Shelter Island Reporter editorial: A need for oversight

COURTESY PHOTO The house, built in 1720, where former town Supervisor Thomas Dering lived, has been demolished.

The house, built in 1720, where former town Supervisor Thomas Dering lived, has been demolished.

Islanders learned about tentative plans to demolish St. Gabriel’s Chapel because the new development on the property required a major review by the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals.

What triggers a trip to one of these boards is a turndown by the Building Department when an application is filed.

But what about applications the Building Department approves?

Property owners are free to go forward with their plans with no notice to their neighbors and certainly no notice to the Island at large.

That’s not the case in most communities.

We know and we support the consideration that this Island is a unique place, separate from the North and South forks, with residents choosing not to become homogenized by embracing the way other towns regulate themselves. The Island’s individuality is wedded to its charm.

But suppose St. Gabriel’s Chapel wasn’t located on a 25-acre site, but had been on a small parcel owned privately by an individual who had no need to come before any of the boards. The owner could have received a demolition permit with no one noticing until the chapel was gone.

That’s what happens here and was highlighted not so long ago by the the property David and Brenda Harms have on Cobbett’s Lane.

Restoring what was once the 18th century Thomas Dering house might have been prohibitively expensive and certainly the structure designed by architect Ian McDonald appears to be capturing much of the style that made the original special.

But nobody knew a treasure from the Island’s past was being demolished until it was gone. (We’re fortunate in that the Harms could have elected to replace it with a monstrosity lacking some of the architectural charm of the original.)

Property owners have rights, but we shouldn’t pretend that what someone does on his own property has no effect on his neighbors. Neighbors may not get their way, but they should certainly have a voice.

It doesn’t make sense that someone renovating a house that will change more than 50 percent of the original structure has to get a special permit from the town, while someone demolishing an entire building can do so with no notice to anyone but Building Department personnel.