Notes on the 2009 Summer Meeting

The Fire Island Association held its 2009 Summer Membership Meeting at Whyte Hall, Fire Island Pines, on July 18.

Ron Martin, President of the Fire Island Pines Property Owner Association, welcomed the approximately 80 in attendance, commenting on the multi-purpose facility and its frequent use by members of the Pines community. The meeting room seats more than 200, and its entire north wall was opened to an expansive veranda and the breeze from Great South Bay.

FIA President Jerry Stoddard introduced other Fire Island Association officers. He noted there are many other activities and organization events throughout the island on a summer Saturday, and that he particularly regretted the conflict with the summer meeting of the Ocean Beach Association, one of FIA’s main supporters. He added that he hopes to return the FIA meeting to Ocean Beach again next summer and to rotate it to other communities occasionally in the future in order to stress FIA’s island-wide character.

Phil Nolan, Supervisor of the Town of Islip opened the meeting with remarks centered around the importance of Fire Island to mainland Long Island. Supervisor Nolan said the island not only contributes in an economic sense to the economy of the mainland, it also provides physical protection from the Atlantic Ocean. He recalled his personal connection to Fire Island as a summer employee, and believes that many Long Islanders have similar memories.

In response to a question about how the Town works with the National Seashore, the Supervisor talked about island contractors’ request to be allowed to drive on weekdays later into the early spring season. The park had notified the contractors in October of the cut-off date for weekday driving and contractors asked the Supervisor to intervene. Mr. Nolan said his approach to such disputes is to find a solution in which each side “gets half a loaf.” Later in the meeting Superintendent Chris Soller addressed the same topic, saying that he thought a compromise had been reached, but that some contractors had pressed the matter further with the Superintendent. Mr. Soller, who took office in the middle of the controversy, said he will work closely with Mr. Nolan in the future.

Another topic discussed by Supervisor Nolan, and returned to later in the meeting, dealt with police protection. Mr. Nolan said in his experience, “the squeaky wheel gets the oil.” He noted the many conflicting demands for government services in a time of economic stringency and said it is a fact of life that those with strong, well-articulated demands tend to get more of what they want than people without those attributes. He recommended that Islanders not hesitate to write to the County Executive if police coverage is an issue they are concerned about.

Assemblywoman Ginny Fields also addressed safety and security issues, but began by deploring the actions of some members of the New York State Senate who prevented that body from getting its work done. Ms Fields is a popular figure on Fire Island and her remark was applauded.

Ms. Fields indicated agreement with Supervisor Nolan when it comes to policing of Fire Island. She is particularly concerned about police vehicles having to leave the island for refueling in Bay Shore, a long and time-consuming trip. Mr. Stoddard asked FINS’ Chief Ranger Jay Lippert to comment on the role of the Fire Island Law Enforcement and Security Council and Chief Lippert noted the close cooperation of his team with the Suffolk Police, including the sharing of a planned fuel depot on the island.

Ms. Fields said she is a big supporter of the Council, which she feels is a model for inter-agency cooperation in the area of public safety. She said she attends its monthly meetings whenever she is not required to be in Albany – and when she is, she has the meeting covered by a staff person.

Jerry Stoddard supplemented Ms. Fields’ comments by adding to statistics she provided:

The number of seasonal officers on Fire Island is essentially unchanged from 2008 to 2009, he said. In 2008, the Suffolk Police Marine Bureau responded to 341 calls for medical assistance. Twenty five patients were evacuated by helicopter, 188 by police boat (which are fully equipped as ambulances), and 100 by vehicular ambulance. Nineteen refused medical help.

Stoddard added that he feels it isn’t appropriate for FIA to be critical of County Executive Levy in the face of the Commander of the Marine Bureau’s assertion that his complement of officers is sufficient to keep the peace and provide the other services people have come to rely on. He noted that at least part of the issue is a result of the police union’s ongoing disagreement with the County Executive over funding and staffing of the Police Department, and that is not something FIA is able to comment on.

Joe Vietri, Chief of Policy and Planning for the North Atlantic Division of the US Army Corps of Engineers, provided an update on negotiations between the Corps and New York State agencies on the Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point shoreline restoration project. And, for the first time in recent years, his report reflected optimism – or at least a reduced level of frustration. He said that the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation has at last agreed that it will endorse a project based on the array of alternatives and options developed by the Corps’ ten-year, $30 million study of the needs of Long Island’s south shore. The science, Mr. Vietri said, has been completed. The next step is for the state and the National Seashore to agree on which of the alternative possible approaches they want to follow. He said the Corps’ report, now under review by the involved agencies, would be released on August 15 and the public will have an opportunity to comment on it.

In reply to a question, Mr. Vietri noted that the Corps cannot impose its findings on the state, but only explain to the state and local agencies that have to live with them the decisions that have to be made. He said he is more convinced than ever that “No one will be entirely happy with the final product.” He thinks it unlikely that any one agency’s or interest group’s position will be adopted in full. The implication is that any group’s position must be put forward vigorously in the public comment period if it is to receive serious consideration.

Mr. Vietri touched on the broad array of scientific and engineering concerns whose influence needs to be weighed in deciding the nature of the final decision.

Seashore Superintendent Chris Soller expressed his pleasure at being back at Fire Island, a place he “fell in love with” when he was assigned here 20 years ago. He is now a 31-year veteran of the Park Service, and a Fire Island Pines home owner. Previous speakers had raised points with implications for the National Seashore, and Mr. Soller responded to them, incuding, as noted above, with respect to contractor driving.

He also showed his concern about the island as a Pines property owner who happens to know a fair amount about coastal dynamics. He seemed distressed by some of his neighbors who are unaware of what he called the “fragile nature” of the Fire Island barrier. He cited one owner who could not understand why he should need a zoning variance from the Town of Brookhaven to build a swimming pool on the dune in front of his house, since neighbors on each side already had them. Another complained that DEC was concerned about his removal of a portion of the dune fronting his home because it interfered with his view of the ocean.

The Superintendent discussed his work years ago on the federal zoning regulations for the Seashore, which he described as setting the framework for cooperation between the Seashore, the mainland municipalities and the island communities. He suggested this is an area that will be receiving more attention as the park updates its General Management plan.

The final scheduled speaker for the meeting was Chuck Bowman, principal of Land Use Environmental Services, whose firm had provided permitting advisory services, and environmental monitoring and reporting, during last winter’s beach building project. He answered technical questions about the project, which he described as a wonderful example of inter-community cooperation. He was especially impressed by the willingness of communities in the central portion of the project to defer to completion of the project in the eastern communities before their own, which had been scheduled to be done first. Delays in construction made it likely that piping plovers and other endangered shorebirds would attempt nesting before the project was completed, and this was more likely to occur first in the eastern communities, based on past experience.

Mr. Bowman answered questions about the impact of tapering the project into federal land and that of non-participating communities. He also discussed the extent to which each community’s contract was fulfilled, in terms of the amount of yards of sand placed. Mr. Bowman said it is not too early to start exploring new sources of sand for future projects, in the event the project discussed by Mr. Vietri continues to be deferred. He concluded by noting that the final report of the consulting engineers, Coastal Planning & Engineering, is now in draft form and will be available later this summer.

As the meeting was being adjourned, Pete Conte, a Suffolk County Police Officer and 20-year member of its Marine Bureau, who is also a representative of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, asked to be recognized from the floor and took issue with some of the remarks made by Jerry Stoddard. Officer Conte is concerned about the physical safety of police officers, as well as the safety of civilians, and he believes policemen are in jeopardy because of their diminished numbers in the face of growing crowds on the island. He said the number of police on Fire Island is much diminished from past years and it is only a question of time before an officer is severely injured, or worse. Mr. Stoddard repeated that he does not think it is appropriate for FIA to takes sides in a dispute between the police union, its management and the County Executive.

The meeting was adjourned a little after 1 p.m. From their comments, those in attendance agreed the speakers had provided important information about the most important issues facing Fire Island communities. FIA will publicize the Corps report, and the reaction of the involved agencies, and will continue to keep members abreast on all of the issues discussed at the meeting – plus the others that are sure to arise in the future.

The help of all Fire Islanders is important in allowing us to do this. Please consider joining FIA if you are not already a member. Go to “Member Info” on the FIA website: fireislandassn.org.