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A small world after all: Part II of ‘Inside Dering Harbor’
That it costs more in taxes to live in Dering Harbor than the rest of Shelter Island is undisputed.
Also undisputed is that despite criticisms of some aspects of Village government, Mayor Tim Hogue, who has been in that post 21 years, gets praise for fiscal management. He’s seen as tight-fisted with tax money, a fact he takes as a compliment.
But expenditures in two areas — the cost of maintaining a Village Hall and litigation — raises critics’ blood pressure.
Some have suggested money could be saved by eliminating Village Hall, according to resident Kirk Ressler. Used for various board meetings, maintenance costs for a building open only a few days a month is an expense that should be cut, he added.
But the more critical issue for many is the cost of litigation.
Mr. Ressler has been tossed in a through-the-looking-glass legal experience: paying his own freight to fight the Village’s turn-down of a garage apartment expansion and, as a taxpayer, sharing in the Village’s costs to fight himself.
“It’s not something that should have been litigated,” said resident Rob Ferris, believing the Zoning Board of Appeals decision was wrong from the outset.
Not like the good old days
Mr. Ressler’s prolonged battle with the Village hasn’t soured him on local government. Many problems are the result of years where there was no need to deal with planning and zoning, he said. Most homeowners living in Dering Harbor made whatever changes they wanted to their properties before zoning codes were adopted in the 1970s.
When new homeowners started to arrive in the Village, it was the first time in at least 30 years the government had been faced with so many decisions, Mr. Ressler said. The process became increasingly complicated by so few residents serving on local boards, that less than a dozen people controlled the fates of their neighbors.
Only the ZBA, by law, is prohibited from having a Village trustee as a member. But Village Attorney Joseph Prokop provides legal advice to the ZBA and the Village Board.
ZBA chairman John Colby said while he has served on other boards, he hasn’t faced conflicts of interest because there aren’t a lot of applications that come before more than one board. He sees the boards’ roles as educational as well as decision-making.
“Serving on the boards is a community service,” he said.
Correcting Double vision
The mayor acknowledged the existence of dual roles for many in Dering Harbor, explaining that not a lot of Village residents, who are mostly part-timers, want to come out on weekends for meetings since they’re here for recreation. At the same time, Mr. Hogue has made appointments from new volunteers in the last year.
“Now, all of a sudden, there’s a bunch of new blood,” resident Robert Ferris said of recent volunteers to serve on various boards. He’s now on the Village’s Architectural Review Board and hopes his recent appointment and that of others will help to change what he sees as a government operating too often behind closed doors. Another popular appointment among villagers is that of architect Mickey Kostow to the Architectural Review Board.
What gave rise to this sudden burst of volunteerism among Dering Harbor residents?
Some of it likely resulted from more information being shared by resident James Goldman on his website, deringharborcommunity.org.
Between the website and a newsletter, a lot more information is available to residents. The site was initiated because Mr. Goldman saw a lack of transparency in Village affairs. It was increasingly difficult to get information from a government that doesn’t maintain a website, he said. Nor is its municipal code available online
Another force came in 2012 when two residents stepped forward to challenge Village Board incumbents Mary Walker and Linda Adams.
It was the first contested election in seven years.
Patrick Parcells and Ari Benacerraf lost their bids to unseat the two incumbents. “We didn’t run because we were just angry,” Mr. Parcells said, but they threw their hats in the ring because “Village trustees were incredibly secretive.”
The two candidates can clam a Pyrrhic victory, however. Mr. Hogue has taken important steps to provide greater transparency of Village government, beginning to provide advance copies of Village Board agendas and encouraging residents’ participation in Village government. He also has been selecting new members of various boards from among about a dozen people who expressed interest in serving.
Given the size of the Village, there’s no reason for a lack of communication among residents, Mr. Parcells said. Speaking of board members, he said “they do what they can to exclude” people from knowing what’s happening. “They are all joined at the hip.”
Another bone of contention is the Architectural Review Board. The ARB’s mandate is “very, very vague,” Mr. Parcells said. If you want approval of a project, “it’s largely dependant on who you are,” he said. The only way to prevail is through legal action and many Village residents are “scared to death” to buck the establishment, he said.
People sometimes “feel put upon” when they’re told they have to submit applications to the ZBA or ARB before making changes to their properties, Mr. Hogue said. He denied Mr. Parcells’ claim that so few make all the decisions in the Village and also denied an accusation that has come from a few that Trustee Mary Walker has obstructed many projects.
“She’s not of the ARB or ZBA so I don’t see that,” the mayor said. Others have said that while Mr. Walker objects to a lot of plans, she doesn’t often prevail. Ms. Walker referred questions to the mayor saying she preferred he answer for the Village Board.
The ARB has a legitimate role, Mr. Parcells said. But it should function to help applicants and that’s not happening.
Perhaps surprisingly, because of his own legal battles with the Village, Mr. Ressler said, “I don’t think anybody has been prohibited from doing what they want to do.”
Part III will answer why so many residents, who spend most of their year elsewhere, choose to vote in Dering Harbor. And why some residents believe certain Village resolutions aren’t legitimate.