People swim in restricted waters and county says it's fine

“Not a Bathing Beach” signs don’t seem to mean much to people who want to cool off on a hot weekend.

Plenty of people went into the water at Fresh Pond, Shell Beach and Menhaden Lane over the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

Even so, the Suffolk County Department of Health Services indicated its showdown with the town over those sites was over. On  Wednesday the department announced that the town had complied with state and county laws by removing “parking by permit only” signs, taking away the picnic table at Fresh Pond and erecting new signs that read “Not a Bathing Beach.”

Despite the county’s assertion,  “parking by permit only” signs remain in place at all three sites, according to Highway Superintendent Jay Card. It was unclear this week why the county seemed to believe they had been removed.

Mr. Card said the town had no intention of reverting to a policy allowing anyone to park at those beaches. That policy was changed decades ago, when town permits were first required, to quell neighborhood complaints about unruly off-Island visitors to the beaches.

In any case, the fact that people went swimming didn’t seem to have been an issue for the county.

“In our judgment, the town has … removed the areas from regulation under our public bathing beach program,” according a statement issued by spokeswoman Carol Downing.

In the statement, the county acknowledged that it “normally suggests signs that read “No Lifeguard on Duty — Swimming Prohibited” at beaches that lack required facilities. When the beach issue first broke in March, the county warned the town that it had been encouraging people to think of the three sites as public bathing beaches even though they are not under state law. A county spokesperson at the time insisted that the town had to post signs saying “No lifeguard — Swimming Prohibited” at the three beaches.

After the town instead put up its “Not a Bathing Beach” signs, the spokesperson wouldn’t say whether or not they satisfied the county’s requirements.

“I don’t know,” health department spokeswoman Grace McGovern said then. “Our inspectors go out and they’ll probably go out there,” she said.

But Ms. Downing on Wednesday confirmed the department had made no inspections on Shelter Island over the holiday weekend.

As for improving the sites so they could qualify as legal bathing beaches, Ms. McGovern said the town could file an application with the state and provide bathroom facilities and lifeguards. But Councilwoman Chris Lewis maintained there was no money in the budget and that the town had enough trouble finding qualified lifeguards to work at the two designated sites.

In March, Ms. McGovern said the county was only enforcing New York State Department of Environmental Conservation requirements that the signs had to read “Swimming Prohibited.”

There were swimmers at all three sites last weekend and no one was ticketed, nor did the town receive a summons. At Fresh Pond, someone inked out the “Not” on signs that read, “Not a Bathing Beach.”

Police Chief James Read in March told the Town Board he wouldn’t be ticketing swimmers and that there was nothing in the town code that bars swimming.

The local ruckus over swimming at the three sites started after the county received a complaint from Shelter Islander Vincent Novak about the lack of bathroom facilities at the Fresh Pond town landing, where people have gone swimming for generations.

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