11/08/12 6:00am

COURTESY PHOTO | A car parked in a sand-filled street in Long Beach.

Only 80 or 90 miles from Shelter Island, there have been thousands of people struggling with Third World conditions: no homes, no heat, no power, food from relief handouts and only the clothes they wore or carried out when the tidal surge hit last Monday, October 29.

It was quite another story here on the Island: a few days without power, some downed trees, one sailboat aground, some docks chewed up in West Neck and elsewhere, the road to Shell Beach broken up again, the Ram Island Causeway needing some work and some shoreline erosion in exposed areas. The waterfront properties on the bay just above Reel Point, for example, took a serious beating.

But compared to places like the Rockaways, Long Beach and Island Park in Queens and shorefront communities in New Jersey, Shelter Island got lucky. We had a close call. Sandy was a devastating superstorm for waterfront communities closer to its center — not so much because of its Category I hurricane-force winds but because the vast system that spanned 900 miles pushed up a monumental storm surge that happened to hit at the full-moon high tide.

There are Shelter Islanders with some family connections to those devastated New York metro area communities to the west and south. The Rando family of Sweet Tomato’s fame have a still-intact home in Long Beach and a business, now gutted, in Island Park. Ms. Rando’s and her son Jimi’s accounts of the destruction and disrupted lives they’ve witnessed really hit home in a way the TV news and even newspaper coverage, except for Newsday, have missed.

With the help of shop owner Marie Eiffel and the manager of Sunset Beach, Steven Jauffrineau, Jimi Rando has been running donated clothes and supplies into Island Park. According to his mother Mary, the gifts of clothing — including Ms. Eiffel’s own high-end inventory from her Shelter Island and Sag Harbor shops — have helped many. What they need most now are cleaning supplies such as paper towels and spray cleansers.

Donations at last report were still being accepted at Ms. Eiffel’s shop and on the porch of Ms. Rando’s house at 19 St. Mary’s Road.

Other Islanders have helped, too. Police Officer Tom Cronin, who did so much to pull off the recent Honor Flight mission to take Island veterans to Washington, drove a trailer of donated supplies collected by his wife Susan here, and by others in East Hampton and in Riverhead, to the affected area with the help of Police Officer Terrance LeGrady.

North Ferry Captains Don Young and Nick Gross have run their own collection efforts. Nurse Mary Kanarvogel at the school is helping to coordinate a collection effort there through the PTSA.

This tragedy hit very close to home. If the center of Sandy had not made that hard left turn on Monday about 150 miles south of us, we’d be living different, very disrupted lives. That’s not why Islanders are helping others in a time of crisis. That’s just what they do.

10/25/12 6:57am

There was not enough space here last week to elaborate on the remarkable commitment Suffolk County has made — despite a drumbeat of opposition from western Suffolk legislators — to the preservation of two parcels totalling about 83 acres at Sylvester Manor. Shelter Island’s longtime preservation champion, Supervisor Jim Dougherty, made the point himself in a recent talk to the Shelter Island Association that the county’s dire economic condition might have spoiled both development-rights deals. But thanks to diligent professionals on the county staff and the leadership of the county executive’s office, the county is paying the lion’s share of the bill — $4.4 out of $7.2 million.

The supervisor himself and the entire Town Board deserve high praise for their efforts. They had the wind at their backs, though, with widespread public support; the county, working in a hostile environment, persevered through blustery headwinds to do the right thing.

07/03/12 9:00pm

It’s good news that Suffolk County National Bank is exploring the idea of selling the 4-acre commercial remnant of the old Shelter Island Nursery as a residential parcel that might yield two building lots. The bank may, or may not, tear down the commercial buildings on the site and subdivide the property itself, depending on sales and marketing considerations, no doubt. But either way, it’s certain no one expects the bank to try to sell the parcel as commercial.

Two more houses along St. Mary’s Road will conform to the neighborhood’s residential zoning and probably would have far less impact than a commercial nursery would, even if it’s nothing more than an eyesore.

Aesthetic impacts have their effects, including the very significant effect of reducing adjacent property values. As for a successful nursery in full operation, it would probably use a lot of water, draw a lot of traffic and also reduce adjacent property values.

The Town Board zoned the area residential for a reason: Shelter Island’s core economy is the second-home real estate and service industry. The “highest and best use” of most properties here is as residential house lots because there’s a big demand for them. Development along St. Mary’s Road had been mostly residential before the town made it official in the zoning code. The area’s residential classification simply reflected reality, not just good planning.

While the law allows pre-existing, non-conforming businesses to operate in residential zones, it also provides for their legal status to change after one year of “discontinuance.” No one doubts that the Shelter Island Nursery hasn’t been operated for years now. Under the law, it simply can’t be reopened.

The zoning code does not specify who makes the decision that a pre-existing, non-conforming use has been discontinued or when they must do it. Should the building inspector track every non-conforming use on the Island, note any that have closed, watch the calendar and come by after a year to post a sign announcing that the property has not reverted to residential? Even in a small town like Shelter Island, that’s an impractical procedure fraught with legal perils. How can the building inspector keep track of all the details for multiple properties so he knows for sure exactly when a business closed? Or whether or not the owner conducted business for one weekend in August?

Nevertheless, there should come a time when someone in local authority can make it clear to all that a pre-existing, non-conforming use is no more. In the case of the Shelter Island Nursery, it’s troubling that it all seems up to the bank to decide how to market it and what its future use might be.

What if the bank suddenly found some bright-eyed optimist buyer who wanted to run a nursery? Neighbors would have a very good case in court challenging any future commercial use. But just as it shouldn’t be up to property owners to decide what their zoning is, it shouldn’t be up to the neighbors alone to enforce the law.

04/18/12 9:00pm

Councilman Paul Shepherd’s got a point when he says the town’s policy on employee health contributions rewards the strong and punishes the weak.

Aside from the brouhaha over the three unofficial beaches the county wants the town to post with “swimming prohibited” signs, Mr. Shepherd’s crusade is the talk of the town. But his drumbeat over the issue begins to sound like noise if he means to say that once anyone is required to contribute a certain percentage everyone should be required to do the same.

Town police pay nothing for their health care. East End towns and villages for years have not been able to play hardball very effectively with their local police unions because Suffolk and Nassau Counties have made their police departments among the highest paid in the country. That sets a high bar for all departments in the region.

That having been said, the Shelter Island PBA did right by the town and its taxpayers in its last two contracts: minimal annual raises of 3 percent in 2009, 2010 and 2011 under terms that were settled last year through binding arbitration; and 2-percent pay raises in 2012, 2013 and 2014, under a deal that was made through straightforward and productive negotiations. Supervisor Jim Dougherty deserves congratulations and the PBA deserves thanks for that eminently reasonable agreement.

But health care contributions are the “Alamo” for police unions across the region, Supervisor Dougherty has said. As health care costs skyrocket out of control, and municipalities continue to face strict limits on their revenues, that battle will have to be fought — and we all know how it worked out for the Texans who manned the Alamo in 1836.

It’s not just the police who don’t pay any part of their health insurance premiums. Neither do most town employees because that was the deal when they were hired. Highway workers who came on before 2005 don’t pay anything; those hired later but before 2011 pay 15 percent; and those hired this year or later must pay 20 percent. For CSEA workers, those hired before 2007 pay nothing; those hired later but before 2012 pay 20 percent. The requirement for those hired in 2012 and later is in negotiation.

For non-union employees, those hired before September 1, 2004 pay nothing; those hired between that date and February 28, 2009 pay 15 percent. Those hired March 1, 2009 or later pay 25 percent.

Would Mr. Shepherd have the town renege on its agreements in order to impose across-the-board “fairness”? That’s not fair — and more to the point the town can’t do it without facing the consequences in court. Having a point and dealing with reality are, alas, not always the same thing.

03/14/12 6:48pm

According to County Executive Steve Bellone, who has been on the job for just two months, Suffolk County is facing a staggering three-year budget deficit of $530 million. In Washington that’s chump change, but here it’s huge — close to 20 percent of the $2.7 billion the county spends in a single year.

Who’s to blame? Everyone, it seems.

The head of a budget review panel appointed by Mr. Bellone shortly after he took office in January identified the U.S. economy as “the biggest villain” but added that Suffolk had overestimated sales tax revenues. That’s critical, given that the lion’s share of the county’s operating funds is generated by sales taxes. Over and over again we’ve heard how the county has held the line on property taxes.

But what isn’t said is that county property taxes on the East End are a small fraction of the average home owner’s property tax bill — in many cases they pay the county less than half of what they pay for local fire protection.

Most home and business owners keep a sharp eye on their property taxes but who pays attention to sales taxes? It’s an all-but-invisible revenue stream providing county officials nearly failsafe protection from the fallout they’d face hitting their constituents for billions in property taxes.

If there were better accounting for that revenue stream, as local governments and schools must provide for theirs, it wouldn’t be so easy for the county to run up a half-billion dollar deficit.

In political circles, good news has many parents but bad news is an orphan. And so it was last week with all the finger-pointing involving both the current and former county executives and the county Legislature. Since he’s been in office so briefly, Mr. Bellone gets a pass on this one. That leaves former executive Steve Levy and the county legislators. Are we to believe that none among them saw the fiscal calamity coming? Mr. Levy argues that lawmakers declined to make cuts he had proposed and instead added to his spending plans, which is true. But did the Legislature alone add a half-billion dollars in spending above revenues? No — it appears to be a joint failure.

So what’s to be done? It’s simple to state but difficult to put into effect. The county must either cut spending, increase revenues or implement a combination of the two. There’s no other choice. Layoffs may be necessary and while that’s certainly a painful option, perhaps it will help shut down the political patronage mill that is Suffolk County government.

Real, honest leadership is what this situation demands, but we’re not holding our breath.

And whatever happens, Suffolk must not back out of its agreements to help preserve 80 acres at Sylvester Manor. It would be a tragedy for the town, the East End and the country if the manor’s educational foundation floundered financially and that gem at the Island’s heart were lost to development.