Around the Island

Comprehensive Planning: How Shelter Island got here from there

There’s always a balance between what may seem best for the community as a whole and the rights of individual property owners. Decades ago, the community was small enough that differences of opinion could be worked out informally and sealed with a handshake.

But by the 1970s, town officials saw a need to implement a zoning code and, through a desire to create a Comprehensive Plan to coordinate growth, consultant Philip Herr was hired to guide an appointed committee. Future superviors Jim Dougherty and Gary Gerth served on the Comprehensive Planning Committee. Recently offered some thoughts about what happened decades ago and how decisions made then affect what exists today.

Mr. Dougherty remembers what he called “a remarkable” six-hour forum at the Legion Hall in November 1992. Mr. Herr and members of subcommittees outlined their efforts to about 50 residents who had an opportunity to ask questions and make suggestions.

As representatives of the subcommittees outlined their ideas, they generally agreed there was a need for regulations.

There were seven areas of focus in the preliminary reports:
• Protection of natural resources with concentration on the Island’s fragile aquifer
• Provisions for affordable housing for young families and an aging senior population
• Preservation of open spaces with managed development
• Maintenance of the Island’s way of life and sense of community amid what was reported then as “mounting outside pressure for change”
• Direction of economic development
• Development of transportation services
• Maintenance and development of cultural and visual resources

“Education without law — there’s always someone who will do things against the will of the people,” Penny Bliss said at the time.

Mr. Herr agreed that education and information are necessary, but said there must be some “bite” in the regulations and penalties for violations. He also saw a need to bring about a tighter alignment between task force members and the wider community so that all could embrace the final product.

The most telling fact came from Mr. Herr, according to Mr. Dougherty. He told the Comprehensive Planning Committee his analysis showed that 85 percent of Route 114 was zoned for commercial use, noting that figure would more appropriately be the percentage in a town or city of more than 35,000.

Shelter Island’s year-round population as of 2015 was 2,413, according to the U.S. Census and another 10,000 to 15,000 estimated to be on the Island during the summer season.

The work undertaken in 1992 wasn’t in vain, but by 1994, it became clear that full implementation would require zoning changes. In June of that year, Supervisor Hoot Sherman met with a newly appointed volunteer Zoning Task Force of the Comprehensive Planning Committee to begin the work of updating the town’s zoning codes.

Mr. Herr challenged members to undertake major zoning code changes within a year to ensure that ideas developed by the Comprehensive Planning Committee didn’t get lost.

Zoning became the third rail of the process. Despite efforts to coordinate information and concerns among various sectors in the town, Mr. Dougherty described property owners as “reluctant” to give up the existing zoning code and embrace upzoning. That’s when the effort broke down, limiting the implementation of the full Comprehensive Plan, he said.

The plan was essentially shelved by only partially implementing it. Currently, town officials are considering reopening it and updating it to fit today’s circumstances.

“We should galvanize volunteers and officials” in finding solutions,” Mr. Dougherty said, predicting success would be at least partially judged by the impact on Route 114.