Fire Island Tide, June 19, 1998

by Carole Paquette

(Reprinted with Permission of the Fire Island Tide)

Fire Island homeowner Gerard Stoddard has been president of the Fire Island Association, which represents more than half of Fire Island’s property owners, since February 1987. A native Long Islander and graduate of Cornell University and NYU Law School, he is a public affairs communications specialist active in coastal issues. From 1973 to 1986 he was vice president of corporate communications for SCM Corporation. In 1989, he founded the Long Island Coastal Alliance, a not-for-profit forum for research and discussion of national and Long Island coastal policy issues. His firm, Coastal Reports, Inc., publishes a newsletter dedicated to analysis of issues affecting coastal property owners, communities and businesses.

Mr. Stoddard was a member of Governor Mario Cuomo’s Coastal Erosion Task Force in 1993-94. He is on the board of various coast-related organizations including: the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association; the American Coastal Coalition; and the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society. He also serves on the Citizens Advisory Committee of the South Shore Estuary Reserve Council.

TIDE: Did you go to Fire Island in your youth? If so, where did you go and would you share some anecdotes.
Like most Long Islanders from north of Montauk Highway, I was only vaguely aware of Fire Island in my youth. Long Island was and is a pleasant enough place in summer that few feel a need for someplace better – like Fire Island. But one night after a baseball game someone said his cousin was staying with some other girls at Leja Beach. “She’s my cousin,” he said. “They’ll have to let us in and we’ll sleep on the floor.” Alas, this was the 1950s. In addition to there being then no electricity in what is now Davis park, we slept under the deck. We probably should have showered after the game.

TIDE: How much has Fire Island changed since then?
When I returned as a married grouper it was to Ocean Bay Park in the mid-1960s, when the ferry still came into Flynn’s and some people got no further than that in the course of the weekend. Everything seems far more structured now, probably because there are so many more people who come over that either order prevails or there is chaos.

TIDE: Where have you lived on Fire Island and what were the prevailing issues when you first became a homeowner?
 We’ve always been in Ocean Bay Park except one year we rented in Saltaire. By 1970 our family group was up to four kids and we split up. We rented a house on Oneida Street from friends who were next door. After seven years or so they sold it to us at a good price and we fixed it up. We didn’t choose OBP, our friends were there and we followed. And stayed. The prevailing issues haven’t changed much. It’s always people who look on the island as a place to relax and get away from noise and commotion vs. people who see the island as a place to make money by catering to those who consider noise and commotion fun.

TIDE: When did you get involved with the community?
 I got involved with the OBP Association in 1981 or so when I heard that six commercial lots adjacent to the ferry terminal were to go on the market. It was a question of seeing more commercial development or preserving the lots as open space for community use. Fortunately for the community, Fire Island Ferries was interested in having the community buy them. They very patiently kept them off the market until we were able to get the Town of Brookhaven to add them to our existing Park District. Even more fortunately, real estate executive Robert Selsam is a community member. His skills made all the difference in getting the deal done. Today, everyone takes it for granted that we have a large open space near the ferry terminal; fifteen or eighteen years ago it was a crisis, but that’s always the way these things happen.

TIDE: When did you get involved with the Fire Island Association, and why?
 As President of OBPA, I was the delegate to the FIA Board of Directors. When John Stearns stepped down as president in 1986 I was asked to head the nominating committee to find a replacement. When a nominating committee chair doesn’t do the job, the penalty is often acceptance of the post. It came at a very inconvenient time as I was in the middle of a job change (courtesy of a hostile tender offer). The work gradually took all of my time. I stopped looking for a full time job as I became more and more interested in coastal policy issues. It not only jibed with my background in public affairs/government relations, but it was easily the most complex and interesting public policy issue I had ever been involved with: science, engineering, environmentalism, social policy theory and politics at the community, town, county, state and federal levels, each with interacting laws and regulations — and more personalities than you can shake a stick at. Often a headache but never a bore, as they say.

TIDE: What do you feel is the most important issue facing Fire Island today? And why?
 The overriding issue on Fire Island continues to be getting the Corps of Engineers’ shore protection project in the ground before a devastating hurricane or nor’easter causes a serious breach in the island. Nothing else matters if the island is going to be allowed to erode to a point where a breach happens and causes huge expense and widespread flooding along Long Island’s south shore. Some say there is no problem. But the Corps of Engineers and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation say there is, and they are the agencies the Congress and the state legislature named to make those determinations. They are being prevented from implementing the project by government environment agencies who assert, without scientific basis, in my opinion, that the project could in some way harm the environment. In fact, these agencies are merely the governmental arm of the no growth movement in America today. That is ironic, because there will be no growth on Fire Island to speak of, whether or not the island is protected.

I think the reason they take this position is because they view houses on or near beaches as socially as well as environmentally wrong for the country. The same people leading the anti-beach house fight today led a similar battle six years ago against the National Flood Insurance Program. They said it caused people, who would not otherwise, to locate their homes on the beach. They thought if they could end flood insurance for beach houses, people would be less inclined to build them. They ignored the fact that most beach houses were built long before flood insurance was even thought of. What affordable insurance did was provide an incentive for people to build their houses properly, so they weren’t knocked down by non-major storms. Since premiums on coastal structures are greater than claims, the program is self-sustaining on the coastline. And it saves the taxpayers huge amounts in disaster relief not spent, emergency loans, etc.

When, thanks to Senator D’Amato, our adversaries lost that battle in 1992, they turned their attention to the Corps of Engineers. This time they argued that when the Corps protects beaches it causes people, who presumably otherwise wouldn’t, to build beach houses. They reason if they can get Vice President Gore to stop Corps projects, beaches will erode and houses will be lost which, hopefully, people will not want to rebuild. Mr. Gore complied at first, but Congress is gradually reasserting its prerogatives in this area.

TIDE: What other important issues face Fire Island today? Also, what do you perceive as solutions?
 Without implying a ranking in order of importance, I would start with deer herd management. I think the changes inflicted on Fire Island’s natural resources by deer is greater than that inflicted by human activity. I realize, of course, that by feeding deer and letting them eat our garbage, man is directly responsible for the explosion in the herd size. But that doesn’t alter the fact that the deer have almost totally destroyed the ground cover, low shrubs and almost every other plant they have been able to reach. The Sunken Forest Preserve and a few other similar areas once had almost impenetrable undergrowth that sheltered a great variety of plant and animal life. In my view, it borders on the criminal that this aspect of the ecosystem has been wholly, possibly irretrievably, lost. The infestation of crows we now have can no doubt be traced to the loss of ground cover that once protected voles, field mice and other small animals from avian predators. The same crows prey on the piping plover eggs and chicks that the Fish & Wildlife Service is so concerned about.

We have the chance to find a practical humane solution to the deer problem with the Humane Society study now unfortunately winding down in the west end communities. I’m disappointed that the Seashore hasn’t been the main proponent of this. Instead, we hear about how a multi-year study will be needed to support an Environmental Assessment that will stand up in court. Meanwhile, FWS forces FINS to spend $100,000 a year in a so-far fruitless effort to attract piping plovers to nest here.

· Driving is another issue that must be dealt with. This it is the only developed barrier island in the United States without a formal road system is the single most unique thing about Fire Island. While it’s fine for people who never have to or want to drive here, it’s less fine for those who do. Between June 15 and September 15 the Seashore does a good job of keeping beach driving and intra-island driving to a minimum. But that means all the work that needs to be done must be done in the least desirable times of year to do it in. This is a real burden on those who live and work here year round.

Some feel it shouldn’t matter how much driving is done in the off season. Others take the “road less” character of the Seashore as a given and feel the only driving, ever, should be by police, utility and service vehicles. The Seashore intends to hold a series of meetings this summer and fall to address the question. For one thing, the Seashore says it spends entirely too much money enforcing the present regulations. It points to federal rules that say that any permitted activity should entail fees sufficient to reimburse the government for supervising the activity. This could mean driving permit fees of hundreds of dollars.

· A related question to beach driving, of course, is off season ferry service. Right now, many drive because there are no boats. The ferry companies say there are no boats because everybody drives. The seed of a solution to at least this aspect of the problem may be in that apparent dichotomy.

· Public toilets continue as an important issue. FIA’s position has been that if municipalities believe there is a need for toilets to serve the public, it is up to the municipalities to address how that should be done. Unfortunately, the toilet issue has long been linked with the issue of lifeguards in the public health law. It is unfair to say to people who want to tax themselves to pay for lifeguards, but not for toilets that they don’t need, must pay for the latter anyway if they want to have lifeguards. Eventually, someone in the state and county legislatures must find a way — and assert the courage — to resolve this issue.

· Safety and security, quality of life, zoning code enforcement, post-storm rebuilding regulations, hurricane evacuation procedures, fire safety, flood insurance, wind insurance, property insurance are other issues that FIA, as well as individual Fire Islanders deal with from time to time.

TIDE: How do property owners relate to the Fire Island National Seashore?? What are their responsibilities are their responsibilities and how well do they work with the superintendent?
 A good working relationship with the Seashore is very important to the property owners, if only because the Seashore has a role to play in so many of the issues just listed. In turn, how well it deals with these issues, working with the communities and the island and mainland municipalities, is a determinant of how successful FINS will be as a National Park. The role of the communities in creating FINS is well documented in the legislative history of the Park; it would not have become a National Seashore but for the far sightedness of a group of individuals who worked very hard to make it happen. Many recall the community of Bayberry Dunes (now Watch Hill) in construction when creation of FINS stopped the island’s development at that point. Imagine Fire Island with 10 or 15 more Bayberry Dunes — not a pretty prospect. Now it is the task of all of us to preserve the island as nearly as we can in the way it existed in 1964. Very few places – and almost no resort communities – have been able to stop the development clock as was done on Fire Island. The forces of commercial development are simply too great. But for the creation of FINS, those forces would long since have overwhelmed Fire Island.

But if the communities have benefited greatly – and they have – from controlled development, they have an obligation, in my opinion, to make FINS a successful national park. That means cooperating with the necessary resource protection regulations, of course, but it should go beyond that. There are many opportunities for individuals to be real contributors to the park in a wide variety of activities in a program known as Volunteers in Parks. There needs to be more of a feeling of uniqueness in Fire Island. Better recognition that it is part of the National Park System is a good place to start.

We have a new Superintendent and that always involves a period of adjustment on both sides. We think we’ll establish a good working relationship and a mutually productive one with Supt. Costa Dillon.

TIDE: There have been rumors that the west end communities are considering removing themselves from FINS. Please comment.
 There’s no movement I’m aware of that would remove the west end communities from the Park. If there were, I think stiff opposition could be expected, to put it mildly. The question may derive from the Park’s stated position on driving that I referred to earlier and the Park’s wish either to be paid for supervising that activity or to have someone else be responsible for it. Park boundaries, of course, were determined by Congress; only Congress can change them.

TIDE: There have been proposals to set up a conference/hotel/retreat facility at the ocean side of Ocean Bay Park. Please comment.
 At the 1998 LICA Conference, Suffolk Planning Director Stephen Jones discussed a meeting he had held some time ago about the possibility of the County acquiring commercial properties at the east end of Ocean bay Park. The idea would be to create a hotel-marina complex that could function, under concessionaires seven months of the year, as a county-owned conference center for corporate and academic retreats and as an up-scale restaurant/resort complex. It’s a great idea, in my opinion, one that could tie in with Bay Shore’s new aquarium which should implement boat tours for tourists to Sailors Haven and the Lighthouse. If Islip would permit bed and breakfasts to utilize some of the fine old houses on Maple Avenue, they will have created a tourism complex that would rival Cape Cod and the Jersey Shore, an easy train ride from New York City. Like most good ideas, of course, it won’t happen unless someone with vision makes it happen.

TIDE: Do you see the Interim Project happening next year? What are your views on why it is taking so long, and what is needed for it to really happen?
 I don’t see why construction on the interim project can’t begin in October 1999. The Environmental Impact Statement should be completed, including agency review, by the end of this year. Then it’s a question of ironing out any remaining differences with New York State and getting Congress to appropriate the money. It’s taken longer than it should have because some people just don’t want it to happen.

TIDE: What is needed for a stable coastal policy in New York State?
 New York needs to resolve the turf war between the Department of State and the DEC. It makes no sense to have regulatory enforcement and shore protection engineering in one department and give another department approval authority over coastal projects. No other state that I’m aware of splits these functions. It was only a question of time before DOS, flush with funds from the federal Coastal Zone Management Act and the state Environmental Bond Fund, would begin to offer engineering solutions that it prefers over those of the Corps of Engineers and DEC. DOS is doing just that at Shinnecock Inlet, apparently without benefit of any of the computer modeling so painstakingly developed by the Corps over many years.

Worse, both DEC and DOS are located in Albany, which might as well be on another planet so far as coastal policy issues are concerned. I’ve personally long been in favor of consolidating the coastal functions of both these agencies and making them a part of the DEC complex at Stony Brook.

Real progress is at last being made in resolving questions of federal involvement in shore protection. Everyone expects a major announcement in this area from the Administration’s meeting in early June at Monterrey. They’ve already agreed that at least $100-125 million a year should be spent on shore protection. They now recommend that the 65 percent federal share of the cost of these projects should be continued for the initial construction, but they hope to reverse the federal-non-federal cost share for project maintenance. There is room for states and localities to pick up a larger share of project maintenance (perhaps as much as 50 percent), once localities see the increased economic activity a revived beach and dune system can generate.

There has to be an adequate source of funds for a state’s ongoing shore protection program. New Jersey already has this; New York has no clue. One source for this, a la New Jersey, would be a transfer tax on the sale of coastal properties and coast-related businesses. Funds from this could finance Suffolk’s proposed Coastal Erosion Protection Authority so that it could do surveys and make recommendations for projects. Where projects are needed, local residents and businesses should pay an appropriate amount (as Fire Islanders are willing to do) through an erosion control taxing district.