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Island profiles: Town attorney makes juggling hats an art
Anyone who has attended more than a few town meetings is likely aware of the many roles Laury Dowd, 60, plays on Shelter Island. Not only is she the one and only town attorney, a post she has held for 10 years, but she also advises the Zoning Board of Appeals, spearheads the town’s MS4 stormwater runoff compliance program and is working on bringing the town’s Solid Waste Management Report up to date.
As is often the case in a small town, the potential for conflicts of interest is ever-present. “Certainly that potential exists,” she said. “So far, it has not” been an issue “because there hasn’t been anything pressing,” she said.
If she found herself in a situation where there were a disagreement between the Town Board and ZBA, for example, she would recuse herself from the ZBA’s service and have it hire special counsel, she said.
Why isn’t she functioning as Planning Board attorney instead of the town hiring Anthony Pasca, a partner at Esseks Hefter & Angel LLP in Riverhead?
“I’ll give you the old Shelter Island answer,” she said in a wide-ranging interview last Thursday: “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”
Asked to what extent politics affects her job, she replied, “Politics is an essential part of the job. Everything I do is directed by politicians.” But that doesn’t mean it colors the information she provides, she said. She sees her role as giving specific legal advice.
In March, she told the ZBA to open a new public hearing on whether or not to allow Chequit Inn owner James Eklund to demolish the “Summer Cottage” behind the main inn that dates back to 1890 and replace it with a replica. That wasn’t part of the original plan that had been publicly advertised and aired, she argued, so a new hearing was necessary. ZBA members, feeling there was no need to re-hear the case, told Mr. Eklund he could go ahead.
“I shrug it off,” Ms. Dowd said of rejected advice. What does bother her is people making public comments she knows to be incorrect. Then she has an internal debate: “Do I correct or do I just listen?” she said.
She doesn’t want to appear to be arguing with people and tries to be open to hearing other points of view, she said. But when information is inaccurate, she admitted, it’s difficult to hold her tongue.
“Sometimes the dithering, I go crazy over,” she said, referring to prolonged circuitous discussions. “I’m not a very patient person,” she said.
Tackling so many diverse subjects is the best part of the job, Ms. Dowd said. She loves the fact that no two days are the same and that she’s always learning.
She readily acknowledged that she doesn’t know a lot about the technical aspect of the stormwater runoff projects but her role is to approach the administrative side of managing them, she said. She documents the town’s work in case of a state audit so she can show compliance with state and federal requirements to protect waterways from pollutants.
Ms. Dowd said she wanted the town to take an active role in demonstrating ways to deal with stormwater runoff by removing blacktop and repaving its own parking lot with a porous material that would absorb rainwater. There are Green Innovations grants through the New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation that could cover much or all of the cost of such a project, she said. By demonstrating both the attractiveness and effectiveness of a porous surface in the Town Hall parking lot, the town would encourage residents to consider using similar materials for their own driveways, she said.
Before she moved here full-time, the woman with the many town hats had been coming to the East End from Huntington, where she grew up, since childhood. She spent summers on Goose Creek in Southold.
“Shelter Island was always a place of fun,” she said about her attraction to this town. Her father was a builder responsible for many of the Victorian houses constructed here in the 1970s.
While the Island is a special place for her, a piece of her heart belongs to California, where she went to school at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law. She practiced municipal law in Sacramento, Modesto and Calaveras County, returning to help care for her father when he developed prostate cancer in the mid 1990s. She was initially Southold Town attorney from 1994 to 1998 and assumed the Shelter Island job when it opened because that’s where her dad was living.
Because of the warmer climate in California, she expects to spend her retirement years there, opting for a university community to keep her mind stimulated and a good medical community to treat whatever future physical maladies she might face with age, she said. Early in life she developed arthritis, affecting her knees, feet and ankles. She can’t imagine spending winters in the Northeast later in life, she said.
Meanwhile, she is very active outside of her demanding job, training service dogs for Canine Companions for Independence; serving as secretary and a past president of the Lions Club; getting her hands in the dirt at the Community Supported Agriculture program at Sylvester Manor; and exercising to stay limber.