Hampton Bays residents pleaded for members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation to think of their neighbors, visitors, and the animals when it comes to their decision to erect two 61-foot-tall double-sided electronic billboards along Sunrise Highway.
At a rally May 15 at the rest stop on the south side of the highway next to the construction site and just west of the Shinnecock Canal, members of the hamlet’s beautification and civic associations said they understood the tribe’s need for a source of revenue, but asked the project be more in character with the area.
“These signs are against everything that this community stands for,” said Hampton Bays Civic Association President Maria Hults, who added the billboards would be better suited to Times Square or Las Vegas. “Certainly they’re entitled to the billboards and to advertise whatever they want, but at the same time we’d like them to be good neighbors and consider our needs as well. Are these billboards really necessary to draw someone’s attention? We all know about McDonald’s and Disney and Mercedes.”
The 37-year resident who lives down the block from the site added having the signs emit light at 5500 Kelvin — brighter than sunlight — in the evening would be disruptive to the circadian rhythm of animals and people.
Hampton Bays Beautification Association President Susan von Freddi, who organized the rally, said she hopes there’s some alternative.
“Does it have to be lit up with LED?” she asked. “Can’t you just put up a plain, old, ordinary sign? The size and scale and the fact that it’s lit up is what’s troubling us more than anything. I think it’s a safety issue. There’s an accident on this road every single day, and I think there’s going to be more of them because of this.”
Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman even suggested a tax-free gas station or cannabis processing facility instead of the billboards, which were proposed to members of the nation by Idon Media LLC, which will share the revenue that will be reportedly in the millions of dollars each year. The supervisor said he’s most worried about the signs being a driver distraction.
“This is a heavily trafficked road and we’re greatly concerned about incidents that arise from driver distraction,” Schneiderman said. “Of course, there’s also an aesthetic concern — we don’t normally see structures over two stories — and the town doesn’t even permit internally illuminated signs, or billboards on its highway.”
Members of the Shinnecock Nation say the land, on the tribe’s Westwoods property, is exempt from any town, state, or federal regulations, although Schneiderman has said that tribal leaders had told him they would voluntarily comply with the town’s dark skies regulations and dim the signs at night.
A spokeswoman for Congressman Lee Zeldin said as of May 15 he heard the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs has found no records of the land being held in trust for the tribe. If the land is not in trust, the state can enforce federal regulations, which, under the Highway Beautification Act, ban this type of billboard on certain roadways.
“It’s now up to the NYSDOT to determine if there was a violation of federal highway law and, if so, it’s up to them and the New York attorney general to enforce it,” spokeswoman Katie Vincentz said.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs the Shinnecock Nation has not sought any action or approvals from it or the Eastern Region, Real Estate Services for this activity. A spokesperson for the New York State Department of Transportation said the matter is still under review.
Hampton Bays resident Shane Morgan, a member of the beautification committee who lives at the end of Sunrise, came to the rally in support of his neighbors who will be most affected by the billboards.
“My property value will go down, there is destruction of natural habitat for animals. I don’t think it’s fair to the people who live in the neighborhood to see a neon glow at nighttime. It’s not very pleasant,” he said. “We’re here to hopefully preserve Mother Nature, the natural habitat of animals, and the beauty of the Hamptons.”
He said he’s hoping a compromise can be reached, possibly moving the signs to a different part of the tribe’s land. He said he’s tired of seeing land destroyed before projects are approved, citing the time more than a decade ago when members of the Shinnecock Nation cut down hundreds of trees off Newtown Road to build a casino. That plan was shut down before it got any farther after the town took the tribe to court.
“It’s terrible,” Morgan said, holding up signs that read “Save our Forest” and “Pines not Signs” next to a man holding a sign that read “Peace + Preserve.” “Trees were cleared for no reason in the end.”
Schneiderman said he believes the Shinnecock Nation has the right to erect the signs, but added that just because they can do something, doesn’t mean they should do it. A few Shinnecock residents were present at the rally to document the event and listen to what was being said.
“I’m certainly aware of the Shinnecock Nation and its history, and we’re not trying to make any excuses for the way they’ve been treated in the past,” the supervisor said. “We certainly recognize their need for economic development, and we know they can benefit their community in ways that don’t detract from the area or harm other residents. We are hoping they will consider some of our concerns about traffic safety and some of the aesthetics and hope they will come to the table and consult with us.”
Von Freddi said community members are interested in continuing a dialogue, asking the Shinnecock Nation to set aside plans until there is a more serious discussion on economic development.
“We’re good neighbors that care about people. These huge billboards will forever change the character of our area,” she said. “When I heard about this project I was surprised — I wondered why they weren’t doing this on the reservation in Southampton. I understand there’s traffic, but there’s just as much traffic on Montauk Highway every day.”
Hults said she has been in communication with the chairman of the Shinnecock Nation’s Council of Trustees, Bryan Polite, who agreed to attend the civic association’s next meeting on Monday, May 20, at the Hampton Bays Senior Center at 7 PM to present his people’s views and plans and take questions. Hults asked the meeting, like the rally, be non-contentious. She said no protest, signs, or rhetoric will be permitted.