02/29/12 6:57pm

Two Shelter Island town councilmen, Ed Brown and Paul Shepherd, have said “no” to supporting legislation pending again in Albany this year that would create a Peconic Bay Regional Transportation Authority (PBRTA). A three-person majority of the Town Board has backed the proposal, which comes up for local approval every year and — so far — has never made it out of committee and onto the floors of the state Senate or Assembly even though it has been formally supported by all five East End towns including Shelter Island.

The opponents’ thinking is that this town doesn’t need a mass transit system. In fact, it might hurt the Island to let bus loads of workers come here from either fork and take away jobs from local people, as Mr. Brown has suggested. Also, it might cost money. Over the years, as the five East End towns funded a feasibility study, Shelter Island has had to chip in several thousand dollars.

Mr. Brown and Mr. Shepherd don’t want the town to sink any more money into a proposal they don’t think the town needs — a proposal that might hurt Shelter Island.

Local interests must be protected. But there’s a strong argument that local interests, especially in the decades to come, will be well served by a fully functional regional alternative to the automobile.

Traffic congestion — eased a few years ago by the widening of County Road 39 in Shinnecock Hills — will only get worse as the regional population continues to grow. The East End will remain a destination for second-home owners and visitors and, even as gas prices soar, it may become ever more attractive as a vacation spot because it is so close to New York.

If the region is strangled by a built-out, highly constrained east-west highway system and nearly useless train service, Shelter Island will be struggling for breath too. Like the rest of the East End, Shelter Island’s economy is dependent on the second-home industry. It may, in fact, be even more dependent than the bigger East End towns because the Island’s full-time, year-round population and business base are so small.

Saying “yes” right now to the PBRTA concept requires no commitments. It will be a long time before a mass transportation system can be fully planned, much less implemented on the East End. When the time does come, any reasonable contribution the town might be called upon to make during the planning process would be money well spent.

A majority of Town Board members — Democrat Jim Dougherty and Republicans Christine Lewis and Peter Reich — seem to agree that local interests will be served in the years ahead if there’s a good regional alternative in place to the private automobile.

02/22/12 10:24pm

The Town Board is running a new proposal up the flagpole for tweaking the zoning code’s rules governing pre-existing, non-conforming uses — those businesses operating in residential neighborhoods legally because they date back to the days before zoning. The Chequit, Ram’s Head and La Maison Blanche inns are among the most obvious examples. Another example that is on a lot of people’s minds is the Shelter Island Nursery, which is in foreclosure and appears to be inactive. Smaller non-conforming businesses are scattered in residential areas all over the Island.

The last time the town tried to tweak the code to make it clearer — something the Zoning Board of Appeals asked it to do — Jack Kiffer of the Dory and Sean McLean, then-president of the Chamber of Commerce and an owner of the Shelter Island Nursery, led a wave of protests. They said the board was trying to kill the Island’s special character and ruin its small businesses.

The Town Board, which was merely trying to clarify some muddy rules for determining when a non-conforming business could expand, by how much, and when such a use should be considered abandoned, backed down.

The new proposal, developed by a committee of stakeholders led by Councilwoman Chris Lewis, does a good job of making it absolutely clear that a non-conforming business may not be expanded into structures and onto properties that lie beyond its own original lot lines. It also does a good job making it clear when a non-conforming business should be considered abandoned: after one year of “substantial discontinuance.”

The problem is a provision that would allow owners of those abandoned businesses to file a notice with the Building Department that they intend to revive their operations within two years. They could do that five times, stretching the twilight of a dying business to a whole decade.

That’s way too long.

There’s a good reason for having code language that makes it absolutely clear when a non-conforming use has been abandoned. When a business in a residential area fails, and can’t be revived, it should lose its status as a legal non-conforming use. The zoning classification of its site should become one and the same with all the properties around it. That’s a basic rule of zoning everywhere.

Allowing a virtually defunct business to linger on, perhaps as an eyesore and hazard, for 10 years is precisely what the zoning code should prohibit. In seeking a compromise on this point, the Town Board’s committee has bent over so far backwards it has turned things upside down, clearing a way to put a non-conforming use that has been dead for years on life support. One two-year extension, for a total of four years in limbo, seems reasonable.

02/15/12 6:46pm

It’s the dead of winter, only a little more than halfway through the long wait until a T-shirt and a pair of shorts are all you need to throw on to head out of the house.

It’s been an easy winter so far: kind of mild, most of the time, and aside from a couple of dustings, there’s been only one snowfall that required any plowing or shoveling and it all melted in a day.

No matter what the weather, the leafless landscape and the long nights can get hard to take. Very soon, though, the red maple buds will be swelling and already the late afternoons are sparkling with sunlight. Dusk at 4 p.m. is just a memory again and the miracle of longer days is upon us. Do those shorts still fit? Get on that diet fast if they don’t.

02/08/12 4:21pm

Cablevision is good at annoying people. It’s doing it lately with its clumsy, contradictory signals about its ongoing and oft-delayed conversion to all-digital transmissions.

Grumbling about the company, no matter what it does, is only natural. People will always resent paying a goodly sum every month for their cable service if anything at all about it isn’t total perfection.

Speaking of that “total perfection,” has anybody noticed that Cablevision’s audio is out of sync with the video these days? The words come out a little ahead of the right mouth movements. This annoying phenomenon appeared in one household we know of nearby after the occupants replaced their old cable box with a new one because the old box kept lowering the volume all by itself.

The same people went to the cable store in Southampton also because they had heard the news that everybody, no matter what kind of new digital TV they had, needed a cable box for every TV in the house. Their new little HDTV in the kitchen lacked one; it had been showing programming directly from a cable connection.

As Cablevision’s Joan Gilroy told the Town Board in September, news stories (including the Reporter’s, based on Cablevision’s own PR) were incorrect in telling people that every digital TV in the house needed a box to continue to display programming after Cablevision went all digital. In fact, only people with older digital TVs without “QAM” tuners would need a digital box — to receive basic programming, that is. The company scrambles any service more pricey than that so you’ll need a box to unscramble it, no matter what kind of TV you have.

Now we learn the company still has not made the analog-to-all-digital switch here, despite all the warnings. And it’s back to telling the first version of that story: its PR person repeated the old refrain that everyone will need a box after February 14.

According to Ms. Gilroy, there are about 2,400 Cablevision subscribers on Shelter Island and only 52 or so did not have a cable box in their homes in September. The real hassle and potential expense will hit all those customers who have extra TVs that don’t have boxes. Will they need boxes or not? If they might not, how do they find out for sure? And once they acquire more boxes, when will their monthly rental fee kick in?

Cablevision’s inept PR has muddied the answers. Yes, the subject is technical and a little complicated but the company’s bumbling warnings and explanations haven’t cleared the picture.

02/01/12 5:24pm

Sylvester Manor’s preservation is so important to Shelter Island’s future that any hint of a bump in the road is news.

It was just a little disturbing to learn from Supervisor Jim Dougherty last week that Sylvester relatives in Pennsylvania had complicated a title search that is necessary to close two pending deals to preserve about 80 acres in two parcels at the manor. The deals will raise over $7 million to create an endowment for the non-profit Sylvester Manor Educational Farm.

It was a little more disturbing that some county legislators are grumbling a bit louder these days about the cost of land preservation.

The first issue, as troubling as it might seem, doesn’t amount to much. No one has ever formally challenged manor heir Eben Ostby’s title to the property. Some vague issues have been raised over the course of the years by distant relatives; that’s nothing new. The grumblers have never articulated any kind of coherent argument, much less a legal challenge. Those involved with the manor preservation effort aren’t concerned that these musings from afar will cause any roadblocks.

More worrisome were the closer-to-home musings of a few county legislators when they recently questioned spending millions to preserve open space in the current economic climate. Their public hand-wringing has proven just as academic as those family rumblings: all but one legislator voted to approve both manor deals recently.

That was a relief. But soon after that vote to preserve the manor in cooperation with the Town of Shelter Island, they rejected an open space deal in Riverhead.

As Supervisor Jim Dougherty commented at a Town Board work session, there’s no better time to save open space than during an economic downturn, when real estate prices are slumping or stagnant. There’s never a better time to make an investment in a future free of sprawl and all the soaring municipal costs that go with it.

The preservation issue is critical on Shelter Island, where a tract of new houses in the manor would have an immense impact on the aquifer, traffic, the quality of life and the demand for public services.

Sylvester Manor is a remnant of its former colonial-era self, when it included all of the Island, but it still covers 243 acres in the heart of the community. Imagine what it would mean for this preservation effort to fail.

Made possible first and foremost through the generosity and remarkable vision of Mr. Ostby, the safeguarding of this historic property requires more than just his goodwill. It needs an unwavering commitment from town and county officials — and the public. The town is totally committed; the county officially on board, despite the grumblings; and Islanders — who by mid-December had helped push annual donations to nearly $250,000 to match Mr. Ostby’s $1 million (over four years) challenge grant — are beginning to realize they have a treasure to protect.

Islanders should not take it for granted. Donations are always needed. Check out the manor website at sylvestermanor.wordpress.com.