The East Hampton Town Board has a tremendous opportunity at its fingertips to shape the future of its hamlet centers decades down the road — staving off the kind of random development that has largely overwhelmed places like County Road 39 in Southampton and has posed serious threats to the Montauk Highway business corridor in Wainscott.
Consultants hired two years ago are encouraging the town to pursue smart-growth strategies that will make its business districts desirable places for residents and tourists to visit and urging it to plan for affordable and workforce housing close to these individual centers, which would spread the burden their increased density brings to local school districts and help create a sustainable development model for the future.
It is a lot to digest, especially for laymen, whose lives are not devoted to the intricacies of planning. But consultants are recommending the town consider implementing what they call a form-based code, which would basically create a master plan parcel by parcel with design guidelines for the long-term redevelopment of each hamlet center. If a form-based code was to be successful, it would require tremendous cooperation between property owners, residents and town officials, and a general community commitment to reach consensus on the best path forward. That’s a lovely idea, but bringing it to fruition will be a challenge.
But residents have to remember that a form-based code does not have to be restrictive to the point of fossilizing the town. It can be a living, breathing document, that creates a detailed plan for the flow of businesses, residences, parking and traffic coupled with design standards that promote green technologies and green spaces — something downtown areas like Wainscott, Springs-Fireplace Road and parts of Montauk are in dire need of.
The opportunity to create affordable housing, particularly in Wainscott, Amagansett, portions of East Hampton and Montauk, cannot be overlooked, as the town faces an affordable housing shortfall in the hundreds of units, which is growing each year. Bringing affordable housing to downtown areas reduces traffic woes and stimulates the local economy by providing a steady flow of patrons who live just a short walk away.
The town board and the community at large have a lot to consider in these hamlet studies, but it appears in the fine print, a lot of good work has been accomplished and what might ultimately be considered by the town board could be a substantial plan that shifts development in a meaningful way across the town. Communication, however, will be critical if more than a shell of what has been suggested is ultimately adopted, and the town will need to consider diverting more resources — including the potential of adding new employees — to reach stakeholders, and work collaboratively to develop a vision without watering down the potential for truly smart growth.