Tribute to a pioneering environmental organization

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Photo above: the group’s first office in Bridgehampton in 1972.

The East End has changed enormously in the 50 years since the Group for the East End opened its doors in Bridgehampton, but what hasn’t changed are the tools citizens need to protect the environment of the places we they like.

The Group, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, was born at the beginning of the environmental movement, just after the first Earth Day in 1970. But it was a resolutely local project – the construction of the Bridgehampton shopping center Commons, who galvanized their efforts.

“This project was when people said ‘there’s something going on here,'” the group’s East End chairman Bob DeLuca said as he reflected on the history of the advocacy group. of the environment. “There had just been the extension of the freeway, and the potential extension of the Sunrise Highway. There was also a proposed nuclear power plant in Jamesport, which was of interest to the residents of the South Fork.

Working to shut down big box stores in East Hampton in 1996.

The group’s early supporters included cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder, famed art collector Garrick Stevenson, Sagaponack farmer Lee Foster and banker Donald Petrie, who led the environmental group with the philosophy that “they always wanted to have people with very solid backgrounds, who could move forward. to consult an expert and say “we have the same credentials and we see things differently,” said DeLuca, who first worked briefly for The Group in the mid-1980s before returning in 1992 to run it over the next 30 years.

“They laid the groundwork for a very different future,” he said. “Their concerns turned out to be well-founded. Zoning codes were not up to the challenge.

The organization’s original name, “Group for America’s South Fork”, arose because the organization’s early administrators wanted to emphasize the national significance of the South Fork, but over time the group’s organizers surrendered realize that most of the decisions they were interested in impacting were at the local level. They changed their name to Group for the South Fork and then, in 2008, became Group for the East End, as they began to focus on more regional issues, as well as issues that affect the Estuary of Peconic between the two forks.

“At the time, there was a divide between North Fork and South Fork,” Mr. DeLuca said. “But now I see people switching between forks pretty much all the time. Both ecologically and economically, it seems that the two areas have definitely merged.

While the group’s core mission still revolves around impacting decisions made at the local land use council level, the pace of change has accelerated, along with public awareness of the importance of protecting the environment, said Mr. DeLuca.

“When I first worked for The Group, there was a movie project on County Road 39 and we had six to eight months to work on that project. It would now be squeezed in between nine other things today’ today,” he said. “The speed, intensity and complexity have all increased. That’s a negative point. I think the mainstream awareness of conservation principles is more widely accepted now, but there are so many things that people have to think about every day. It’s harder than before. I feel like the audience is often overwhelmed. It’s harder for them to show up and stay in the There was also more than one middle that lived here, economically, and I think the demographic changes had an effect. But we still do the same blocking and fighting against civic engagement.

Current band for East End staffers Bob DeLuca, Marina DeLuca, Taralynn Reynolds, Rachel Bosworth, Anita Wright, Kristina Lange, Steve Biasetti, not pictured is Jennifer Hartnagel

When Mr. DeLuca started working at The Group, there were only five paid employees, and today there are only eight. But they are leveraging their efforts by engaging civic-minded people who have an interest in environmental issues, to help make their voices heard.

Mr DeLuca said he believes the South Fork zoning codes are now up to the development challenges they face, but the struggle is still uphill in Southold, Riverhead and on Shelter Island.

“It took Southold 11 years for his full plan to cross the finish line. Now the real job is to implement it,” he said. “It’s no longer a sleepy community that can take its time doing it.”

“Riverhead’s overall planning process is in its early stages, and it’s a different model,” he said. “They’re also going to make a decision in the coming years on how far they’re going to let development go. Can they make the connection between intense development and clinging to the rural character that remains? Shelter Island has tried several times to put together a comprehensive plan, but they always struggle. Can they get the actual code passed before they’re behind the eight ball? »

Mr. DeLuca said he was encouraged by the engagement of civic groups on the North Fork, and the group is working to help members of those groups understand the ins and outs of land use and of the SEQRA law (State Environmental Quality Review Act).

“The North Fork has more exceptionally organized and intellectually capable civic organizations than I have ever seen,” he said. “There are a lot of smart people who are really committed. The best we can do is help them have their own voice. We try to work with people. We are the band FOR the East End. That’s what we should be.

As the group works with civic organizations, it has also chosen a handful of regional issues to engage with, a tradition that has followed the organization through decades.

In the mid-1980s, just after the first wave of brown tide wiped out the scallops of Peconic Bay, Jean Mariner from North Fork and Jean Lane from Sag Harbor knocked on the Group’s door in Bridgehampton and insisted on that they get involved in the search for a way to counter the brown tide, paving the way for the creation of the peconic estuary program.

Then, in the 1990s, Kevin MacDonald, who now works for The Nature Conservancy but then worked for The Group, took on the task of helping create the Community Preservation Fund, a property transfer tax used for land preservation.

“It started very locally, and then (State Assemblyman) Fred Thiele, who was always brilliant at this, put together a legislative package that got things going,” Mr. DeLuca said. . “I remember being at hearings where people were saying ‘this is terrible, illegal and immoral, and that no property will ever do business in the East End again’.

This program has now provided more than $1.7 billion to preserve thousands of acres of land in the five East End cities, and no one is saying real estate deals won’t happen here.

The group argues against the hardening of the shoreline in Southampton in 1998.

Mr DeLuca said two of the big things the Group is currently involved in are the Plum Island preservation effort and improving water quality.

“It is one of the greatest privileges and responsibilities of this job to choose your projects wisely, with our limited resources,” he said. ‘”That’s the part I pray for the most… getting the guidance to choose the right things and hold on. In my experience, those things rarely happen in less than five to ten years. It’s hard to aspire that, but sometimes those things take a decade to do.

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