NIMBY in Action: A Planned Sailing School at Mecox Bay Goes Awry

Last week, I read in a local paper that the Town of Southampton has set up a boat rack on Mecox Bay on the property they own at the end of Bay Lane. It looks like a giant saw horse, and winners of a lottery will be able to rent one of these slots for $125 and keep there a small sailboat hull for the summer. Also on this town-owned property is an abandoned little building, about 10’ x 18’, in need of a full renovation, and now referred to as a possible future storage shed.

When I first came out to the Hamptons as a teenager, in the 1950s, this little building was the Mecox Bay Yacht Club. There was a flagpole out front with the MBYC flag fluttering beneath an American flag. And there was a floating dock sticking out into the water where little sailboats were tied up. Inside the building were benches and a potbellied stove for when it rained or got chilly. A table and chairs were in there, too. And it was for members only, an exclusive little club. I think every member had a key. You’d see the members sailing up and down across the bay in the summer. You had to be invited to become a member.

In the winter, the young and more athletic members of the local farming community would go iceboating on Mecox Bay. They’d carry their iceboats, little catamarans they made from scratch or from a kit, down Bay Lane on the back of trucks and park by the club. The club was closed, of course. It was a summer peoples’ club. But a few farming families had been given keys to the clubhouse and the kids with the iceboats used this building as a warming hut in the winter.

Once, I went down there and got taken aboard one of these graceful little ships by a farm boy and off we went silently sliding across the ice at 40 miles an hour. It was scary and very exhilarating, but three times around a set-up course was enough for me. The kids were aglow with excitement and competitiveness. Hot toddies were available from a thermos in the building, out of the wind.

Bay Lane in those days was a narrow lane that cut through the potato fields to take you down to the dead end at the club in summer or winter. There were no houses on either side of the road, just potato fields over which you could see for miles. The club flagpole could be seen from a half mile away before you got down there.

The Mecox Bay Yacht Club came to an end in 1990 and soon fell into ruin. The weeds and bushes grew up around it. At the same time, the potato fields got cut up into residential lots and sold off. Today Bay Lane is bordered on both sides by hedges, behind which are small estates owned mostly by summer people. The road is a narrow, leafy tunnel experience down to the dead end.

About three years ago, Bridgehampton resident Jeff Mansfield and his group, the Mecox Sailing Association, got the idea to bring back the club. They asked if the town would lease the property again so they could restore the clubhouse. But there’d be no running water or heat. They were approved for a wetlands permit and given a license agreement.

Some people objected that in this day and age you don’t re-start a defunct private club on public land, but Mansfield said they’d hire a sailing teacher and offer classes to the locals who wanted their kids to learn how to sail.

People objected to that, saying the teaching would really be only for the members. Others objected to the clearing of the wetlands that would be necessary. Eventually the plan was dropped. Instead, the town might try to have a little sailing school there themselves. If they could teach swimming, they could teach sailing. They’d restore the place. They’d have sailboats and hire a sailing teacher. Kids could come.

In my job as editor-in-chief of Dan’s Papers, I opposed the private club, but I welcomed the idea of a sailing school. The Hamptons is such a beautiful place with so many reasons to drive around and enjoy its many amenities, why not have such a facility down at that dead end? At that time there was no sailing school east of the canal. It’s a nice thing, when you run a weekly newspaper, to have the opportunity to write things that might help fashion the future of a community. Newspapers have a voice.

What I had been struck by when I first moved out here as a teenager was how open and available this place was. We had dunes and cliffs, ponds and lakes, woods and the ocean, farms, New England towns and fishing villages. You could go almost anywhere, do almost anything.

In the years that followed, traveling around the country, mostly in the wintertime when the paper didn’t publish, I was sometimes saddened to come across other beautiful places that did not have this kind of access. Palm Beach was one. Carmel, California was another. There were Keep Out signs. They were places that could be enjoyed only by the few. I thought it wonderful that our home base on the East End was so available to everyone.

Thus I was really surprised when I got called at the newspaper by an attorney hired by these Johnny-come-lately people on Bay Lane to fight to prevent even a small sailing school to open at the dead end there. The arguments were that the narrow road was too narrow for cars to pass one another easily going up and down (because of the hedges they’d installed to keep people from peering into their windows.) Other arguments were there would be a lot of noise down there. There would not be enough places to park. I disagreed with all this. If they prevailed, their dead end would be just that—an essentially private street with no reason for anyone to go down to the end and see the beautiful view of the bay unless invited there by those living along the road.

The attempt to open the little sailing school for the kids on their property proceeded apace. But then lawsuits were filed by residents on the street. Two are ongoing today. They will probably continue on for years, and, during this time of legal wrangling, there will be no town facility down there. So the old clubhouse remains a ruin.

So now the town has put the racks down there and will rent them out, creating a situation where there is only limited outside traffic on this public road other than the traffic created by those who live there. And there is an unexpected consequence. With this diminished traffic, the value of each resident’s property will soar. Everyone loves the peace and quiet of a dead end.

Some day, if every nice thing in the Hamptons gets arranged so as to be an amenity for just the few who live behind hedges nearby to it, it will be a sad day.

Sailboat boy

Will future generations still sail the East End? Photo: Polka Dot/Thinkstock

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