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Shelter Island Profile: Bill Banks and the art of staying put

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Bill Banks at his desk. Bill retired last week after 21 years as Town Building Inspector.
CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Bill Banks at his desk. Bill retired last week after 21 years as Town Building Inspector.

Like the structures he has inspected and approved during more than 20 years as Shelter Island’s building inspector, Bill Banks stays put.

“I wasn’t exactly born on the kitchen table,” he said, referring to the handful of Islanders who were born here, “but I have been here for 57 years.”

Bill, who is unmarried, lives with his sister, Mary Wilson, and her husband, Ron. Mary served as town building permit coordinator for 29 years, working side by side with Bill until they both retired last week.

The Banks family moved to Shelter Island from India Street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in 1960 when Bill was six years old, but not before he was imprinted with the fascination of fire fighting. The building next to his family’s apartment in Brooklyn was an active fire station.

“The firemen were really nice and they let me slide down the pole,” he said. “When the whistle blew, we were so used to it, we’d just roll over and go back to sleep.”

Bill and his brother, Bruce, were just starting school when his parents John and Ann Banks made the move along with the rest of his siblings — Mary, Jim, Robert and John. “My mother spent part of her childhood here on the Island,” he said. “She felt it was time to get out of the city.”

The Shelter Island that Bill remembers from the 1960s was mostly undeveloped. “Scallops, lima beans, potatoes, the Bartilucci farm on Sunshine Road, Blados’ on Menantic,” he recalled. “Frank Mysliborski used to farm the field where the Bucks play now.”

As much as Bill loved his childhood on the Island, it was hardly idyllic. His parents did not get along, he said, but everyone was hopeful that the move to a new home on Shelter Island, next door to the American Legion and a short walk to school, would be good for the family. “It was so nice when they bought the house,” Bill said. “It was like a new start.”

His father commuted to the city and was home on weekends, but there were other women in his life along with alcohol. In 1963, when Bill was 9, his father deserted the family and they never had contact with him again. After his mother died decades later, Bill discovered that his father had died as well.

A single mother, with five children, Ann Banks took on domestic work, opened scallops, and cooked for other people to support her children. As for childcare, “There was a discipline in the family that older ones took care of the younger ones,” Bill said. “That’s what you have to do.”

When he graduated from the Shelter Island High School in 1972, Bill was a member of the largest senior class in the history of the school with 32 graduates. “Fourteen or 15 members of the class are still around,” he said, and he didn’t mean around as in alive, he meant around as in still living on the Island.

Bill decided to stay here after graduating, working with Fred Ogar at the Shelter Island Refuse Service, and then spending 17 years behind the counter at the Shelter Island Hardware Store. It was during this time that he began to work part-time with Sonny Edwards, a family friend of his mother’s from her girlhood. Sonny became a friend and mentor to Bill, and they worked together in the appliance repair business for many years. “He was a good ear and a good one to go to for advice,” Bill said. “He would be 90 if he were alive today.”

Sonny encouraged Bill to take the courses he would need to be considered for the job of building inspector, a position that Sonny held for many years.

The early experiences with firehouse pole sliding stood Bill in good stead as a member of the Shelter Island Fire Department for many years. He rose through the ranks, and was chief from 1989-1991,

“Which I never in a million years thought I would be.”

As the new building inspector in 1995, Bill was responsible for consulting with property owners at every step of construction and helping prospective buyers understand what type of building is permitted. He also informed owners of New York State Department of Conservation and FEMA regulations, especially for construction in floodplains, which the Island has in abundance.

“If you make too many mistakes, the Town will lose its flood insurance and that means no one will be able to get a mortgage,” Bill said.

He laments the fact that house sizes have tripled in the years he’s been on the job. When he started, he said the average new house was around 1,800 square feet of living space, and a 2,400 square foot house was considered a very large home. The number of new houses over the years has fluctuated from as few as 19 annually to as many as 56, mainly due to financial trends, but the size has gone inexorably up. Today, new homes of 5,000 or 6,000 square feet are common.

Bill’s objection to the prevalence of very large homes is his view of what kind of place the Island should be. “I think it spoils the look of things,” Bill said. “It doesn’t have that homey feeling. They are beautiful homes but they don’t belong here. They don’t look like an old farmhouse.”

In his time as building inspector the most egregious example of a homeowner building something different than what was approved is the project near the Shelter Island Yacht Club, a large partially constructed structure with a wall of blue Tyvek visible across the harbor.

“That was supposed to be a little bump-out addition and renovation,” Bill said. “It went to the Zoning Board of Appeals. FEMA is now involved. If the town really had the backbone they could have it taken down.”

In spite of his nostalgia, Bill is realistic about the inevitable development of the Island “You can’t expect a place not to grow,” he said. “And I suppose what’s happened here has happened everywhere. Everyone wants a little piece of heaven, but eventually it’s gone.”

“I always loved it here,” he added. “Where are you going to go that is better than this?”