Nature Notes: Glory Days

There were many bad things to overcome

I’m in my 80s and spend a good deal of time thinking about the 1980s, when all sorts of things for the good happened on the South Fork, North Fork, and Shelter Island. And yes, there were many bad things to overcome. 

The Group for America’s South Fork and Concerned Citizens of Montauk were the major environmental action groups, but then Russell Hoeflich, who had just graduated from Southampton College, came along and activated the South Fork Nature Conservancy, which had been all volunteers until that moment.

The most active environmental attorneys locally were Tom Twomey, Christopher Kelley, Steve Latham, and then a little later on, John Shea. They played a huge role in the defeat of the Long Island Lighting Company’s Shoreham nuclear plant project as well as a second nuclear plant planned for the Hallockville area near Long Island Sound in the hamlet of Northville on the North Fork. They also were instrumental in knocking out the proposed South Fork bypass — twice, mind you — that was to run along the moraine through Southampton and East Hampton Towns.

The East Hampton Town Baymen’s Association was a potent force for the good as well. Led by Arnold Leo and Stuart Vorphal, the likes of fishermen like the Lesters, Kings, Squires, Millers, and others were spurred to activism by the very painful and costly cessation of more than a century of ocean beach haulseining brought about by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Peter Matthiessen, with the help of Adelaide de Menil, wrote a book about it called “Men’s Lives.”

East Hampton Town Supervisor Mary Fallon did away with the East Hampton Town Planning Department in the early 1980s, replacing it with a consultancy firm and causing a huge uproar. It moved Russell Stein, who had been the assistant director of the Group for the South Fork and helped found a nonprofit called the Peconic Environmental Resource Center, to write a manifesto on saving the East End from greedy developers. Zig Schmitt, another East Hampton Town attorney, came along in the nick of time and, with Russell Stein’s help, wrote a law creating the first (and only) town natural resources department in the State of New York. Until 1984, when Judith Hope became the supervisor, it was a one-person office manned by a half-time consultant. 

The Planning Department was reinstated by Supervisor Ron Greenbaum, who replaced Ms. Fallon, in 1983, and a new planning director was appointed, George Brundage. Lisa Liquori, Peter Walsh, and yours truly manned it.

Thousands of acres were being considered for subdivision and a boatload of applications were being parsed by the zoning board. 

A major accomplishment of that era was the enactment of the Water Recharge Overlay District law, which protected the major part of the Upper Glacial Aquifer, but without five-acre zoning. Yes, there was also a natural resources statute on the books, but no wetland law, nor law protecting coastal dunes and bluffs. Tony Bullock and Randy Parsons arm-wrestled Mr. Greenbaum as much as possible in order to keep the town from falling back into a rush to develop vacant lands.

Hither Woods, the Bell Estate, Barce­lona, the Grace Estate, Culloden, the Sanctuary, and Shadmoor were all up for grabs, as was much of the area near the East Hampton Airport. The turning point occurred in the last week of Mr. Greenbaum’s term when the town’s chief building inspector refused to give a last minute building permit that would have allowed a set of condominiums to be constructed on Three Mile Harbor’s southeast shore.

Near the end of Mr. Greenbaum’s term, the re-created Planning Department under Mr. Brundage tried but failed to upzone a large part of East Hampton from one and two-acre zoning to five-acre zoning. When Ms. Hope took over in 1984 (Mr. Greenbaum had been appointed to replace Ms. Fallon), the former town planner, Tom Thorsen, was rehired and set to work with the planners and volunteers writing an entirely new comprehensive plan, which included five-acre zoning as well as many other restrictions. 

Southampton Town under Supervisor Marty Lang and the then-town attorney, Fred W. Thiele Jr., set an example for East Hampton when it upzoned acres and acres of land, including the moraine and pine barrens, to five-acre lots. In both towns, the upzoning was not only based on protecting the best groundwater resources but also protecting natural features, including endangered and threatened flora and fauna.

When Mr. Thorsen left for Southampton Town, Lisa Liquori became the planning director and steered the ship of planning and land use in the same determined direction. The Natural Resources Department became a bona fide office manned by a full-time director, yours truly. Debra Foster became head of the town planning board and the draft environmental impact statement became a well-used tool to cool down the rush to develop. Previously, the state’s freshwater wetland protection law, enacted in 1973, only considered wetlands of 12.4 acres or more in size. In 1984, the town attorney, Russell Stein, wrote a wetland law that protected all East Hampton wetlands regardless of size. The Natural Resources Department enforced what become known as the “pink ribboner,” after the thousands of colored plastic ribbons tied to the edge of wetlands where adjoining uplands were under consideration for development.

Although the combined planning and natural resources staff amounted to fewer than 10 members, they reviewed at least 3,000 acres up for development. They also wrote grant applications to New York State for money to purchase prime open space. One after another, these lands became permanent open spaces purchased by the town, county, state, or a combination of the three. The Grace Estate in Northwest Woods. Barcelona. Hither Woods and the Sanctuary in Montauk. 

In the 1990s, a large part of Culloden bordering on Block Island Sound in Montauk became parkland, and finally in the early 2000s Shadmoor on the Atlantic bluffs in Montauk was purchased by the town, county, and state with help from the Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy also helped the town and state create the Amsterdam Beach preserve nearby in the Montauk moorlands.

Ms. Hope’s administration and the one following it, led by Tony Bullock, also saved and refashioned a large building on the old Montauk marine lab site on Fort Pond Bay which became the town’s center of marine aquaculture, raising shellfish, including hard clams, scallops, and oysters. As this column is written this facility is still very active and the town is well noted throughout the state because of its annual production and long-term contribution to the harvests by commercial and recreational shellfishers.

The momentum toward making East Hampton a model for sound environmental planning that got going full force in the mid-1980s is still being perfected. 

The Peconic Bay Region Community Preservation Fund, initiated in the towns of East Hampton, Southampton, Shelter Island, Riverhead, and Southold in 1999, further filled this area’s environmental hope chest almost to the brim. 

With the modification of this act, shepherded into state law by Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and approved by voters in November, a portion of preservation fund income can now be used for water quality improvement projects such as removing nitrogenous products that cause deadly colored plankton and cyanobacteria tides from the underground and overland waste streams. 

We are almost where we wanted to be when we started out in the 1980s.


Larry Penny can be reached via email at