Guest Spot: Staying the same requires some change

The “Conservative movement” originally came from the desire to keep things the same, preserve existing conditions, restore traditional ones and limit change. But in this world, which changes every minute, to protect what we have — our way of life, quality of life and environment, our present and our future — we can’t stay the same. We have to think ahead, plan ahead. We need to change to stay the same.

For example, zoning and building codes in Southold Town keep playing catch-up with today’s realities. For years, they didn’t reflect the fact that garages could be part of a main living structure because, for decades before, they were unattached accessory buildings used to house tractors and farm equipment, not cars. And proper town oversight of swimming pools was lacking for years because, well, how many people would want a swimming pool when you had miles of beaches and various types of swimming in the Sound, the bays and creeks all around?

Southold Town’s problems are not unique. But that’s not an excuse. The town has spent almost 10 years creating its 2020 Master Plan — so named because it was supposed to be enacted around 2010 and be the blueprint for the next decade … until 2020. Now, it may not go into effect until then. The longer we put this off and don’t view it as a priority, the more out-of-control change will overtake every aspect of life on the North Fork: more inappropriate building, more intrusive business operations, more traffic and less of what we truly value.

Many years ago, the late Howard Meinke, a former North Fork Environmental Council president, captivated me with his recollections of his youth, speaking of when he could see his toes through the crystal clear waters while standing in the bays. He recounted how silversides, pipefish, baby blowfish and others swam around his legs. But as an adult, that was no more. The waters had become dirty, cloudy and smelly with pollutants and algal blooms. The vast schools of baitfish, young fish, horseshoes crabs and the like were no more.

I related to that because in my youth, vast schools of menhaden, bluefish and striped bass clouded the Sound, just feet from the beach. Lobster and blue claw crabs were plentiful off Horton Point when I snorkled. And pods of porpoise were commonplace. I clammed, crabbed and scalloped in the clean bayside creeks. But over the years, the water became even dirtier, the schools of fish disappeared. The same with quail. I grew up with the sounds of “bobwhite” filling the air every day. But no more.

In October, Brookhaven Town released over two dozen quail into the wild to jump start a repopulation of the species. For years now, Cornell Cooperative Extension has replanted eelgrass to help recharge these vital nurseries for shellfish and other marine species. And they’ve also led the way in shellfish seeding efforts. These are all “changes” in the status quo designed to restore, protect and preserve natural balances that existed in the past, and are needed to ensure vibrant and vital ecosystems for the future. This is conservatism – conservation – in action, in its best light.

Every type of wildlife plays a role in the natural wonder that is the North Fork. Besides filling the air with their beautiful call, the quail eat ticks. But between over-hunting by people and feral cats and the loss of habitat due to overbuilding and overgrazing by an out-of-control deer population, the quail had far fewer places to nest, to hide and to eat. So reintroducing quail into the wild can be only a first step. We need to change what caused their demise if their calls are to be commonplace again.

The North Fork has changed. But all too often, we react to the change years after, years too late. Our current water quality issues are a good example. After decades of warning signs, we’ve only just now begun to address the issue. How long will it take before we properly admit to and address the looming water quantity issue, as well?

One recent positive step taken by the county was to close grandfathering loopholes some commercial property owners have used to avoid upgrading septic systems. Isn’t it time to end all such grandfathering provisions on the books, whether it be septic systems or nighttime lighting and everything in between, to make sure everyone, residents and businesses alike, are doing what’s best, what’s needed to ensure the healthy future of the North Fork? Change is needed.

One thing we have done right is establish and support the Community Preservation Fund. Through the years on the East End, its funds have forever protected acres of wetlands, farmland and woodlands from development. And dedicated committee members have worked hard to ensure that not only was land protected but that the right land was preserved in order to protect our marine waters, groundwater and overall environment.

The CPF is an example of action, of enacting change in order to keep things the way they are. We need more of that type of that action, forward planning and, yes, change in how we do everything if we are to protect anything.

Growing up, my father and grandmother told me about the North Fork of the 1920s and 1930s. I experienced and remember the North Fork of the past 50 years. And I have visited and lived in other places of great natural beauty. That beauty attracted throngs of tourists and new residents alike, and the businesses that follow to support them, much like the North Fork. But many of those places forgot the credo coined by the NFEC during the Meinke years: “Our economy is the environment and our environment is our economy.” They depend on each other. We depend on each of them. Without one, the other fails.

When our waters become too dirty to swim and fish in after simple rains, when those waters can longer support sustainable shellfish and finfish populations, when the water in the aquifers is no longer suitable to drink, when country vistas are blocked by out-of-control building, when our quiet country lanes are blocked by traffic and the litter and noise pollution it brings, we will have lost what makes us a special place to live. And we will have no one to blame but ourselves — unless we act, unless we change.

We need to speak up. Two people taking the podium to speak out on the recent Southold Town budget is shameful. We need to act. If the town is unwilling or unable to make changes, more communities can and should do what they can to lead the way. And we need to demand more of our elected officials. They need to be more than stewards of the town, just managing what is done and how it’s done. They need to be leaders, taking chances, not being afraid to introduce new ideas that benefit the community as a whole, today and going forward.

We are a conservative region. But that doesn’t mean we just sit back and hope that things stay the same. Change isn’t easy, but it is needed if we are to protect those things that are dear to us.

The author is a former president of the North Fork Environmental Council.