Call it “North Fork Syndrome.”
It’s been impossible for me to miss the symptoms: heightened rhetoric, ad hominem attacks and a palpable lack of welcome. I speak, of course, of the accusation that someone is “not a local.”
Last month’s public hearing on a controversial mixed-use development in Mattituck was yet another example of this virulent disease and how pervasive it is in our civic conversation.
At the hearing, dozens of residents stood resolute in their opposition to the plan, which called for commercial space on Main Road with a set of “affordable” apartments above. They cited water quality concerns, traffic safety and more. Standard fare for a public hearing.
But as I listened to residents speak, another narrative emerged: that developer Paul Pawlowski was not “one of us.”
“We all know what’s happening here,” one resident sneered, likening Mr. Pawlowski to the “big corporations” that turned Route 58 into strip malls. Another accused Mr. Pawlowski of an “assault on Mattituck.”
Never mind that Mr. Pawlowski is a lifelong Southold Town resident, that his proposal called for preservation of some of the land or that a local civic association leader — who was applauded by the crowd for standing against the proposal — has lived on the North Fork for far fewer years than Mr. Pawlowski.
The overwhelming sentiment that night was clear to me: Mr. Pawlowski is an outsider.
In the face of these community concerns, he retracted his proposal this week.
I heard the same argument last month at an equally contentious public hearing about aquaculture use.
Tess and Todd Gordon, two enterprising shrimp farmers, had voiced their support for a law that would define aquaculture and where it would be allowed. But as businesspeople who — allegedly — didn’t have their community’s needs at heart, they were attacked.
One resident called the couple part of a “subculture that’s here to use and abuse” the North Fork. Another implied they didn’t “love the North Fork.” Despite protests from the Gordons, who said they did care, their critics weren’t convinced.
Just minutes later, however, when those same residents voiced their support for a ban on plastic bags, Ms. Gordon was welcomed back with open arms when she took the podium and agreed with the crowd. Somehow, her status as a “local” was restored, along with all its privileges.
It’s a disturbing trend that’s becoming all too common as this community changes — and something I’m acutely aware of. After all, I didn’t grow up here. My grandparents aren’t buried here. I’m on the outside looking in when some locals lash out and sort our community into “us” and “them.”
And when that happens, it’s hard to think of the place where I’ve lived for the past four years as “home.”
No one should be forced to prove their allegiance to the North Fork before they’re treated with respect. By desperately clinging to this outdated notion, the “true locals” I’ve met are discounting the voices of those who move here, who love it here, who care deeply about the North Fork and could help make it a better place for everyone.
Photo Credit: Paul Pawlowski, a prospective Mattituck developer, looks at his notes during a contentious public hearing last month, during which some residents implied he wasn’t a “local.” (Credit: Paul Squire)