The Town Board discussed the situation at Bootleggers Alley twice in five days during lengthy sessions at its regular meeting Friday, June 19, and its Tuesday work session. Members heard proposals to ban camping at the beach, increase police patrols, rewrite parking regulations and establish a true high tide mark.
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, with a few accusations of racism aired.
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.
At a 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.
Parking and police
On June 19, the board held a public hearing — which has been left open — on a parking resolution it hopes will mitigate problems there. The board had addressed parking through an executive order on 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 was to be off limits; and public would be parking available farther along toward Nostrand Parkway.
At Tuesday’s meeting the board seemed in agreement to limit parking to only one side of the street.
The other major issue has been complaints that on weekends the visitors use vegetation near the beach as toilets. The town has 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, which is below the high tide line.
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.”
The public hearing on June 19 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 by Tuesday, these regulations were subject to further discussion.
Residents sound the alarm
Several residents who live on or near Bootleggers Alley said on June 19 that the board’s ideas were band aids for serious wounds, which 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 there is 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.
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.
Those who mention discrimination are trying to make a political argument out of the situation, Mr. Bindler added, but “that’s a phantom argument.”
It is 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, and abides by the rules governing the use of these beaches,” he said.
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, said he has witnessed people relieving themselves. The situation is out of hand, he added.
Returning to the discussion
There were less people on the beach over the June 19-21 weekend, from several reports. Chief Read said more people had gone to fish and spend the day at other beaches, including Reel Point, which is owned by the Peconic Land Trust.
The chief noted that his department was increasing patrols at the beach at night, even after the last ferries, and officers will notify people sleeping in cars that it is against the town’s ordinances to sleep in a vehicle at a town landing.
The police will also notify beachgoers that any tent that has four walls and a roof will not be tolerated. “We’re taking a more proactive response,” the chief said.
Figuring out what the mean high tide line was also discussed. Private and public beaches are determined by that line, which, as was discussed, can usually be seen by crushed shells and seaweed where the high tide stops and then recedes. The public is allowed anywhere below that line, but above that is trespassing on private property.
Mr. Foster said he was thinking of hiring a surveyor to determine the line on his property, but the board agreed that the town takes charge of surveying.