The rifts that have run through the Wainscott community over village incorporation and the South Fork Wind Farm cable project burst through the constraints of a public hearing last week on the validity of a petition calling for a vote on whether to create a new village government for Wainscott.
While the hearing, held via Zoom on Friday, February 5, was supposed to focus only on the legal details of the petition calling for a village incorporation vote, many, if not most, of the residents who spoke, predictably, were simply looking to voice their stance on the idea of village incorporation in general.
The impact on taxes, the legal cleaving of the traditional Wainscott community, limits to beach access and the viability of a village government were cast by the doubters. Proponents said such concerns were red herrings and urged Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc to stick to the state requirements and approve the petition so that the debate of the merits of incorporation could be left to the community in the run-up to a vote this spring.
“Speculation about taxes, discrimination, segregation, zoning —the speculative reasons for objecting don’t really have any basis in law with respect to whether or not people should have the right to vote on whether they want to incorporate Wainscott,” Rosemarie Arnold, an attorney who lives on Sayre’s Path and helped collect signatures on the petition submitted to the town, said to Mr. Van Scoyoc, the lone member of the Town Board involved in the process. “Peter, your responsibility is to check the signatures, check the boundaries and make sure they comply with the village law and if, in fact, they petition complies … the citizens have a right to vote.”
Only two residents raised possibly legal objections to the validity of the petition. Michael Hansen, a Wainscott resident and outspoken critic of the incorporation effort and the group of residents who have proposed it, challenged the boundaries of the village presented in the proposed village that is the basis of the petition. The boundary line they have presented, he claims, overlaps with property owned by the East Hampton Town Trustees, who own the oceanfront of Beach Lane.
The boundaries of the village have been an issue, since the original incorporation proposal used boundaries that were found to overlap with those of Sagaponack and East Hampton villages and had to be abandoned. To solve the issue, and conform to state requirements, consultants for the Citizens for the Preservation of Wainscott crafted a much smaller village outline that carves out most of the eastern and northern portions of the current hamlet of Wainscott, including splitting some streets, leaving neighbors on opposite sides of the village line.
That gerrymandering, another objector, Samuel Kramer said, could create a condition that Mr. Van Scoyoc may take into consideration with regard to the petition’s validity. He raised the specter that a newly incorporated village could restrict access to Beach Lane and the eastern side of Town Line Road beaches to village resident parking only, forcing anyone who lives in the neighborhoods of Wainscott that are not within the new village to drive to Amagansett, the next nearest beach that allows access to all town residents.
“The property values in Wainscott, as in all of East Hampton, are tied to beach access,” he said. “The property values for those who have free and easy access to Beach Lane will be higher than those who have been cut out. I believe that is something you can take into account … You cannot approve a petition that is going to deprive people of their property values.”
The matter of being blocked from beach access was also a point of concern about the incorporation in general raised by several others — including Steven Caputo, who said he has lived on Hedges Lane, one of the Wainscott streets being carved out by the new village line, for 39 years.
“All of a sudden, I’m not so sure I still live in Wainscott,” he said. “I hope these people who decided my future are not going to succeed.”
Advocates of the village have said that think the village would be able to ultimately “annex” some of the other areas of the hamlet once it had been formed under the state rules mandating that it be less than 5 square miles.
They have also said that Wainscott asserting its independence has been a longtime in coming for a hamlet that has long felt itself to be a “stepchild” of the town and first explored incorporation in the 1990s.
Gouri Edlich, a co-founder and chairwoman of the Citizens for the Preservation of Wainscott, said that the incorporation effort has sparked some “ugliness” of personal attacks between neighbors in Wainscott, which she likened to the violent national divide surrounding the 2020 election and it’s constitutional implications.
“A fair vote after an honest debate is the best way to demonstrate to those who have attacked what we all believe in that democracy is alive and well in East Hampton, that our leaders actually listen to the voice of the people and respect their clear desire for a vote,” Ms. Edlich said. “We ask you to respect the people of Wainscott. Embrace democracy, not one man rule. It’s time to let the people decide.”
“It seems to me the point of this hearing is to raise legal objections to moving forward with this process, and I haven’t heard any,” said Jason Tanner. “I’ve heard a bunch of reasons why people don’t like it, and that’s okay, they are obvious. But a sufficient number of people have signed the petitions … there is not legal basis to deny the citizens of Wainscott to have a vote on the issue.”
One resident, Lynn Cronin, said that holding the vote would help smooth over the ugliness, regardless of the outcome.
“You can hear from this that this is a very divisive issue,” she said. “Assuming this petition meets its legal requirements, I would urge you to hold this vote quickly so that we can put this behind us. I have great faith that my neighbors in what is normally a very harmonious little community will support whatever the outcome is. But let’s just get this over with so we can put it behind us.”
Mr. Van Scoyoc said that the public hearing would be held open for a second session on February 25, after which the hearing would be closed and he will issue his ruling on the validity of the petition within 10 days.
If he certifies the petition as valid, the referendum would have to be scheduled within 60 days, pushing the likely date of a vote into early May, though the vote could be held as soon as the logistics are arranged by the East Hampton Town Clerk’s office.
If Mr. Van Scoyoc were to issue a determination that the petition or some component of the incorporation proposal is legally faulty in some way, the incorporation proponents could correct any missteps in the proposal or appeal the finding in court.
The supervisor, who has been openly critical of the incorporation proposal as ill-advised and a negative for the East Hampton community as a whole, said his handling of the petition certification would be fair and unbiased.
“My role as town supervisor in this case is strictly ministerial,” he said. “I want to assure everyone that I will review the legal requirements, which are very specific and straight forward, to assure my determination is based on the law.”