The Southampton Town Board meeting room was packed, buzzing with energy ahead of a particularly controversial Planning Board hearing. Everyone was watching everyone, surmising their stance by the company they kept, when Andrea Spilka walked through the door — and immediately locked eyes with Robin Long.
In front of the entire room, the two women threw their arms around each other, until Ms. Spilka pulled away from the Planning Board member.
“Oh my God, am I gonna get you in trouble?” she asked.
“You know something? I can handle it,” Ms. Long replied. “Let them talk — I’m taking my hug.”
Recalling the story years later, she is eternally grateful that she did.
“I would never have given up that hug,” Ms. Long said, “because that hug, I can remember it forever now.”
In an unexpected blow to the East End community, Ms. Spilka — a steadfast civic leader, role model and friend — died on December 28 after a short bout with metastatic lung cancer and was buried on January 3 at Mount Lebanon Cemetery in Queens.
The longtime Eastport resident was 72.
“She was never a smoker, she seemed to be in good health and good spirits all the time, always laughing,” said Dan Panico, councilman and deputy supervisor for Brookhaven Town. “It’s just shocking, it’s just shocking. It gives you a perspective that you have to live your life and live your life on your terms, and a good life — and I think Andrea did that.”
Ms. Spilka devoted herself to fighting for the underserved from within, starting with her years developing computer systems for the New York City Board of Education to, in 2002, retiring to Eastport and turning her efforts toward a number of civic organizations that worked to protect the East End and its environment.
It was during that time that she first crossed paths with Robert DeLuca, president and CEO of Group for the East End — he as the teacher of an undergraduate class on environmental policy at Stony Brook Southampton, and she as his student. Ms. Spilka expressed interest in learning more about the decisions that shaped the future of Southampton Town and said she planned to spend “a little time” volunteering within the community.
“Well, of course, that was an understatement, to be sure,” Mr. DeLuca said, “and from that day forward, Andrea became a regular, informed, professional, determined, optimistic and strategic voice for conservation, wise planning, and the future of our local environment.”
Over the course of Mr. DeLuca’s 35-year career, Ms. Spilka landed among the most dedicated civic leaders that he had ever met, he said, blossoming into a staunch advocate for a vast array of issues, whether it was water quality, proposed development projects, environmental preservation, or even the relocation of two trailers housing convicted sex offenders in Riverside — efforts that earned her the 2012 “Woman of Distinction” honor from then-Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman.
“When I think of Andrea, I see her coming up to the podium on so many different occasions to speak on so many different topics. If there was something contentious, I would expect to see Andrea in the audience, patiently waiting her turn to speak,” said Mr. Schneiderman, now Southampton Town supervisor. “We didn’t always see eye to eye on every issue — I think for the most part we agreed, and certainly on the goals of protecting the environment, we agreed. I think she played a really important role in shaping public opinion.”
One of Ms. Spilka’s proudest accomplishments was developing the Southampton Town Civic Coalition, which brings together civic groups from across the town to work together. It was a natural fit for her, considering her volunteer work for many organizations in Suffolk County, including the East Moriches Property Owners Association, the Greater Eastport Chamber of Commerce, the Town of Brookhaven Open Space and Farmland Acquisition Advisory Committee, the Suffolk County Council on Environmental Quality, and others.
“Andrea was a giant,” said Kevin McDonald, conservation policy advisor at the Nature Conservancy on Long Island. “The region lost a friend, a great advocate and a demeanor that, frankly, every community needs more of. I miss her already and I know I’ll miss her in the future — when her unique style will be so needed.”
Friends, colleagues and even, at times, opponents of Ms. Spilka have described her as poised, elegant, charming and charismatic. Her depth of knowledge was staggering. She was kind, inclusive and nonconfrontational, yet strong in her beliefs. She embodied grace.
She was a fixture at the podiums of various village, town and county boards, presenting herself with a quiet voracity and understated fierceness. She could move a room — and she did it with a beaming smile on her face.
“What I was always taken by, in addition to her seemingly boundless energy and passion, was her innate optimism about the value of getting and staying involved — no matter the odds — and her capacity to bounce back in the face of any defeat or setback,” Mr. DeLuca said. “Having done this kind of work for a very long time, I find it completely understandable that people, especially those volunteering their scarce time, can grow disheartened and cynical about the outcome of difficult campaigns or initiatives. But in my regular work with Andrea, I never saw her give in, or give up.”
Ms. Spilka’s most recent coup came this past summer, after a years-long battle with PSEG Long Island to remove what some residents called “monster poles” along Eastport-Manor Road in Eastport — a visual blight in the scenic hamlet. In all, PSEG took down 31 of more than 200 large metal utility poles installed between Eastport and Northampton, ranging from 70 to 110 feet tall, and buried the power lines.
“She really fought very hard to get the status quo to change,” Mr. Schneiderman said of the win. “Nobody thought it would, but she did not give up and she really put a lot of pressure on various agencies, utility and governmental, to fix the atrocious problem of these monster poles that were put up in the heart of Eastport, and really fundamentally changing the entire downtown Eastport — and she prevailed, through her quiet, polite, subtle, but stern advocacy.”
That same advocacy helped keep the Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing stationed at Gabreski Airport in Westhampton and pushed through legislation in Southampton Town that allowed for more community involvement in planned development districts, like the longstanding battle over “The Hills” project, which Ms. Spilka opposed — as did Southampton Town Councilman John Bouvier, in one of two dissenting votes.
“We’re determined to carry on her goals and all the things that Andrea stood for,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who will pick up that flag and keep going in her memory. I know anything I do in the future in environmental things, I will always have her mind — that smiley face. I don’t think I’ve ever actually met anyone quite like her.”
Mr. Bouvier and Ms. Spilka shared a deep passion for water quality, he explained. She served as a member of the Anti-Broadwater Coalition, which opposed the construction of an offshore natural gas facility in the Long Island Sound, as well as the Long Island Climate Solutions Network, the Clean Water Open Space Committee, the Southampton Town Citizens Advisory Committee-West, the Speonk-Remsenburg Civic Association, and, of course, the Group for the East End.
“The loss of any dear friend or colleague is always a difficult and painful experience for those who are left behind, but for me, Andrea’s unparalleled and unflinching life force makes her passing even more difficult to fully accept,” Mr. DeLuca said, adding, “I am so sorry to lose my good friend and colleague, but take solace in knowing that I had the chance to work with someone of such expansive talent and good will.”
In the coming months, Mr. Bouvier said he plans to contact Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine to collaborate on honoring Ms. Spilka’s memory — in a way that feels true to who she was and the life she lived.
“I’d love to find a park or open space to name after her because I think that represents everything she wanted to achieve,” he said. “We’re all saddened by her loss. She was a really wonderful, wonderful person — just really kind, decent, intelligent, patient, incredibly patient. I’ll just miss her a lot. I really will.”
As published in the Southampton Press and the Sag Harbor Express