On Friday, Aug. 15, the Bridgehampton Beach Club was thronged past capacity with villagers, none of whom had brought their bathing suits. Cars were parked illegally on the grass for half a mile down Ocean Road. Dozens of policemen were stationed at the entrance, and officers surveyed the scene in a mobile command unit parked next to the dunes.Over100 residents-including 60Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt, publicist AlanSiegel and artdealer Louis Meisel,allof whom live in Bridgehampton-jammed themselves into the rows of chairs in the club’s oceanfront pavilion, tottering on the steps and squeezing into whatever room was left. The crowd had assembled to sound off on-or just watch the fireworks erupt over-the fate of the proposed village Dunehampton, the nascent brainchild of a handful of wealthy coastal homeowners who are trying to secede from the town of Southampton. Their beef is a slate of new environmental regulations that went into effect in May. If the Southampton town council decides that the petition is valid-a decision that will be made by Sept. 4-an election will be held in November in which only residents of the proposed new town will vote. If they’re successful, Dunehamptonites will hold autonomous sway over a 2.7-square-mile stretch of coastline in the town of Southampton whose total property values exceed $1.2 billion. No longer would they be mere upper-class Hamptons dwellers: Dunehamptonites would be part of a new Hamptons über -class, the first multimillion-dollar homeowners to form their very own, elites-only village.
But for all their newfound interest in the nitty-gritty of town governance, the Dunehamptonites are apparently not much for public hearings. Only four people present were there to speak up for the Dunehampton side. The opponents may have expected prominent Dunehamptonites like Stephanie Seymour or Roy Scheider to appear and make a splash for the cause, but instead, said Mr. Meisel, “they were the most unimpressive zeros I have seen at any meeting. They had no facts, no nothing, and all they said was, ‘They’re taking our houses away! We’ll lose our property!’ It was totally absurd, moronic bullshit.”
Tinka Topping, a woman in her 50’s whose family has owned property in the Hamptons since the 1800’s, spoke up against the village that incensed Southampton town council members have dubbed “Rich Hampton.” “In a truly democratic society, we have to resolve our differences,” Ms. Topping said. “We have to have a real discussion. This is the way we hope the country will deal with their adversary,” she added. Comparing the town residents’ fight against Dunehampton to the United States’ fight against Iraq, she said forcefully, “This is our war,” and was met with resounding applause.
The fracas started in May, when the Southampton Town Board voted to enact new restrictions on what coastal homeowners can do to protect their properties from the ravages of nature. Specifically, homeowners whose houses are destroyed by floods must rebuild their houses 125 feet away from the dunes, as opposed to the old 100-foot limit. The new rules also widened the allowed distance between newly constructed houses and prohibit homeowners from building erosion-control devices on the beach.
Town officials, for their part, said they undertook the moves to protect the fragile dunes from human encroachment. They and other opponents of Dunehampton say these rules are hardly onerous-and, in any case, disgruntled homeowners have other recourses short of starting their own town.
But some coastal homeowners fear that the new rules will prove so burdensome to comply with that they will drive down property values all along the coast. Their solution: the village of Dunehampton, which, should it come to pass, would encompass a narrow stretch of coastland that runs through the Southampton hamlets of Water Mill, Bridgehampton and Sagaponack. Shaped like a jaggedy old-fashioned key, it’s a geographical entity that would make even the most seasoned Congressional gerrymanderer blush. Once incorporated as a village, Dunehampton would no longer be subject to the authority of the town of Southampton, as the three hamlets now are-meaning that Dunehampton residents would be free to write their own zoning and environmental laws.
Is the secession movement being driven by haughty beach-dwellers who want to flout reasonable environmental and zoning standards, or by frustrated residents who just want to protect their homes from overzealous legislators? It depends on whom you talk to. Mr. Scheider, who lives in an unpretentious two-story oceanfront home in Sagaponack, is a founding member of the committee spearheading the secession drive. Comedienne Caroline Hirsch is also on board. “The town board in Southampton has been very reluctant to deal with the homeowners along the beach in a gentlemanly way,” Mr. Scheider told The New York Times . “So events have forced us to form a minor revolution to protect ourselves.”
Some opponents of the plan, however, have taken to calling the new village Arrogansett. “It’s not about the issues now,” said Mr. Meisel. “It’s about the egos saying, ‘We’re going to do it.’ I think it’s been proven that there’s no serious impact on them, and that they would be much better off with a citizens’ action committee.”
“No place else but the Hamptons do six or seven property owners decide they want to form a village, and bankroll the whole thing on their own-with the possible exception of California, where you can do a governor’s recall paid for by one man,” said Kevin McDonald, vice president of the Group for the South Fork, a local environmental-protection organization.
Welcome To the Revolution
The revolution has begun in the Hamptons, where the skyrocketing value of property-beachfront property in particular-has made tempers rise as regularly as the tides this summer. Simply put, there is now so much money at stake that garden-variety neighborly debates have taken on hyped-up, million-dollar overtones-and life in the Hamptons is definitely no longer a day at the beach.
Even as property values keep climbing, there are warning signs that things may get even more contentious: The Dunehampton secession movement shared headlines this summer with the very real prospect of a casino, of all things, that the Shinnecock Indians are proposing to build on their reservation in Southampton. The tribe has applied for federal recognition, which they need to build a full-on casino. Officials estimate that the process will take at least seven years, but a bingo-hall-style casino could appear much sooner. Picture Montauk highway, circa 2010, lined with Marriotts, idling tour buses and check-cashing stores, and you have some idea why people are starting to think that the old Hamptons’ character-long acknowledged to be every bit as vulnerable as those disappearing dunes-will soon be recognizable only in smaller and smaller patches.
On the ocean, the fights are most vicious. In recent years, from Southampton to Montauk, the Hamptons elite have moved coastward, settling farther and farther away from the bustling main streets, booming nightclubs and rowdy share houses. Now, apparently, it’s not enough that there’s a V.I.P. tent at every polo tournament, a “luxury liner” for every jitney and a rope in every club. The elite are determined to find a way to separate their homes from the masses as well. Building a house in the Hamptons may be upper-class, but building a village there is über -class.
The Dunehamptonites do have one point, at least: Their irregular line of lavish homes on the ocean, where Mr. Scheider-as well as New York lawyer Stuart Baker and the much-maligned castle-builder and toxic industrial baron, Ira Rennert-dwells, is a Hamptons preserved, a Hamptons untouched by the urban sprawl of McDonald’s and Starbucks chains, a throwback to the days when Route 27 used to connect one cornfield to the next rather then link Hess stations to Gap-anchored malls. With more and more New Yorkers chugging down the L.I.E. each summer, the Wall Street boom has turned into the beach bubble, and those who live far enough away to avoid the continual subdivision constructions and the endless battles with town traffic are in a panic to protect their nests.
“We just saw an apocalyptical cycle,” said Judy Licht, wife of Hamptons restaurateur Jerry Della Femina, who lives outside the Dunehampton boundaries but is an ardent supporter of the secession. “We’re on the downward spiral of a Hegelian dialectic. I’m sitting under an umbrella sucking my thumb, waiting for it all to go away.”
Under the current town rules, any new village must have at least 500 regular inhabitants, defined as any adult and family registered to vote only in that area. Although Dunehampton organizers claim to have a list of over 1,000 residents, opponents are arguing that hundreds of those names are invalid because several homeowners listed over 30 people living in a single residence, and some of the so-called inhabitants were either dead or under 18. Also, town officials plan on questioning at least 20 of the 127 residents listed on the actual petition, since they registered to vote in Southampton only after they signed it.
What’s at stake in all the details is nothing less than one of the most staggeringly valuable plots of land in the country. According to town officials, there are 338 parcels of land in the new village, 103 of which sit directly on the Atlantic Ocean or Mecox Bay, a Bridgehampton inlet included within the village boundaries. According to Diane Saatchi, president of Dayton-Halstead realty, non-oceanfront properties in the proposed village are worth an average of $2.6 million, while those with beach access are worth about double that. Some rough math, then, pushes the potential value of Dunehampton’s total real estate north of $1.2 billion. And although a majority of the East End’s most expensive homes now lie in East Hampton and Southampton villages, the villagers of Dunehampton could, in theory, decide to do away with all semblances of zoning restrictions, paving the way for a surge of megamillion-dollar castles on the East End. Indeed, the largest house in the Hamptons, Mr. Rennert’s still-unfinished 60,000-square-foot mansion, is already within the boundaries of the proposed village.
With that much money at stake, it’s perhaps easy to understand why the proponents of Dunehampton are so zealously protecting their interests. But there are some who think the Dunehamptonites’ fears about depressed property values have a decided whiff of Chicken Little about them.
“So far, nothing anybody can do around here hurts property values, said Ms. Saatchi. “When they imposed [an earlier property tax], the people opposing it said that buyers will kick up a storm and property values will go down. But since that’s been in effect, property values have gone higher and nobody blinked an eye.”
Defenders of the village, however, see the debate on an even more global scale.
Ms. Licht said the town’s opposition to Dunehampton amounted to anti-capitalism.
Living on the coast, she said, “becomes this communist thing. You can’t protect your own property. It really has to do with Schadenfreude on the part of the village. In America, you have the right to protect your own property, and villages shouldn’t take that away. It’s a kind of ‘Off with their heads!'” she said. The Dunehamptonites, in her view, shouldn’t be asked to passively accept this trampling of their basic rights. “We’ll start the revolution!” she vowed.
Farther out in Montauk, artsy East End veterans Paul Morrissey, Peter Beard and Paul Simon are happy hanging off their cliff-literally, since their houses are located right on the edge of Long Island, on the rocky end of Montauk-and avoiding the hustle of the Hamptons. Mr. Morrissey now lives on the 5.7-acre Andy Warhol estate that he bought in 1971 for only $225,000 and listed two years ago for $50 million. He has rented to Mick Jagger, Halston, Sarah Ferguson and Jackie Onassis. Next-door, Mr. Beard bought a strip on the cliff for $135,000 and estimates that he could now get $15 million for it. Nearby are former television host Dick Cavett and Mr. Simon, both of whom enjoy almost uninterrupted views. Their slice of the East End may be far from Dunehampton, but their reasons for sitting tight stem from an intoxication with open ocean views that they share with the Dunehamptonites. Both Mr. Beard and Mr. Morrissey are thankful that they’re far away from the Hamptons as we now know it. “They’re already calling it the Gaza Strip,” said Peter Beard of the island west of him. “I’m afraid humans have a reverse Midas touch. They won’t stop. The irony is the most pronounced in the Hamptons, where the urban rich have come-they have the worst taste outside of Miami Beach.” Mr. Beard has written a lyrical essay, not yet published, on the state of Long Island. In it, he writes that “Long Island itself is a haunting barometer of relentless human pressure, decay and decline of the environment, starting in stress and density city: New York City, Queens and Brooklyn-heading out on the L.I.E. to Westhampton discos, East Hampton shopping malls, Amagansett subdivisions, plenty of fertilizers and pesticides seeping into the drinking water, plenty of red #5 at Bigga-Burger, lots more breast cancer, if not the highest in country, and last but not least in the punishment department, Montauk Point, under the rule of East Hampton, land’s end, under immense pressure and indeed sinking low, hey dude, where’s my Long Island?”
Mr. Morrissey, for his part, sticks to his cliff to avoid the “big rents, overcrowding and density,” he said. “People used to come here for the beach and the climate, and now they just come here for the shopping. It wasn’t commercial at all before.” In Montauk, though, at least he is some distance from the “terrible element” that has come here, particularly the looming possibility of the Shinnecock casino. “It would cheapen everything,” he said, referring to the casino. “It would bring people just here for the day who would throw away their life savings. Those things, they should be stopped. It’s just another big suburb. The Hamptons have become Connecticut.”
While he doesn’t own a slice of the Montauk cliff or have a stake in Dunehampton, Budd Schulberg, author of On the Waterfront and What Makes Sammy Run? , is so desperate to stay away from the crowds that he lives in a bird sanctuary in less glamorous Westhampton. He said, “I’m fortunate I’m able to live on the water, where I can look out at egrets and herons and swans and ducks. It would be hard for me to find another place like it.” Mr. Schulberg described the day after Labor Day as “Sweet Tuesday,” the day when all the city people finally go home. “We’ve lost many of our potato fields, farmlands, many things. In addition to all the sort of rich and famous rap stars and the rest of us, these huge houses out here always attract day-trippers and people who are attracted to celebrities. It all builds on top of each other. The old-fashioned personal shop is lost; the drug store used to look like something from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town . Maybe I look too much to the past, but I miss it.”
As Teddy Roosevelt, who camped in Montauk, once put it, “Populations expand; land does not.” So what happens now? In a place where status levels have been maxed out in the past decade, where V.I.P. rooms and V.V.I.P. rooms have sprung up like dune grass at every event, have appetites for privilege gotten so insatiable that the only recourse is voting yourself off the island?
And what’s next? Will the avenues from Fifth to Park secede to form the Über East Side?