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Working the system: Zeldin comes on board to help save Reel Point

Things only get done when money and politics come together.

That truism was repeated by Town Engineer John Cronin recently, speaking about the years-long history of the effort to save Reel Point.

Progress is achieved — like all major projects to save infrastructure, both natural and man-made — with several components that must be pieced together, taken step-by-step and followed through on, said Mr. Cronin, who will be retiring from his position in November.

First, a serious professional engineering analysis must be made of a situation and recorded. Then, the circumstances have to be communicated forcefully to elected officials and the public through open meetings and the local media.

And then, the really hard part comes: convincing government officials on the local, county, state and federal levels to part with money.

That seems to be happening at long last, Mr. Cronin said, who was cautiously optimistic that the federal government will help stop Reel Point from washing away, a possibility that’s been looming for years.

In August, it was announced that federal dollars might be on the way to save the Point, that short, slender peninsula curving down from the southern tip of Big Ram Island, which is a natural barrier protecting Coecles Harbor.

Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) has announced passage by the House of Representatives of a wide-ranging bill for water- and flood-related projects around the country that includes a federal response to the situation at Reel Point. Funds in the Water Resources Development Act of 2020 are for feasibility studies by the Army Corps of Engineers for “navigation and shoreline stabilization” at Reel Point.

Even though Mr. Zeldin is clearly supporting “an administration that is involved with lots of problems,” Mr. Cronin said of the congressman who is a fervent and vocal supporter of the president, “he is a congressman who has done what is helpful to his constituents.”

Mr. Zeldin has said that the bill he has co-sponsored in the House is “jump-starting movement on projects at Reel Point.”

The situation can certainly use a start.

Going back four years, Mr. Cronin said, he and former Highway Superintendent Jay Card Jr. “were anxious to find some solution. Once we had the engineering done, we realized, in round numbers, it was probably a $4 million project. And so it was. But how do we fund it locally?”

The importance of Reel Point is not just as a lovely piece of sand and scrub, but as a protective barrier for Coecles Harbor from ocean waves and high seas made more powerful and destructive by more frequent storms and nor’easters.

Coecles Harbor is ringed by many homes and businesses lining its shores, including Coecles Harbor Marina, Clark’s Marina, The Ram’s Head Inn and CH Marine Yacht Builders. Failure of the Point could destroy these businesses andmany private properties on Ram Island and the Pandion luxury residential development on the former St. Gabriel’s site.

The cost in dollars, if Reel Point is lost, would be measured in the tens of millions of dollars.

During the Dougherty administration, Mr. Cronin said “we were unsuccessful in convincing the Town Board to fund a project at Reel Point.”

The following administration, with Gary Gerth in the supervisor’s chair, had a novel approach to “get some deep pockets on Shelter Island” to privately fund work to save the Point, Mr. Cronin said, but there was no interest in private donations.

However, as Mr. Cronin pointed out, Mr. Gerth was an elected Republican, and “he was very comfortable engaging Lee Zeldin to see if he could possibly come up with a way to help out. And that initiated the path to the Army Corps of Engineers.”

Around that time, Mr. Cronin, through professional engineering contacts, had tried to get the Army Corps involved. “A few players, in essence, outlined a strategy that could be followed that was basically a political, one where you have to get political people on your side to be your advocates. ”

Mr. Cronin said that Mr. Zeldin pursued the Army Corps for the local project “and has done whatever he needs to do to get the bill passed.”

The power of an elected advocate pushing for a local project was obvious when, not long ago, Mr. Cronin applied for a $250,000 grant from the National Estuary program for work at Reel Point, which was rejected.

“They claimed they had two other applications and a limited amount of funds and had to pick what they saw as the most viable, so we didn’t make the cut,” Mr. Cronin said.

But that was then.

Mr. Cronin was asked if there is a better chance now that action will finally be taken that will save Reel Point and all that it protects.

“Absolutely,” he said.