Housing, Local Business and Airport on Tap During East Hampton Candidate Debate

East Hampton Town Board candidates Jeffrey Bragman, Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, Paul Giardina and Jerry Larsen during a debate hosted by the League of Women Voters at the Emergency Services Building in East Hampton on Monday. Michael Heller photos
East Hampton Town Board candidates Jeffrey Bragman, Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, Paul Giardina and Jerry Larsen during a debate hosted by the League of Women Voters at the Emergency Services Building in East Hampton on Monday. Michael Heller photos

By Kathryn G. Menu

Republican candidates for East Hampton Town supervisor and town board went on the offensive Monday night during a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons at the East Hampton Emergency Services building, while Democrats touted a record that they say shows the town moving in the right direction under the current party leadership.

Peter Van Scoyoc, a Democrat and current deputy town supervisor, faced off against Manny Vilar, the Republican candidate, who is a sergeant with the New York State Parks Police and a founding president of the Police Benevolent Association of New York State. Mr. Van Scoyoc is seeking his third term in office — his first at the helm of the town board after current supervisor Larry Cantwell declined to run for re-election this fall. Mr. Vilar said he threw his hat in the ring believing his experience in Albany, including negotiating contracts that he said were larger than the town’s annual budget, would be an asset if elected.

Struggles faced by local business and a lack of affordable housing are intrinsically linked, candidates agreed. Mr. Van Scoyoc noted the town has created a business committee, and opened up leases at the town’s East Hampton Airport property in Wainscott.

“I think having the ability for people to start their own businesses in town is crucial for them being able to stay here,” he said, noting that a lack of affordable housing and small business opportunities impacts volunteer emergency service and fire department personnel in town as well.

East Hampton Town Supervisor candidate Manny Vilar.

“Small businesses are struggling here in East Hampton,” said Mr. Vilar. “A lack of affordable housing has created an employee shortfall, businesses are priced out.” Mr. Vilar believes the town has not successfully developed affordable housing in recent years. The Accabonac condos — representing 12 affordable units — has preliminary approval from the town planning board.

Mr. Vilar called for a comprehensive economic business plan that created more affordable housing, but also affordable work spaces, whether that is on town-owned land or through incentivized zoning.

Town board candidates also weighed in on affordable housing. Jerry Larsen, a former East Hampton Village police chief running on the Republican ticket and with the support of local PBA unions, said the town has not produced enough affordable housing.

“The comprehensive plan says we should use a percentage of CPF [Community Preservation Funds] to construct affordable housing,” he said, later adding that housing should be constructed throughout the town, and not reserved for just one hamlet. “It should be a town-wide solution for a town-wide problem.”

Jeffrey Bragman, an attorney running on the Democratic Party line, said the town has two projects in the pipeline, and would like it to revisit an affordable housing project in Wainscott that failed to gain steam amid concerns by neighbors and the Wainscott School District. Reducing the scope of the 48-unit project may help it find public support. “I think large scale plans, especially in housing affordability are a mistake,” he said, noting they can be “a hard sale.” “We want to maintain the look and feel of this community,” said Mr. Bragman, encouraging small lot acquisitions.

“The town and affiliated affordable housing groups manage 500 units,” noted Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, an incumbent town board member running on the Democratic Party line. Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said a total of 60 units are currently in the process of being planned, and the town is exploring seasonal and workforce housing as well.

“The lack of affordable housing, make no mistake, hurts our community,” she said. “The tentative budget calls for $2 million in funding that will help develop and build affordable housing. We have to work with public-private partnerships.”

Republican candidate Paul Giardina said he believes a minimum of 1,000 new units is necessary. “What I see is each of the five hamlets have to step up and be a part of the solution,” he said. “We cannot be a NIMBY.” Mr. Giardina noted with the town’s senior population rising, assisted living facilities will be critical as well, as will housing for the “legal immigrant workforce.”

The East Hampton Airport and its impact on the quality of life of residents throughout the East End, has been up for public debate for literally decades. After enacting nighttime curfews and restrictions based on the longstanding belief that the town could do so if it did not take Federal Aviation Administration grant money, it was struck down by the court of appeals because it did not complete a lengthy and expensive study known as a Part 161. The town began to move forward with that process this fall.

“We need to do something different, we need to address the FAA,” said Mr. Vilar, noting he works with state agencies regularly. “They are right, it is a noisy airport. They are flying in at all hours of the night. We need to bring relief to the neighbors, but as far as keeping the airport open, absolutely.”

Both Mr. Vilar and Mr. Van Scoyoc agreed taking FAA grants for the airport did not make sense for the Town of East Hampton.

“I think we have dispelled a number of the myths about the airport and how it can be managed,” said Mr. Van Scoyoc, adding that the current town board has shown the facility to be self-sustaining through initiatives like demanding paid parking. “We dispelled the myth that only people who bought and built homes next to the airport are impacted — this is a regional problem,” he added.

The East End is home to a growing Latino population — the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons’ Judy Samuelson and East Hampton Star editor and publisher David Rattray, who posed candidates their questions during the debate, wondered how both political parties planned to reach out to that demographic of the community.

“I think that has become a lot more difficult since November,” said Mr. Van Scoyoc. He noted the town initiated outreach efforts to the Latino community by hosting meetings in town hall, but after the election of President Donald Trump, and the ensuring rhetoric, that changed.

“They are afraid to meet at town hall now,” he said. “And it is not because they are undocumented — it is because there is a general sense they are not welcome here.”

Mr. Van Scoyoc said it was critical the town continue to reach out — the economy, and local business, would be threatened without the aid of the Latino community.

“We need, as a government, to do an outreach, but it has to be an outreach to everyone and we have to do a better job of the outreach to the immigrant community,” said Mr. Vilar, who later stated, “economic development and affordable housing helps all.”

East Hampton Town Supervisor candidate Peter Van Scoyoc.

Ms. Burke-Gonzalez praised the efforts of the East Hampton School District to involve the Latino community through outreach and meetings held in Spanish for those who had yet to learn the English language. Like Mr. Van Scoyoc, she said it has been challenging since Mr. Trump’s election for town government, and even local libraries, to engage the Latino community, where some fear the deportation of family and friends.

Mr. Giardina said the Republican slate had made an effort to reach out to the Latino community to hear their concerns since the election began.

“Every time I talk to a Latino business owner I get the same thing pointed out to me — illegal drugs,” said Mr. Giardina, who has released a platform and said he would focus his work on the town board on fighting the opioid epidemic.

Mr. Larsen said that during his career he helped members of the Hispanic community in the wake of scams, greedy landlords and those who would take advantage of a community that feels vulnerable. “If they are not comfortable coming to you, we are going to go to them,” he said.

“It’s is not unfortunate, it’s un-American and what we are experiencing in our little community is a national issue made small,” said Mr. Bragman. “There is a concerted effort to employ racist, anti-Latino policies. If they keep shouting about building a wall, there will be little children in their classrooms building walls with their lunchboxes.”

Mr. Bragman was critical of the Republican candidates who “embraced Donald Trump” and said it would be “helpful” if Mr. Trump was “rejected” by all local candidates. “The local police department has been very good on the subject,” he added. “These folks are just like my grandparents were a couple generations ago.”

“To take a national issue and place it here is totally ludicrous … people in this town want to be accepted and we are out there trying to accept them,” replied Mr. Giardina.

“We really have to be serious about affordable housing,” said Mr. Vilar in his closing statement, noting the median income of a town employee was not enough to qualify for the town’s own affordable housing project at Green Hollow. “If you want to talk about saving open space, no one has saved more open space then Republican administrations, but you cannot go on what a past Republican administration has done, or what a past Democratic administration has done … Perry Duryea saved huge swaths of land. Jay Schneiderman saved huge swaths of land. We have to be serious about what we are doing here, and I am very serious about what I am doing here.”

“I am very honored to live in this town, I am very honored to have been elected twice to the town board,” said Mr. Van Scoyoc. “I have 17 years of relevant experience in local town government. I have spent thousands of hours listening to members of our public on countless occasions. I feel I understand this town, love this town, it has given so much to me. Being supervisor of this town requires leadership. I believe I can provide that leadership. I believe preserving our town means preserving our environment — the two are inextricably linked. People come here because we have a beautiful town and I think that requires vigilance.”