The Real History of
The Coalition for Hither Woods
On a November night in 1981, Richard Whalen was visiting Tom Ruhle at Tom’s parents’ house on Montauk. Tom Ruhle’s parents, Gus and Doris, had moved to Montauk in 1954. Gus was a skilled carpenter and occasional sportfishing guide. Doris was a homemaker (and a superb cook). Tom was born and raised on Montauk; he and Rick Whalen met in college at Lehigh University. Tom returned home after college. Rick had decided he, too, wanted to live in East Hampton, although he hadn’t yet figured out how to make a living locally.
That November night came shortly after Election Day 1981. The East Hampton Republican party had swept every office that was up for election in 1981, returning the party to control of the Town Board after losses in 1979. When January 1982 dawned, the Republican party was back in command of Town government for what would become 46 years out of the previous 48. But the news at the Ruhle house on that November night was not about who had won the recent election - at least not exactly. Instead, an ugly rumor had surfaced: the Republicans were going to abolish the Town Planning Department led by experienced and independent Town Planner Thomas Thorsen. Nothing of this nature had been discussed during the recent election campaign. The Republicans, according to this stunning rumor, were going to portray the Planning Department’s abolition as a cost-saving and governmental efficiency maneuver. But the real reason for the move would soon be clear: it was intended to grease the skids for the further development of East Hampton.
In 1981-1982 East Hampton, including Montauk, was at a very vulnerable stage in its history. Much of the Town was still undeveloped, and most of this undeveloped land was privately owned. Development pressure was intense. The future of the Town was at stake. If the restraining influence of the Town Planning Department were removed by a pro-development Town Board, the results could be disastrous.
Before Rick left to drive home on that moonlit November night, he and Tom had come to a realization. The largest remaining undeveloped area on Montauk was in Hither Woods. East of Hither Hills State Park lay 1,357 acres of land, almost all of it forested. The property had two different owners, the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, an aircraft manufacturer which purchased its share of Hither Woods in 1966 as an investment, and the Toronto Dominion Bank of Canada. All of this land had to be preserved, or the character of Montauk would change irrevocably. The two young college graduates would have to create an organization to rally support to buy and preserve Hither Woods. The challenge could hardly be more daunting, yet it had to be met.
If things seemed bleak on that November night in 1981, they would only grow worse early in 1982. Despite a tremendous outpouring of grass-roots support for keeping the Planning Department, including a 1,000-person hearing held at the East Hampton High School on the cold Friday of January 15, 1982, the Republican-controlled Town Board voted to abolish the Planning Department. The vote was taken on February 19, 1982, with two Democratic hold-overs on the Town Board dissenting. Time was racing along now. Word reached Tom and Rick and local environmental groups: applications to subdivide Hither Woods would be made shortly. A proposal to subdivide the central 777 acres of Hither Woods was being prepared by a recent purchaser: Sun Beach Real Estate Development Corporation. As for the northern 580 acres, straddling the Long Island Railroad and with two miles of water frontage on Block Island Sound, a group named Dune Associates was getting ready to submit its own subdivision proposal. Dune Associates, which had connections to the Netherland Antilles, would call its subdivision “Benson Point.” In their original formulations these two subdivisions would propose 431 residential building lots on most of the Hither Woods property, plus a golf course.
Tom and Rick rallied the two main local environmental organizations of that era, the Group for the South Fork (now called the Group for the East End) and Concerned Citizens of Montauk. An umbrella organization was created to coordinate the activities of the supporting environmental groups and individuals. This organization was named The Coalition for Hither Woods. It was formed from whole cloth, and was not even incorporated (in the 1980s). The Coalition began a press campaign to rally support against the subdivision of Hither Woods, and for the preservation of this magnificent forest. In fact, the Coalition put together a presentation on the preservation of the Woods, which was made to the East Hampton Town Planning Board before the Sun Beach Hills or Benson Point subdivision applications were even calendared. No environmental group in East Hampton’s history had ever done such a thing.
The Coalition for Hither Woods pushed relentlessly for the preservation of Hither Woods, even in the face of an unsupportive Town Board majority and well-financed developers. The Coalition’s organizers pushed for meetings with governmental officials at all levels. Tom and Rick made personal presentations to local civic groups and other organizations. They knew that they had to win: to lose was to lose Hither Woods to development, and that would be irreversible.
Besides Tom Ruhle and Rick Whalen other heroes emerged to fight for the preservation of Hither Woods. Their names should be written in history: Carol Morrison, Dick Johnson, Russell Stein, Rav Friedel (who coined the Coalition’s bumper sticker slogan: Keep the Woods in Hither Woods), Larry Penny, the Disken sisters (Dorothy and Lillian), the unquenchable fighter Charlene Briand, Helen Sarvis, and scores of other people. Most of these people were associated with Concerned Citizens of Montauk. But the Group for the South Fork, led by its great executive director, the late Nancy Kelley, was invaluable in supporting the Coalition. The Coalition also earned the support of a young County Legislator named Gregory Blass. On the East Hampton Town Board, by late 1982, a single Democratic Town Board member, Randy Parsons, held the line. After a special election in November 1982 Randy was joined by a young, smart, and energetic councilman named Tony Bullock. For the critical year of 1983, Randy and Tony were the only real allies of the environmental movement on the Town Board.
The battle to preserve Hither Woods lasted for seven long years, with many ups and downs along the way. In the fall of 1982 the Coalition managed to get the Town Board to put a proposition on the November ballot asking Town voters to approve $1.5 million in bonds to help pay for a purchase of Hither Woods. (Believe it or not, $1.5 million was considered a lot of money to devote to land preservation in 1982.) A second proposition appeared on the same ballot, to issue $1.5 million in bonds for the purchase of farmland development rights. Both preservation initiatives were approved by the Town’s voters. But the ballot proposition to help preserve Hither Woods, in far-off Montauk, bested even the farmland preservation bond proposal. Over 70% of the Town’s electorate voted to approve spending tax dollars for the preservation of Hither Woods.
In 1986 a deal was struck with the would-be developers of the northern part of Hither Woods, Dune Associates. The Nature Conservancy fronted the money for the purchase, and reconveyed the land in early 1987 to three levels of government as joint owners - New York State, Suffolk County, and the Town of East Hampton. This was believed to be the first time in New York history that three separate levels of government had joined forces to preserve land. In 1988 Sun Beach Real Estate Development, which owned the central acreage in Hither Woods, threw in its hand. Sun Beach agreed to sell its 777 acres to Suffolk County, predicated on the property being named the Lee E. Koppelman Preserve. Once again, The Nature Conservancy acted as an intermediary. The Conservancy closed on the Sun Beach property in December 1988, and resold the land to Suffolk County on February 3, 1989.
A small part of the Dune Associates property - some 23 acres - was held out of the 1986-1987 sale to the State, County, and Town governments. This land had been a sand and gravel mine in the 1960s and was pretty much devastated. But by 2001 this property, too, was available for purchase. The Town now had the considerable financial resources of the Community Preservation Fund at its disposal, and Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman saw the property’s value as parkland. The owners, the family of William Tintle, agreed not only to sell the land to the Town but to regrade the sand mine into a more user-friendly “bowl,” to topsoil the property, and plant it. The Tintles also agreed to completely rebuild the World War II-era “Hangar Dock,” which had been built by the US Navy. They did all of this, and in a first-class manner.
This land at the end of Navy Road is today the very popular Rod’s Valley Park. The Hangar Dock has been renamed in honor of former Town Supervisor (and Montauk native) Edward V. Ecker, Sr. When the Town closed on the purchase of this land on March 18, 2002, the Deputy Town Attorney handling the transaction brought a bottle of champagne to the closing. His name was Richard Whalen.
In 1982 the Coalition for Hither Woods was formed to preserve 1,357 acres of privately owned land at Hither Woods, and make it public parkland. In March 2002 that impossible dream was realized.
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All photos ©copyright R.E. Whalen, used by permission