Helicopterless in the Hamptons

Clashes between wealthy East End locals and wealthier newcomers redefine “First World problems”

(Getty Images, photo-illustration by Paul Dilakian/The Real Deal)
(Getty Images, photo-illustration by Paul Dilakian/The Real Deal)

Well-heeled Hamptonites balked in April when pay-per-seat helicopter service Blade revealed it would be jacking up the cost of a Manhattan-to-East Hampton flight to more than $1,000 this summer.

After years of mounting noise complaints from East Hamptonites over the incessant din caused by weekenders flying in on an endless stream of choppers, East Hampton Airport is now set to close and reopen as a private facility, a move which — though its ultimate status remains the subject of litigation — would allow the town to impose curfews and restrict the number of flights in and out.

Of course, this is no matter for those wealthy enough to travel to their vacation homes via private jet, a comparatively quieter mode of transport. But for those privileged enough to own a home in the Hamptons, but not privileged enough to charter a Gulfstream, it’s created a problem.

If East Hampton Airport is no longer an option, there is the smaller, privately owned Montauk Airport about 22 miles to the east. Enter Montauk United, a citizen action group that’s already mobilizing to avert the anticipated overflow of air traffic from East Hampton Airport’s impending closure.

The group’s website is as endearingly retro and long-winded as the concerned locals it purports to represent — no slideshows or snappy sloganeering to be seen here. Just a space for regular, salt-of-the-earth folks “to continually inform and educate all Village citizens of current situations concerning any external efforts being employed by outside interest groups which can have a significant and severe negative impact on all phases of Montauk’s way of life.”

Montauk United does not articulate precisely what Montauk’s “way of life” may be, but it does assert that the town’s residents “are entitled to the same degree of Town Board support, attention and protection from aircraft noise as historically provided to other East Hampton Town Citizens.”

In other words: some goddamn peace and quiet.

The Hamptons in general, and the enclaves and estates south of Montauk Highway in particular, have long been both the domain of the wealthy and a reliable destination for a carefree summer. 

But an influx of buyers in the last two years has kicked its housing market into overdrive, shattering price records and drastically reducing the number of homes on the market. The median sales price for a Hamptons home jumped from $990,000 in the first quarter of 2020 to $1.4 million in the first quarter of this year, according to data from appraiser Miller Samuel for Douglas Elliman — a 41 percent increase since the start of the pandemic. Over the same period, the number of homes listed for sale declined from more than 1,900 in 2020 to fewer than 700 today.

As a result, the merely medium-rich are finding themselves in a pinch. It’s no longer the haves and the have-nots; it’s more like the haves and the have-mores.

The plight of the medium-rich

Vacationers from all walks of life tend to agree that a successful summer stems from two essential elements: recreation and relaxation. The Hamptons’ string of seaside resort towns, golf courses and parkland delivers on both.

But when someone else’s recreation gets in the way of your relaxation, well, then you’re in a bit of a pickle.

The East Hampton Star called it the “fastest-growing sport in America.” The people of Sagaponack call it a racket. Rackets are involved, but the game is called pickleball, and it’s a new battleground this summer in the Hamptons’ ongoing war on noise pollution.

Clocking in at 65 decibels, the game is louder than its progenitor, tennis, and creates about as much noise as a window AC unit. In an area where most folks are used to central air, this is untenable. After corroborating the noise complaints with a site visit from some out-of-state acoustical engineers, Sagaponack Mayor Donald Louchheim decided in April that it was time for the village’s board to revisit pickleball legislation.

Village code sections 245-4 and 245-34 previously required pickleball courts to be at least 45 feet away from neighboring properties. The board decided to bump it up to 60 feet to see if that helps.

The village code is silent on the subject of tennis courts, though — and on the legalities of playing pickleball on one. It’s a bit different with leaf blowers.

They’re loud as hell, but for a Hamptonite who likes a manicured front lawn, they’re a fact of life. After some back-and-forth on blanket bans versus restrictions, on April 20 Sagaponack’s board announced a seasonal ban on the use of gas-powered leaf blowers by commercial landscaping companies.

Between the loud landscaping and the plastic yellow balls, the medium-rich are looking at a rather stressful summer in the Hamptons this year. If the noise pollution wasn’t bad enough, homeowners eagerly waiting to build pools are in for another dry summer. 

Surging demand and shortages of everything from pool liners and pumps to labor means that even those planning to get a pool installed next summer are probably too late. 

“If you’re a homeowner and you’re not planning your swimming pool right now, you won’t have it for next summer because of supply chain and labor issues but also building permit issues,” Greg D’Angelo, a local homebuilder, told Bloomberg News last month. “Everything is backed up across the board.”

A summer spent negotiating with contractors and coordinating development is the opposite of relaxing. To make matters worse, the medium-rich are having trouble finding help of their own these days as domestic workers charge higher rates or move on to cushier gigs.

In the good old days, The Daily Beast reported, one could get a salaried housekeeper for a Hamptons house for around $65,000 a year. Now workers are asking for not only higher wages — “a minimum” of $85,000 — but also benefits like overtime pay, health care and reimbursement for transportation costs. 

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What’s more, many housekeepers have been trading in hourly summer gigs for full-time jobs as butlers, chauffeurs and live-in nannies to the billionaire set. This leaves those who just need a biweekly deep-clean for their summer house, well, helpless.

Who will cry for the helpless, highway-bound medium-rich, without so much as an infinity pool to their name? Certainly not 76-year-old metals mogul Andy Sabin, an Amagansett resident who has shares in three private jets and a bone to pick with the resentful less-monied who want the skies cleared.

“A lot of the wealthier community, we provide the jobs, everything from the dishwashers to the construction guy, the farmers to the landscapers to the weeders.” Sabin told the New York Times last month. “Where do you think their jobs come from?”

Unaffordable housing

It’s true. Many of these jobs indeed depend on wealthy Hamptonites with pools to build and tend to, lawns to maintain and children to care for, as well as those who fly in for the weekend and contribute to each Saturday’s dinner rush. 

But after the dishes are washed, the hedges are trimmed and the baby’s asleep — where do these workers go?

As Amity Lucas, owner of Southampton-based staffing firm Amity Agency, told the East Hampton Star, “There’s literally nowhere for people to live.”

A lack of affordable housing in the Hamptons combined with high demand for contractors and landscapers has led to what residents refer to as the daily “trade parade” — workers driving in on their trucks for a day’s work in the morning, then commuting en masse back west to their homes, sometimes hours away, in the evening.

It’s difficult to blame domestic workers for insisting on a live-in gig. A May opinion column by East Hampton Star editor David E. Rattray details some of the bleaker alternatives.

A man who posted an available room in the paper’s classified section rented it almost immediately to a young tenant, who thought the price fair and was happy to find it.

The only problem was the ad’s overly charitable use of the word “room” when describing what was essentially a sectioned-off portion of a porch with a toilet, sink and outdoor shower — hardly a step above the abodes of other Hamptons summer workers, which the column noted include cars, couches and even an encampment in East Hampton’s woods.

A looming crisis

Rattray’s column also mentions “bureaucratic hurdles for those who would like to add rental units on their own properties”— a reference to accessory dwelling units, or ADUs.

Guest house, granny flat, mother-in-law apartment — the ADU goes by many names, but is essentially any additional residential structure on a property zoned for a single-family residence. 

In late April, state Assemblyman Fred Thiele, whose district includes parts of the Hamptons as well as Shelter Island, proposed the Accessory Dwelling Unit Forgivable Loan Program, a state-level initiative to give property owners a forgivable loan of up to $75,000 to cover construction costs if they choose to rent the unit out as affordable housing.

It’s bound to be a tough sell. Thiele himself was one of several Long Island politicians who opposed a statewide proposal in Gov. Kathy Hochul’s budget that would have required municipalities to allow the building of accessory dwelling units on properties zoned for single-family homes (he criticized Hochul’s proposal as “a one-size-fits-all mandate” that stepped on the rights of local governments).

As Thiele told the Southampton Press, discussing housing advocacy in the Hamptons, “Everybody I know is okay with having a nature preserve near them, but not everyone is okay with having an affordable housing development next to them.”

Michael Daly, a broker for Douglas Elliman and the founder of East End YIMBY, a group that advocates for the construction of affordable housing in the area, believes that the potential for passive income through the program is lost on the more financially secure Hamptons homeowners who need no such thing. But for a medium-rich Hamptonite, it could be the ticket to keeping up with the region’s surging cost of living.

But construction is louder than a leaf blower and certain to drown out pickleball. And if they do go through with it, no matter how much money a medium-rich Hamptonite makes as a mini-landlord, secondary income from an ADU will do little about the helicopters of the ultra-wealthy flying above them.

It also won’t stop the steady erosion of the shoreline. Data gathered by the Union of Concerned Scientists indicates that only the central coast of California has more property tax revenue at risk from chronic flooding than Southampton.

The Town of East Hampton, which includes the hamlets of Montauk and Amagansett, among others, has set a goal of deriving 100 percent of its energy consumption from renewable sources by 2030, and last year the town board approved a deal paving the way for a 15-turbine wind farm some 30 miles southeast of Montauk Point. 

But Montauk United’s website isn’t wrong — the area is, indeed, in crisis. Rising sea levels will not only threaten property values but will lead to a decline in water quality and disturb shellfish and other species, harming commercial fishers and bringing about a slew of irreversible outcomes that even the wealthiest residents can’t buy themselves out of.

Blade says noiseless electric vertical aircraft (EVAs) are on the horizon. Sagaponack’s village board is considering installing noise-blocking “Acoustifence” for pickleball courts, and East Hampton has taken steps to zone more parts of the town for affordable housing.

What no local authority can do, however, is redevelop the sea. A Coastal Assessment and Resiliency Plan drafted by the town this year noted that the rate at which ocean levels are expected to rise “will transform East Hampton into a series of islands with permanent submergence of low-lying areas as early as 2070.”

As Hamptonites quibble over pickleball and private jets, the daunting reality suggests many need not worry about whether they can install their pool this summer — or next summer, or even the summer after. It’s only a matter of time until much of the area is underwater, anyway.