point in my life, I was married and had a had a child and the stability of working in an appointed position for the village was a great opportunity for me.
In what was such a Republican town, what made you become a Democrat?
My parents were both Democrats and my grandmother was a Democrat. They told me stories of listening to Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the radio during the Depression and during World War II and how they were inspired by those difficult times, and I kind of liked that.
Then, during college, more than anything, it was the era of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I was in college during the Kent State protests. All those things had an impact on my political views as well.
You’ve been supervisor for four years. What would you say has been your biggest accomplishment?
I think we were able to set a tone that created an atmosphere of cooperation on the town board and with the public, a style that was tolerant of disagreement and encouraging of cooperation. I think that has given the town board the ability to address tough issues and try to deal with them.
Can you offer some specifics?
One accomplishment is helping to secure the full financial recovery of the town. It started before I was in office, but we balanced the budget every year, built a $30 million surplus and we achieved triple A credit ratings from the credit agencies. I think the town is in really excellent financial condition. I feel really good about that.
The airport: We took that issue on with vigor, and I think we gained a lot of respect in the community for the way in which we went about it, which was to engage the public. In the end, it was disappointing because the court ruled against the Town of East Hampton and our ability to locally control the airport. Ultimately the town will get there. If the town is steadfast in refusing to take FAA money, then the grant assurances will expire, and many of the restrictions on the town’s right to control the airport will be lifted. I’ve always felt the airport on balance is an economic asset to the community, but I’ve equally felt that the noise is a negative impact and there has to be a balance between those two things, which has not been achieved.
I would say creating a water quality improvement plan was one of the achievements of the past four years. We put together a water quality plan to replace failing septic systems over time, require the strictest requirements in Suffolk County that new construction be required to use low-nitrogen systems townwide — no other town has gone that far.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing the town?
Affordable housing. We’ve made small progress, but not enough. It’s no longer an issue of building 40 or 50 units to solve a problem. It’s really a question of how do you build 400 or 500 over time.
The manor house project being built on Accabonac Road which is only 12 units could become the model for building affordable housing in many different locations through the town because it doesn’t require large parcels. The beauty of that is the manor houses are really a farmhouse-style construction with four units in each structure. You have the ability to build one farmhouse with four units or six with 24 and place them in different hamlets throughout the town.
Issues of climate change, sea level rise and erosion along our shoreline are going to continue to challenge the town. I’d like to see the town board finish the hamlet study work, but it’s not really my place to tell them what to do.
What’s the best part of the job?
The truth is every day when you walk into the supervisor’s office, you never know what is going to happen. Recently, we got a call from the state and county health departments indicating there was a well contaminated. Now we are doing a survey of over 200 properties to try to get a better understanding of whether the drinking water is safe. It doesn’t get any more real than that. Two weeks before that it was the southern pine beetle infestation getting totally out of control in Northwest. The nature of the work is challenging every day. It could be a severe snow storm in the middle of the winter and trying to put the resources and team together to deal with it. Those are the unexpected challenges that make this job really interesting.