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"partners in preservation"

Cathy Lester

In her four years in office, East Hampton Town Supervisor Cathy Lester has overseen the passage of a $5 million bond act for open space preservation and the establishment of an annual $250,000 small lot acquisition program to protect wetland areas throughout the town.  In addition, through the Peconic Estuary Program, East Hampton was the first town in New York State to implement a no-discharge zone in town waters.  The town adopted an open space plan and recently completed a local waterfront revitalization plan. 

Cathy was born and raised in Southampton.  Her father was a lieutenant commander in the Coast Guard during World War 2 and later he returned to Southampton, where he worked as a boat builder and marina manager.  Cathy exhibited her love for the water early on, shadowing her dad around the bays and waterways.  "I'm a Pisces, so it just comes naturally," she quips. 

Cathy moved to East Hampton in 1961 when she married Tom Lester, a local bayman with a family history that can be traced back over 200 years to Thomas Talmadge, one of the early settlers of the town.  No strangers to politics, Tom's mother was a town trustee for four years until 1981 and Tom was also a trustee from 1988 to 1992. 

As commercial bay people, Tom and Cathy worked side-by-side on the water for over 20 years.  "I became a bay person when I married Tom," states Cathy, "but I always loved the water.  He was a trap fisherman and when we went out to look at the traps in the mornings, he would say, "It's like Christmas every day; you never know what's going to be in there and it's always a surprise!" 

Tom and Cathy made a decision that if they wanted to change things, they should get involved.  "We became active in land protection efforts," she says, "during a time when the town was growing and a number of development plans that were typical for the time and lacked ingenuity and foresight were being rubber-stamped."  So they formed the Northwest Alliance in 1981 with the Group for the South Fork and others who shared their concern about the fate of the 516 acre Grace Estate and the 341 acre Barcelona Neck Peninsula.  Those efforts paid off with the preservation of the Grace Estate by the Town and The Nature Conservancy in 1986 and the purchase of Barcelona by New York State in 1989. 

"The Nature Conservancy was very helpful to me when we were trying to protect the Grace Estate," she says, "Then-director Russ Hoeflich helped to educate me regarding how to identify your goals and pursue them.  These preservation efforts got me started and gave me the incentive to keep going.  It's very rewarding and I feel privileged to be working with people who share my love for the East End." 

Cathy has been active in town government since 1982 when she became a trustee.  Cathy didn't give up when Tom died suddenly from a heart attack in 1992.  She remained active and went on to hold a number of positions with the town, including seats on the Town Planning Board and the Town Board.  She won the election for Town Supervisor in 1995 and was reelected in 1997.  She says the key to her success is her strong belief in what she's doing.  "If you feel that there's a threat to something you love, you stay involved because you may be able to change the direction or keep things on the right course." 

"Meeting and working with people on projects that are designed to protect or enhance the town's environment gives me the greatest pleasure," says Supervisor Lester.  "Such as working with the town trustees on projects like the Open Marsh Management Plan, which came out of the Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan, and with The Nature Conservancy on the recent purchase of the Rosenthal property and other land acquisition works."  In 1998 the Conservancy entered into a contract with the Town of East Hampton to provide negotiation and acquisition services to support its open space program.  The Conservancy is working to protect approximately 1,000 acres on behalf of the Town. 

When asked if she thought the town was in good shape as far as the environment is concerned, she says, "Yes and no.  Because we've been able to do such a good job of protecting our natural and scenic resources, our economy is very strong.  Unemployment is now at the lowest point it's been since I've been in office.  But, there's always a danger that somebody's going to put that open space plan on a shelf and not follow through with it.  It's a never-ending job.  You have to keep your eyes open at all times." 

Reprinted with permission from The Nature Conservancy newsletter "Currents", Summer 1999 edition. 

The Nature Conservancy 
South Fork-Shelter Island Chapter 
3 Railroad Avenue 
P. O. Box 5125 
East Hampton, NY 11937 


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