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Islanders pitch in at Comp Plan workshop: Fully engaged in mapping their hometown’s future

Islanders love their town for its beauty and peacefulness. But they see obstacles to maintaining its ambiance without strong leadership, which might need to come from a town manager willing to bring a steady hand to the direction of government.

Those sentiments were expressed by attendees at the March 18 Comprehensive Plan workshop, which attracted 95 people.

With an election every two years for supervisors and every four years for Town Board members, goals can change from one administration to another, many residents agreed, which is where a town manager comes in.

Attendees applauded the workshop and small group breakout sessions that gave everyone an opportunity to comment on strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to Shelter Island. Developing strategies for future development and hurdles to be overcome if the town is to retain what residents value were major themes of the evening.

“People were really engaged,” Project Manager Edward Hindin said. He found a sense of optimism among attendees who were respectful to one another in their comments.

He credits his fellow task force members, Councilmen Mike Bebon and Albert Dickson, and the 12-member Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee for the work they’ve done.

Residents getting on board to develop a new Comprehensive Plan is the difference in making a guide to a community’s future and one that sits on a shelf and is ignored, said consultant Larissa Brown of Massachusetts-based Larissa Brown & Associates.

In addition to participation in the workshop, more than 1,000 responded to an earlier survey.

Ms. Brown described the Island as “a place that time forgot,” with a reluctance to change, but change happens, she said. The question now, the consultant noted, is whether Islanders will “react to change or manage change.”

The average cost of even low-end housing has grown to about $800,000, Ms. Brown said. Even if people can afford to pay a mortgage, many don’t have resources for a down payment.

Consultant Peter Flinker of Massachusetts based-Dodson & Flinker, pointed to climate change, saying plans must include efforts to prepare for more frequent serious storms, rising sea water and compromises to the water supply, as well as degradation of the Peconic Estuary. There’s a need to investigate alternative energy sources and to attend to ongoing conservation efforts, he said.

Both consultants pointed to an economy that depends largely on the hospitality and real estate markets, and how that will impact the Island’s future. Failure to take charge of Island development would leave the town as a vacation destination between the two East End forks, but not a place that meets the needs of residents, Mr. Hindin said.

Residents want to see more year-round businesses, they said. Some spoke of providing greater technology resources for home businesses, especially those started by residents, not outsiders.

“We don’t need to Hampton-ize this place,” one attendee said.

They deplore the empty storefronts in the Center, many said, and see it as a blight on the Island’s beauty and a failure to provide needed businesses here.

Attendees also expressed what they see as failure to enforce the zoning code. One speaker asked why the town has a code if it’s willing to grant exceptions to practically every request.

“They do not know how to say ‘no,’” a woman said about the tendency to approve applications for code exceptions.

The result has been more mega-houses being built on the Island, which residents fear are sapping clean water resources by allowing more pollutants to affect potable water, saltwater intrusion in wells, a buildup of nitrates in the town’s fragile aquifer, and die-off of scallops and fish species in surrounding waters.

Some workshop attendees were from families who have generational ties to the Island, while others were second homeowners who became full-time residents. They value the Island for its people, who can rely on one another, and as a place where people can come to know one another.

Tick-borne diseases are another concern some attendees have. Although the Deer & Tick Committee has had some success in decreasing the deer population on the Island, ticks still proliferate and spoil the ability for some to hike and enjoy the outdoors the way they would like.

They would like to see greater emphasis on green energy sources and an exploration of wind farms and solar power.

Perhaps the most welcoming news came from a long-time Islander who recalled that years ago the community used to hold dances that attracted people of all ages. There was agreement that when the pandemic ends and people can socialize, they plan a community celebration dedicated to a new Comprehensive Plan.

There is much work to be done, all agreed. The next step will be for Task Force members to discuss the workshop, continue to interview people individually and hold a second workshop on April 22.

Project Manager Hindin encouraged attendees to bring friends along to participate in that session. He said there will also be another survey in the future, and a third workshop sometime this summer. The aim is to complete a new Comprehensive Plan by the end of the year and prepare updates annually through at least 2030.