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Colligan: Ferry landings critical with rising sea levels

Shelter Island ferries face serious problems caused by rising sea levels and the problem is worsening, according to Councilman Jim Colligan.

He told the Capital Planning/Grants Committee last week that, while storms that result in high surfs are “not super frequent,” they could endanger the ability to transport people to local hospitals in a medical emergency.

“We need to get on top of it,” Mr. Colligan said.

It’s “one of the highest priorities,” said Police Chief Jim Read, who is the town’s emergency management coordinator.

Both North and South ferry company officials have responded, spending what money they could to raise the levels of their landing platforms.

The need for additional funding is critical, but all levels of government have been hard pressed to fund new grants or even pay some grant money previously approved for municipalities because of costs connected with the COVID-19 pandemic, according to grants consultant Jennifer Mesiano Higham.

Nonetheless, Town Engineer Joe Finora is looking at the situation for the ferry services and told those at the meeting he needs to gather data and look at what technical support could eventually come from New York State and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Cliff Clark of South Ferry said he wants people to know that the crisis stage is not yet here, but for the past 20 years, he has been aware of the gradual increase in sea level. Right now, people don’t have to worry about being able to get off the Island during a storm for emergency medical care during major storms.

As the same he has taken steps to deal with changes.

Following advice from Costello Marine, bulkheads have been raised 12 inches.

Platforms were raised 12 inches, but now there’s a need to increase the length of platforms at both Shelter Island and North Haven sides to create less of an angle for vehicles to  get on and off ferries at times of flooding. The platforms are currently 24 feet long and will be lengthen to 30 feet to improve those angles.

With the pandemic, both ferry companies have sustained drops in revenue, Mr. Clark said. Any grants would be helpful as they work on ensuring ongoing safety and won’t have to raise fares that typically support the ferry services, he said.

He said he has always planned ahead for changing circumstances just as he is doing so with sea level rises to avoid putting customers at risk.

Stella Lagudis at North Ferry said, “North Ferry is working closely with the Town of Shelter Island to mitigate the impact of extreme low and high tides on the Ferry’s ability to provide uninterrupted service.  As a vital component of the Town’s Emergency Management Plan, North Ferry has committed to extending and raising ramps on Shelter Island and in Greenport.  The Greenport project is in the design stage and is part of the ferry queue redesign project in the Village.  We anticipate the Shelter Island ramps will be addressed following the Greenport project.  We are working with the Town’s Grant writer to provide the information FEMA requires to potentially fund part or all of this important project.”  

At one point, as the committee began a discussion of other projects that might be funded fully or in part, Chief Read interrupted and said the committee should be focused on its priority list of projects that need to be done and not be driven to other projects just because there might be grant money available. He said he will not support moving on to other projects not already on the priority list.

Ms. Mesiano Higham said she understood and agreed.

In other actions, the committee discussed:

• Local officials and engineering consultant Matt Sherman are still trying to get permission from the Suffolk County Department of Health Services to move ahead with plans for upgrading the bathroom at Crescent Beach. The Health Department is fighting the town’s desire to use a receiving tank that would be pumped out as needed. That’s similar to the solution finally approved for the bathroom at Volunteer Park after a long battle.

The town has some grant money for the project, Ms. Mesiano Higham said and she will submit bills the town has already paid totaling $30,000 for reimbursement. But it remains unclear just when the project will get the green light to complete the project.

• The study to determine if treated water from the Shelter Island Heights Treatment Plant can be used on the grounds at the Shelter Island Country Club is still in limbo.

“This is a project that’s going to take some time,” Mr. Colligan said, noting that if it’s determined to be feasible, it would involve considerable expense. At the same time, he said, there would need to be modifications to the plant to accommodate the project while noting the plant needs to be upgraded in any case.