Hamptons Traffic and the Road Not Taken

My interest in land-use policy 50 years ago on Long Island was piqued when I learned offhand*  of a state highway that was to have been built back then, not far from where our home now sits in Water Mill. How could that have been the case, over a route that today features much larger homes selling in the multimillions of dollars?  What were they thinking in Albany?

That is the reaction of most contemporary Hamptonites when they, too, hear of what was known as the Sunrise Highway extension or bypass. This thoroughfare—it was a limited-access, four-lane road in the state plans—would have extended from where the Sunrise now dumps into County Road 39 in Southampton, all the way east to the beginnings of the hamlet of Amagansett. Various map alternatives were floated, but the most likely 23-mile course was over a wooded moraine that at the time sported only the occasional and modest human habitats. Most structures back then went up closer to coastlines.

Road building was the default mode in the post-World War II days. The state had already taken the Long Island Expressway from New York City to deep into Suffolk County, and in the early 1970s would complete the remaining high-speed pavement to Southampton. The villages of the island’s South Fork, which except for hosting the “summer people” and a few year-round artists had been sleepy hubs for a fishing and farming community, were wary of what greater day traffic from around the metropolitan area could mean. Well into the 1960s, the citizenry and civic groups** were egging the state highway planners on. A bypass around the quaint town centers strips made sense to many locals.

But the consciousness about highways, as about so much else, was changing as the Hamptons began to attract affluent weekenders. The idea of anything that could attract more visitors, especially day trippers into the eastern reaches, was now repellant. Environmentalism was on the rise, and asphalt a villain. Besides, the gathering consensus among planners and other urbanologists was that new roadways never relieved the congestion elsewhere, they just filled up with traffic of their own. Even if a parkway was tucked away scenically (the state would later fall back on a two-lane proposal for the bypass), it simply would invite new development, commercialization and bottlenecks wherever it had exits.

So the Halt the Highway campaign sprang up from the South Fork preservationist circles that were battling other growth buds. (See above a scare ad from the Halloween 1974 edition of the Southampton Press.) The protesters found new Gov. Hugh Carey, a Democrat with a close ear to East Hampton***, a welcome change from Nelson Rockefeller and the go-go era of New York Republicanism.  Forward movement on the Sunrise stopped in the mid-1970s–a state spending crunch figured in–and the idea was finally killed off early in the following decade. There would be no more major road construction on the East End of Long Island. (A similar fate met plans for an expressway on the North Fork.)

The problem was, however, that development in the Hamptons didn’t stop. Yes, sizable parcels of land were preserved and zoning was changed to limit how many and what kinds of homes were built. But, sure as wealth was being generated in the big city, it would find its way out east. And the newcomers, with their bigger minimum lot sizes, would pour their minor fortunes into grander “estates”: look-alike mansions with lavish landscaping. That ensured an endless trades parade: construction traffic followed by designers and repairmen and more and more gardeners to look after the grounds. On top of it all: today’s delivery and garbage-pickup armada. One traffic expert puts the vehicle increase—in unit terms, forget weight—at 50% over the two recent decades.

In 2020, I hadn’t yet connected the dots when I sat down with Tom Halsey, a longtime agricultural and civic leader in Southampton.  Halsey held positions in the ‘70s and ‘80s that put him in the middle of contentious development approvals. Although partial to the traditional South Fork, he honored property rights (including those of fellow farmers who chose to sell off their lands) and was sometimes at odds with the new crowd’s ways to freeze-frame their adopted retreat. In conversation, he didn’t want to fight old battles but still had one bone to pick:  the bypass highway. He regretted its demise, blaming a movement that stoked any fear including, he noted ruefully, “that it would destroy the habitat of the white-tailed deer.” (The creatures were not then the common scourge of home gardens, as they numerously are now.)

Halsey’s view, though once mainstream, was one I hadn’t heard voiced in these times. After the 1970s and especially the Hamptons rush of the roaring 1980s, when so many crude development plays were afoot that land-preservationists were frantic to stop whatever they could, the narrative shifted for good. Anything not disturbed became a victory for the good Hamptons way of life. (This ground is now shifting on the matter of affordable housing.)

Back then, the highway debate was mostly centered around the seasonal visitor jams, and if it had just been that, maybe a dozen weeks a year, maybe there was no need to plow through thousands of acres of countryside. But what happened in the Hamptons as new wealth met “living large” changed the picture. Especially after the mass introduction of GPS vehicle software, the engorged and nearly year-round traffic has found bypasses of its own, on the winding two-lane back roads that snake their way west and east. Pounding and often speeding commercial vehicles—along with plenty of entitled elite in their luxury SUVs—shoot past countless home driveways. Dreading not only the noise but the danger to any living thing that occupies the road, neighbors conjure various pleading signs and in rare circumstances get official restrictions to forestall the onslaught. But they haven’t succeeded as an overall political force.

Of course, we don’t know that a bypass could have been laid without incentivizing even more cubic footage nearby than what we have now. Certainly a speedier corridor to the easternmost stretches would have added to pressures there. What were to become greenbelts and hiking trails would have been affected. But the towns have had the same zoning powers all along, if they cared to use them. In containing  the current traffic menace, these levers are now inadequate.

Probably this was fated, because as Tom Halsey said to me, “it was the most ridiculous argument, that if you don’t build roads the people won’t come.” They did come, and are still coming as long as they have a spare million or two to spend on remaining buildable lots. And they are bringing all their paid helpers with them. They are finding their ways through Southampton to East Hampton town, extending out to Amagansett and Montauk. If some kind of thruway was in, akin to the truck route that is used on the North Fork, most would use that and not residential streets like mine. The protective impulse of 50 years ago just bought us more trouble today.

                                                                                                                                    –June 21, 2022

*This came in a lunch chat a few years ago with Donald Louchheim, who these days is stepping down as longtime mayor of Sagaponack Village but previously was owner of the Southampton Press and a former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post. I came to him for journalism tales but when I inquired about issues he confronted after acquiring the Press, he mentioned the highway controversy, and I was all ears. The period is not much covered in local reference works.

**For examples, the ladies auxiliaries of both East Hampton and Southampton villages; longtime New York City planner Goodhue Livingston Jr., a summer resident (his father was the architect of Southampton Hospital); the East Hampton town board (which in its 1965 endorsement thought the road was “possible in four years if all goes well”), and even, through the 1960s, the East Hampton Star newspaper—soon to be an ardent foe of development—which in 1969 editorialized that a bypass “now seems a safe bet” within the next decade.

***Between stretches as East Hampton town supervisor in the 1970s and ‘80s, Judith Hope served as a Carey aide. She would marry lawyer Tom Twomey, a Halt the Highway leader.

Published by timwferguson

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

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