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Board gets earful at Bootleggers public hearing; kept open to further discuss situation

The Town Board discussed the situation at Bootleggers Alley once again at its regular Zoom meeting Friday, holding a public hearing on a parking resolution it hopes will mitigate problems there.

The issue of off-Island weekend visitors in large numbers staying all day — and some camping overnight — on the beach at Bootleggers Alley to fish and picnic, has been before the board for weeks and sparked strong reactions in the town. There have been reports of 50 to 100 people on the beach at one time, with a majority of the visitors Spanish-speaking New York City residents. The issue has sparked strong reactions in the town, including charges of racism.

One problem has been parking, which the board addressed by executive order at its regular meeting on Friday, May 29, by designating parking on one side of the street as resident-only; part of the other side of the street near the boat ramp and fire lane will be off limits; and public parking will only be available farther along toward Nostrand Parkway.

The other major issue has been complaints that on weekends the visitors use vegetation near the beach as toilets.

The town has since installed two portable toilets in the area and outside hand sanitation stations. Also, signs were put up in Spanish and English calling for social distancing and staying on the part of the beach where it is legal to fish and congregate.

Police patrols have been ongoing during the weekends to tell the visitors to abide by the rules, and as Police Chief Jim Read said, to tell them “there is no excuse not to use the bathrooms … We welcome people, but we want them to follow the rules.”

At the May 29 meeting, Supervisor Gerry Siller spoke about the town’s response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the situation of racism and civil unrest in the country, and the town’s response to the issues surrounding Bootleggers Alley. “I want to believe that the people of Shelter Island, who are openly loving and caring of their neighbors, are as loving and caring, or at the least tolerant, of visitors who come to spend a day with their families,” the supervisor said.

The public hearing Friday was to discuss a resolution going beyond the executive order and to codify parking regulations for the short, narrow street that dead ends at the bay. Specifically the resolution states that posted signs will prohibit parking on the northwest side of the street across from the end of Peconic Avenue, running west 120 feet to the beachfront, and no parking within 6 feet of any driveway or intersection.

The resolution also states: “All motor vehicles or motorcycles parking along the waterfront on Bootleggers Alley and on the southern side of Bootleggers Alley from the beachfront running east (landward) for four hundred fifty (450) feet to an unnamed street shall display a parking permit, which will be issued by the Town Clerk …”

But several residents who live on or near Bootleggers Alley said this is a band aid for a serious wound, one that does little to stop two public health dangers — the spread of coronavirus, and urine and feces in the open — and is an aesthetic scar on a once beautiful neighborhood. One resident even said he feared for his own and his family’s safety from attack.

Leah Lipsich, who lives on Bootleggers Alley, is an executive with a pharmaceutical company, and said she was in charge of directing COVID-19 protocols at her firm. It’s inevitable that infections will be spread from the crowds on the beach, Ms. Lipsich said, and the portable toilets were breeding grounds for more infections.

She, like other speakers, noted that there is no social distancing on the beach; few people wear masks; and garbage that she didn’t want to pick up because of the  possibility of infection.

“I fear for my life, “ Ms. Lipsich said, knowing that, as a person over 65, she’s at high risk and could die if she catches the virus.

She applauded the board and other town officials who have kept the virus at a low level on the Island, but said if the situation at Bootleggers Alley continues, “there will be a huge spike.”

Don Bindler, a Silver Beach resident, said it wasn’t a new problem at the beach, “but COVID has exacerbated it.”

He described “hordes of visitors from the most infected parts of the city” arriving every weekend.

By mentioning discrimination, some are trying to make a political argument out of the situation, Mr. Bindler added, but “that’s a phantom argument.”

It was a matter of protecting property rights, and the character of a residential neighborhood, he said. “There are four town beaches on Shelter Island that are open to everyone who qualifies, and gets a beach sticker,” he said, “and abides by the rules governing the use of these beaches.”

The town’s efforts with signage and portable toilets have made a bad situation worse, Mr. Bindler said.

He offered several solutions, including: parking on only one side of the road with the requirement of a resident beach sticker; and one-hour parking except for cars with a beach sticker.

Matthew Wells, another Bootleggers Alley resident said it was “holy hell,” at the beach, “awful,” and must be addressed.

Seth Harris, a homeowner on Bootleggers Alley said the situation was “a living hell” for residents, and describes finding “dirty underwear on my lawn.”

He feared for his and his family’s safety. “I’ve never known any fisherman without a knife,” Mr. Harris said.

Also, the town could be putting itself in jeopardy for serious lawsuits if anyone is injured, said Mr. Harris, who described himself as a personal injury lawyer.

Duke Foster, who said he’s lived on Bootleggers Alley for 55 years and said he has witnessed people relieving themselves. The situation is out of hand, he said.

The board decided to keep the public hearing open and return to the issue at its work session on Tuesday, June 23.