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Year in Review: Town Board hears it from all sides in 2016

REPORTER FILE PHOTO Short-term rentals, many of them booked through online services, consumed much of the Town Board's time in 2016
REPORTER FILE PHOTO Short-term rentals, many of them booked through online services, consumed much of the Town Board’s time in 2016

The Town Board meets almost every Tuesday of the year in work sessions and presides over regular meetings about twice a month, taking on issues for discussion and drafting and voting on new legislation.

In 2016, the board aired concerns on, among other topics, preservation of the Island’s heritage and site plan review for new commercial ventures; crafted a budget for 2017; looked into the need — or not — of allocating extra funds for road paving; and discussed the short-term rental situation that consumed the board’s time and energy from early June and is still unresolved.

Chapel demolished
Efforts to save an iconic Island structure from the bulldozer went nowhere, even though it was a discussion the board entertained at length.

The former St. Gabriel’s property, a 25-acre, mostly undeveloped site fronting on Coecles Harbor, was sold by the Passionists, a Catholic religious order for $15.1 million in April 2015 to Richard Hogan for a luxury development. Initial plans were to retain a deconsecrated chapel and move it to another part of the property.

Mr. Hogan then had the building inspected by an engineering firm that, he said, determined it was too aged and rotted for the move. His attorney, William Fleming, told the Planning Board in March that it would have to be demolished.

But an inspection soon after by Town Engineer John Cronin Jr. a month later pronounced the building in good enough shape to be moved. But efforts to move it ran into two roadblocks.

The first was raising enough money by residents— Mr. Hogan and the town were not involved — estimated to be about $100,000, to move the structure. The second was complaints from Ginny Drive residents —targeted as a relocation site — who feared increased traffic if the building was relocated near the street where many young children play.

In October, the structure was demolished after the removal of stained glass windows, many of which are to be incorporated into a new clubhouse to be built on the site of the development. The rest are to be offered to the Shelter Island Historical Society for its collection.

On another issue of preservation, an 18th century house was razed, quite legally, and there was no action by the board to prevent another situation if other old structures are in jeopardy.

It came to light in March that the home of Thomas Dering (1720-1785) had been demolished. Mr. Dering was a delegate to the Third Provisional Congress in New York and a former supervisor of Shelter Island.

Constructed around 1700 and known as “Dering Farm” at 55 Cobbetts Lane, the house was demolished after David and Brenda Harms obtained a permit from the town Building Department. Aside from a demolition permit, there was no need for Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals actions that would have brought it to public attention and to the attention of the Town Board. All that was required was the demolition permit from the Building Department.

Knowledge of the demolition came to John Colby Jr., a Village of Dering Harbor trustee, as he was researching the history of Gardiner’s Bay Country Club. The Thomas Dering House once was the club’s original clubhouse, named “Manhanset House.”

Mr. Colby announced the demolition of one of the oldest houses on the Island at a meeting of the village’s Architectural Review Board (ARB) in March. “I’m just shocked that it happened,” he said.

Although the village has an ARB, the town of Shelter Island does not.

Site plan review?
The Town Board made a move in May toward holding a public hearing on legislation requiring all commercial property owners to formally submit plans for development — a process called site plan review. Shelter Island is the only town on the East End lacking one

But so far no action has been taken.

Site plan review, if approved, would include requirements by owners to outline the uses of a property and detailed descriptions of parking, trash, signage and more.

The purpose of the site plan review legislation, stated in a draft of legislation prepared by Town Attorney Laury Dowd, is to “mitigate the environmental impacts of new development on the land, and water resources” and “prevent overcrowding of land or buildings.”

The issue came to a head when Supervisor Jim Dougherty said at a work session in the spring that “Route 114, north and south of the Center, is becoming an eyesore and maybe we have to be a little more careful in our review of proposed projects. We want to be respectful of people, but we want to meet our responsibilities.”

Two properties in particular caught the board’s attention. One is a storage facility at 18 North Ferry Road owned by John Sieni. The town issued a building permit in February and work began, but then a stop work order was issued, because, according to the Building Department, the original permit “was issued in error” since the development “constitutes expansion of a pre-existing, non-conforming use.”

The other property in question is just down the street, 13 North Ferry Road, owned by Dan Calabro and leased to Marcello Masonry. The board discussed this site several times over the last several months because of its unsightly appearance and noise. Earlier in they year the board heard complaints about the operation of a concrete grinding machine on the premises.

Money, money, money
Hearings on financing 2017 were relatively smooth, with the board coming up with a $10.77 million budget and a raise of 5.7 percent of the tax levy.

But things became heated late last month over money matters when Supervisor Jim Dougherty broke with his colleagues as well as the superintendent of highways and the town engineer on moving money for road repaving.

On a resolution to move funds from one account to another for the work, Mr. Dougherty was outvoted 4-1 by his colleagues and after the vote angrily warned that the board was playing fast and loose with the tax payers’ money.

Mr. Dougherty reiterated opinions he had aired previously, that moving $100,000 from the town’s “A Class account,” which is normally not used for operational purposes, to the Highway Roads Improvement account, is irresponsible. He noted that roads listed by Superintendent of Highways JayCard Jr. do not need repaving and that there is no guarantee grant money promised by the state, which would be used to reimburse the town account, will ever be deposited.

“Since I’ve been in office I’ve told my colleagues that I see the priorities as ticks, taxes and the aquifer,” Mr. Dougherty said. “My colleagues seem to be reversing that to roads, ticks and the aquifer. And as for taxes — watch out.”

He noted that $130,000 in the current budget is enough for road maintenance.

His colleagues roundly rejected the supervisor’s claims and the money was transferred.

Long term on short-term rentals
A late January date has been set for a public hearing to discuss a draft of new regulations for homeowners who rent rooms or their entire houses on a short-term basis when they are not on the premises.

The board has been engaged with the issue since the spring. Several meetings have been packed with residents demanding strict regulations on length of stay and the number of times a homeowner can rent their premises on a short term basis, and residents who want minimum restrictions.

The issue arose when residents of Sylvan Road packed Town Hall at an early June meeting with complaints about renters on their street partying until late at night with loud music and publicly displaying drunken behavior at all hours. The renters were staying in non-owner occupied houses and most had booked their weekend stays online.

But then, the board heard from numerous residents who were just as vocal, arguing that they rented to families and polite couples and needed to rent their houses to supplement their income and make mortgage payments. It was also mentioned that short-term rentals bring tourist dollars to the Island, helping local merchants and those employed in the hospitality business.

The debate dragged on throughout the summer into the fall, with the subject on the board’s agenda nearly every week.

In July, draft legislation was in the works, but then scrapped, and Councilman Jim Colligan was tasked to come up with a formula for numbers of times a house not occupied by the owner can be rented and limiting the length of stays. This too, was scrapped, and now a draft of legislation to be heard at a January 27 public hearing has no restrictions on length of stays or how many times a residence can be rented with no homeowner on site.

The board has heard from residents that a meeting at the end of January for such an important issue is unfair since the Island’s population is at its lowest during the depth of winter.

“I don’t know if there’s a right answer to this, “ Councilman Paul Shepherd said earlier this month. But he speculated that the hearing might be kept open after the January meeting.

The board’s work on short-term rentals continues to be a long-term proposition.