On the Trail of Hamptons Preservation

The year 2022 is triggering public anniversary memories on the East End of Long Island, some of which go back  50 years to significant developments that changed Suffolk County such as the abrupt completion of the Long Island Expressway and the birth of the resource-preservationist outfit known back then as the Group for America’s South Fork. (There’s also a major commercial half-century occasion.) It’s an opportunity as well to review the role that nature-trail enthusiasts have played over that time in securing stretches of that precious landscape—a short world away from the famous Hamptons beach dunes–for public access.

Surely the early 1970s were a watershed time for what had been a largely rural and often sleepy place, its beauty the secret of a precious few. Other periods of ferment followed, but they were staggered by economic cycles. A misconception born of recent boom times is that the Hamptons (and now the North Fork) have been in constant rapid development since those days in the ‘70s. But away from the beachfront, the property market fell into the doldrums multiple times, usually in line with equities or Wall Street bonuses. As late as 1993, New York’s governor was convening a task force for sustainable economic development on the East End.

Arguably, those lulls could have afforded more groundwork for containing the severe growth pangs that afflict the East End today.  But it’s the nature of things that preservation activity responds to each development push. And a common impetus behind such reactions has been the maintaining of riding and hiking trails that were a feature of the South Fork since long before it became a summer (now all-year) escape for the wealthy.

Which brings me to another anniversary in 2022, the 25th of the Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt (in Bridgehampton). The Friends not only are celebrating their milestone but are rousing opposition to a PSEG utility plan to drill for underground power lines across the greenbelt, amid its most familiar coastal-plain ponds. The  reason for the grid enhancement? More electricity demand in bustling East Hampton.

The Long Pond Greenbelt is best known for its walking and nature trails, especially along a stretch below Sag Harbor. The support group, whose founding goes back to one of the Hamptons’ great wealth spurts in the late 1990s, commemorates what took years of ad hoc efforts to assemble. These acquisitions largely preceded the creation of the East End’s Community Preservation Fund (CPF), a tax-derived kitty for buying up land from development nowadays. It helped, in piecing together the greenbelt, that an abandoned trunk line of the Long Island Rail Road, which used to connect Bridgehampton to Sag Harbor, is a spine for the northern stretch. But the 1,100-acre greenbelt actually extends well south of its namesake to Poxabogue Pond, where earlier conservation moves were needed to ward off housing in favor of county parkland, and to Sagg Swamp, a Nature Conservancy protectorate since the 1970s.  Sagg Pond, at 92 acres, stretches below this point nearly to the Atlantic Ocean.

In nearly all of this belt, walking is the only active use. (On the water, there’s a bit of fishing and kayaking.) This is also the case for most of the preserved public land to the west and east of the LongPond Greenbelt, in the towns of Southampton and East Hampton. Look at planning maps, and a surprisingly vast amount of the South Fork is green—as in, restricted from development. Not surprisingly, you can connect the existence of this green to two organizations, the Trails Preservation Societies of the two towns. 

In both cases, it was horseback riding along the old backwoods paths that got the movements started.  That’s because, with private residences beginning to create a land grid a half century ago, it was the longer pokes of the riders that felt hemmed in first. Lee Dion, the founding trails president in East Hampton, told me in correspondence earlier this year that “when I first came to EH in 1965, I could ride my horse 25 miles throughout the Northwest area [of town] without the need to ride alongside of a paved road. I needed to cross over some, but it never was necessary to ride alongside. That quickly changed. Most of the land was in private ownership and development became serious. By the late ‘70s you could barely go a mile without the need to ride alongside a road.” And dirt paths were being paved for new homes.

Dion’s new group, formed in 1980, worked with George Sid Miller Jr., a town planning official from an old landowning family, to maintain a lattice of trails stretching for miles into East Hampton’s woods and bayfront. Meanwhile, to the west, Dai Dayton, a horsewoman from another pioneer clan, was similarly staking public claim to pathways deep into Southampton town’s woods. She recalls a first official success in the stretch between Sagaponack and Sag Harbor, as it began to be built out in the mid-1980s. Dayton, who is president of the Long Pond Greenbelt Friends, remains active as well with the Southampton Trails Preservation group (disclosure: I recently became its treasurer).

Horses are still found occasionally on some trails, but they’re not an easy ride in today’s suburbanized Hamptons. So two legs are now the usual mode of giddy-up, with bicycles sometimes used, legally or otherwise. (Always-illegal motorized cycles are a more frequent and baleful presence—there is little town policing.)

Aided by a political shift in town toward land preservation in the early 1980s, East Hampton’s trails society by 1985 was sketching out the eastern legs of what would become the Paumanok Path, a walking trail that extends 125 miles from the town of Brookhaven on the west to Montauk Point at the end.  It’s become the crowning achievement of eastern Suffolk County’s nature lobby. (An East Hampton portion of the route was named after George Sid Miller, who died in 1984.) The politics in Southampton were still in flux when the Southampton TPS was formed in 1986, but the town’s controversial approval  of the Red Creek Ridge subdivision west of the Shinnecock Canal in the late 1980s included dedication of a large chunk of open space that the trails group seized on in 1990 to open five miles of Paumanok and other paths.  This area, close to the Peconic Bay Estuary, opens into the vast Long Island Pine Barrens to the west. Both the estuary and the barrens, laced with trails, were major development concerns and the focus of pitched planning battles in the years before 2000.

The trails groups maintain most of the South Fork’s hundreds of miles of pathways out of their own resources, coordinating with the two towns. In some cases they partner with the county or state, or the Nature Conservancy or Peconic Land Trust.  Also in the loop is the Long Island Greenbelt Trail Conference, which dates to 1978. All parties continue to look for additional open-space connections. The CPF tax, which collects at least a hundred million dollars a year from real-estate sales, provides heft that the early organizers could only have dreamed of. But even a funding infusion cannot protect against tree blight, such is occurring along many trails today. The photo above, from a hilly stretch of the Paumanok Path near Southampton’s recycling center (once the town dump), shows the state of many pitch pines.

I should note that there is another active use of much of this now-vast preserved acreage: hunting. It is legal in various forms—primarily for deer and ducks—in the colder-weather months. This happens to be the favored time for many hikers because the virus-ridden ticks are mostly dormant, and there’s an uneasy peace between the two outdoorsy sets. The noise of the kills, and the potential for mishaps or encountering  a bloodied animal carcass, can be a spoiler for some hikers. (The spare fisherman is less of a rub.)  But it must be said that the hunters, unlike most hikers, pony up for usage through licenses.

To summarize, then:  Whenever things have gotten too “hot” in the Hamptons, a countervailing push for preservation has managed to keep much open space for the locals. Volunteer organizations such as trails societies have been vital in maintaining those retreats. No history of the area is complete without their piece of it.

Published by timwferguson

Longtime writer-editor, focusing on topics of business and policy, global and local.

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