With East End municipalities and Suffolk County awakening to a crisis in water quality threatening the future health of the natural world that surrounds the region, there was some good news presented to the Town Board work session Tuesday.
Soren Dahl, an official with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, told the board that Shelter Island, along with only one other location in the Northeast, had thriving meadows of underwater seagrass in its coastal waters.
Seagrass — also called eelgrass — is a long plant that provides a habitat for flounders, bay scallops and clams. Ten years ago, species relying on seagrass contributed $1.9 billion in sales of seafood and $1 billion in earned income, according to a Nature Conservancy report.
But today, almost 65 percent of the seagrass meadows are gone, beginning their long and perilous decline since the mid-1970s, according to the report.
The New York State Seagrass Protection Act of 2012 calls for the development of seagrass areas and to work with local governments, businesses, fishermen, environmental groups and individuals to come up with plans to stop the erosion of the natural resource.
“There’s not a lot left,” Mr. Dahl said, adding that he’s been assigned by the DEC Bureau of Marine Resources to meet officials on a local level to develop plans.
Seagrass meadows left around the Island, are found in Coecles Harbor, Dering Harbor and off Ram Island and Hay Beach.
What’s significant about the meadows around Shelter Island, Mr. Dahl said, is that most seagrass that flourished in harbors and bays just a few years ago are gone, while meadows still thrive in open water.
Cornell Cooperative Extension has launched projects to plant new seagrass on the East End, but Mr. Dahl said, “it’s much more cost effective to preserve than restore” the meadows that are flourishing.
The work to be initiated with the Sheer Island community won’t be “a long term process,” Mr. Dahl said. “The goal is to recognize a resource and have a [preservation] plan to move forward and help guide decisions. “
He would do the lion’s share of work, writing the management plan “to refer to instead of dealing with issues on a case-by-case basis.”
He would also assist the town in securing grants for restoration programs.
Councilman Ed Brown called again, as he has in the past, for more consolidation of government agencies to make progress in solving water quality issues.
“We see a lot of presentations,” Mr. Brown said. “We see a lot of different agencies. There are so many different entities out there trying to solve the same problems of water quality, shellfish and the Peconic Bay. And nothing gets done.”
There should be “a central office to go through for these issues,” he added. “We were talking about seagrass 15 years ago.”
“I absolutely agree with you,” Mr. Dahl said, and related a recent incident of two meetings on the same subject on the same day, without participants knowing about it. He spoke sarcastically about “the lightening speed of the state bureaucracy,” but insisted that a seagrass management initiative will be efficient and produce real results.
Councilwoman Chris Lewis praised the initiative and, responding to Mr. Brown, noted that “the man was right [who said] a committee to design a horse got a camel. That’s what happens when something gets too big.”
Mr. Brown said his idea was just the opposite, to create one committee instead of multiple agencies working at times at cross purposes.
Mr. Dahl was due to meet with officials of the Waterways Management Council and the Water Advisory Committee to start the process of getting information.
In other business: At one point there were four people — at times all speaking at once — crowded in front the Town Board members’ table passing around what seemed like a blizzard of papers and architectural plans.
The Vella application was back in session.
The discussion is now years in duration on Zach Vella’s ambitious expansion of Herrmann’s Castle, the idiosyncratic white structure rising above Crescent Beach on Shore Road. The meetings on the subject have included wetlands applications and construction details.
Tuesday the meeting was to determine if the plans were complete. There was discussion on height requirements, trying to determine if technically the structure has a pitched or flat roof.
“Boy am I going to miss this,” said Mr. Brown, how is retiring at the end of the year.
The next time Mr. Vella’s application will be heard will be sometime in January.
The board returned to discussion of plans for the Silver Beach Lagoon. The idea is to make the lagoon more accessible to boats and solve problems with empty slips, old gear in the water, illegal subletting [of town-registered moorings] and boats bumping into each other. The cost of the project is estimated at about $25,000, which would come out of the Waterways Fund to complete the dredging and install pilings.
Ken Pysher, acting chairman of the Water Advisory Committee and a member of the Silver Beach Association, asked for further discussions, noting that some people he’s spoken with have termed the plan “too complicated. Answering a question from Councilman Paul Shepherd, Mr. Pysher said “people I’ve spoken to have said they’re happy the way it is.
The board decided a public hearing on the matter would be scheduled for late January, which Mr. Pysher opposed, noting that many people who use the lagoon will be away.
It was suggested that letters be sent to the Town Clerk’s office for differing opinions and that Pysher canvas those who will not be able to attend and represent their views at the hearing.