How Fire Island was Saved from being Paved Over

Many readers will be aware of some of the story about how Fire Island was saved from the paving of a highway, atop a sand-dike that had been first proposed by Robert Moses back in 1924, when he first became head of the Long Island State Park Commission. With each major storm after that, Bob Moses came back time and again with his same idea. But here, this reporter will try to set down a bit more on how the people of Fire Island, and just across the Great South Bay pulled off a little miracle.

It took mammoth storms in winters of 1954-55, and March 1962 — with huge destruction of many homes — to trigger action among thousands of people all along Long Island’s south shore.

Right after the 1954-55 storm, Gil Serber formed the Fire Island Erosion Control Committee (FIECC), which became a very active group participating in lobbying for a federally supported beach erosion and hurricane protection project from Montauk Point to Fire Island Inlet. Congress approved this project for the Army Corps of Engineers which included major beach nourishment in 1960. Some modest funds were appropriated, and then abruptly cut off soon thereafter, and we’re still “reformulating” plans today, after four decades of worsening erosion – much of it due to sand blockages to the east.
In that same 1960 year, in December, Islip proposed building a paved “service road” on the island’s west end, and the FIECC stood with nearly 1,000 hardy souls at a public hearing in Ocean Beach and showed their disdain for paved roads. Moses was surely not pleased, but he knew more storms were to come. Serber and other friends then set up a new not-for-profit organization in 1961 called the Fire Island Voters Association (FIVA) with Arthur Silsdorf as President. (FIVA later became the Fire Island Association.)

Just a few months later, in March 1962 we saw a monster nor’easter sit off Fire Island for five high lunar tides. It ripped out more than 40 homes on Fire Island. Moses was right on cue, but with a new wrinkle – pave an even larger four-lane highway right down over the Corps proposed dune and beach-building plan. Governor Rockefeller named Joseph Carlino, Speaker of the Assembly, as Chair of a “Temporary State Commission on Protection and Preservation of the Atlantic Shore Front,” but with Robert Moses as Secretary.

A public hearing was set for July 10 at Jones Beach. The FIVA set out to raise $20,000, and get massive batches of letters written, and generally organize the many hundreds of volunteers to oppose the proposed highway.

In March 1962, at the time of that storm, this reporter, with a home in eastern Davis Park, was as shocked as thousands of others at the idea of a Fire Island highway, with its huge right-of-way proposed, that would essentially wipe out many of the small communities on this barrier island, which often was less than 500 feet wide. But, oddly enough, I had a personal friend – George Biderman, Saltaire – who happened to be my fellow jazz-loving neighbor back in Manhattan. But he was also a staunch assistant to Arthur Silsdorf of FIVA. I called George and offered to raise money, make signs, and be a general rouser of righteousness, as my house was in the path of a ribbon of concrete. We were soon having meetings in Babylon, virtually across the street from Robert Moses.
By mid May, I was sitting in the restaurant of the Houser Hotel in Ocean Beach with Arthur Silsdorf, George Biderman, and Charles Collingwood (also Saltaire), CBS correspondent associate of Edward R. Murrow. We were getting an update. Silsdorf and Biderman were reporting on emergency funds becoming available for some limited summer dredging. They also were enthusiastic about all the new organizations, including conservationist groups, garden clubs and many civic groups joining in the struggle. They expected a good turnout in July. Collingwood reported that he believed he had some good points to make at the July meeting. Then Biderman reported that US Secretary of Interior, Stuart Udall, was coming out to support the Corps plan, but he was rejecting the Moses highway – calling it the “Hell and High-water oceanway plan.” (As the Fire Island News was to report on June 23, 1962.)

Then, Biderman told us of the progress that had been made on getting two bills moving in Congress to establish a National Seashore along the lines of the one recently established in Cape Cod. Senators Javits and Keating were sponsoring the Senate bill, while John Lindsay was sponsoring one in the House. He also reported that yet a second House bill was probably to be introduced by Congressman Otis Pike, a Democrat from Suffolk. (This was actually done in June 1963, and voted into the law to become the Seashore Act in 1964.)

The stage is set for July 10 at Jones Beach.

The meeting was to be in the modest sized marine dining room at Jones Beach. As many as 1,500 people were on hand to listen and speak. More than half could not gain entrance to the meeting room, and listened on loudspeakers outside.

The “Temporary Commission” had unanimously approved the Moses plan at a meeting on June 6th. Joseph Carlino started this four-hour meeting, and called on a long list of speakers. Road opponents had 90 minutes. Arthur Silsdorf of the Fire Island Voters Association talked about the virtues of turning all major undeveloped areas to a national seashore. This followed with FIVA-designated spokesmen Gil Serber, and George Biderman.

And then, Charles Collingwood, a well known TV personality came forth with his prepared speech. According to the New York Herald Tribune, Collingwood sprinkled his speech with quotes from “Alice in Wonderland” about the walrus and the carpenter weeping over sand. Then, as reported in The New York Times, Collingwood stated the following, which was referring to a 1938 letter from news correspondent Elmer Davis regarding Hitler’s taking over of the Sudetenland: “Mr. Moses wanted to save Fire Island ten years ago (1929), but luckily hard times came along and he didn’t have enough money to do it. Luckily, because he would save Fire Island the way Hitler is saving the Sudetenland – to the distress of many of its inhabitants.” Standing ovation.
This caused Moses to walk out of the meeting, and registered in headlines the following day. Even so, Moses was confidant that the Temporary Commission’s position would stand in September when the state legislature got back in operation. In fact, in August, the Suffolk County Board of Supervisors voted for it, and things seemed bleak.

There was one more hurdle to go. It yielded a surprise.

The FIVA now had the Moses plan in enough detail to analyze it. Very quickly it was discerned that most of the land to be traversed by the highway was to be placed into private development, not into parks for the public. Some of the areas to be developed were to be made available to those with homes eliminated by the road, but the major portion was to be opened for new development.

The idea developed then was to prepare a detailed report of this analysis, and then present it to Governor Nelson’s brother, Laurence Rockefeller, widely perceived as a conservationist. He was heavily involved with New York State parks.

It was not long thereafter that Governor Rockefeller asked Moses to resign from the New York State Council of Parks.

From that point on, the lobbying efforts of the Fire Island Association (evolved from FIVA), and many other affiliated groups such as the Citizens Committee for a National Seashore, based on the mainland, were much more effective. Interior Secretary Udall then added to his support of the Corps beach nourishment plan, and gave his full support to a new National Seashore.

Congressman Otis Pike of Suffolk introduced his version of a Seashore bill in June 1963. It was strongly supported by Secretary Udall, and that’s the bill to get enacted and signed into law in September 1964. This unique Act, unlike that of any other US National Seashore, embeds 17 communities – uniquely — right within the park.

Recent Interior Secretaries have not also supported the 1960 Corps plans for beach nourishment. Now, with Corps planners expected to offer us later this year a new sand restoration program, best suited for Fire Island and Long Island protection, this may change. For one thing, there is a new Interior Secretary in office now – his name is Dirk Kempthorne.

Hope has been springing eternal for residents around the Great South Bay since the Army Corps announced their intentions in1960. The Fire Island Association is alert, and may have another think-session at the Houser Hotel.

Copyright 2006 Robert H. Spencer
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