Early in the fourth year of his term on the Town Board, Albert Dickson announced he wouldn’t be seeking a second term.
If there is a single word that captures his passion during his term, it’s “water.” Improving the quality of Island water became a driving force for Mr. Dickson, who introduced language to initiatives to respond to high levels of nitrates in drinking water, and concerns about the effect of large houses being built that negatively impact water quality.
Always with passion, sometimes with frustration and even anger, he stressed an urgency to never postpone serious legislation meant to ensure action.
Mr. Dickson came by his focus on water — the aquifer and the bays, ponds and creeks of the Island — almost from the cradle.
As Charity Robey reported in a profile of Mr. Dickson, his great uncle Joe Mack — highway superintendent from 1938 to 1957 — got the idea that places for public access to the water should be designated by the town, and not just rely on the friendly and tolerant owners of near-shore property. He helped establish the town landings we use today.
Community service was also part of the legacy bequeathed to him. His parents, Anton and Mary Dickson, in spite of their own modest means, somehow managed to give food and support to people in the community who needed it.
Keeping the faith
As Ms. Robey wrote, the Dickson’s family home was a tiny cottage on Grand Avenue in the Heights, bursting with six children, three boys and three girls. Young Albert mowed lawns, worked at the pharmacy and during the summer on the North Ferry. The Heights Post Office was practically a family agency, with Mary, Albert’s grandmother, and Mary, Albert’s mother, serving as postmistress.
Throughout his service on the Water Advisory Committee and the Town Board, Mr. Dickson kept the faith on making the point that the Island’s water should be at the top of all public agendas. And to protect clean sources of water, he maintained, housing development has to be re-thought, and regulations already on the books have to be enforced.
Mr. Dickson went against his colleagues in December 2018 casting a “no” vote — an extremely rare occurrence for Shelter Island Town Boards.
The issue was an application that would demolish a 3,068-square-foot Little Ram Island house and replace it with a 9,619-square-foot, two-story structure with nine bedrooms, multiple bathrooms and a 75-foot by 20-foot swimming pool.
At a work session, Mr. Dickson expressed concern to his colleagues about the massive size of the planned residence, asking, “Do we have the will to do something?”
At the regular Board meeting 10 days later, when the application was put to a vote, Mr. Dickson cast the “no” vote. After the vote approving the application, Mr. Dickson said the reason he stood firm against the application was about water — specifically, protecting the aquifer from being poisoned by nitrates from a septic system, and the stress put on the aquifer by a large house full of people.
“It comes down to the aquifer,” Mr. Dickson said. “Are we going to take steps to protect it?”
As for the size of the house, the town code has a limit of 6,000 square feet for residences, but variances are applied for and granted. “This house is over 9,000 square feet,” Mr. Dickson said. “Why not enforce the Town Code?”
Mr. Dickson pointed out that the house was slated to be for a family, but asked if the place was sold, what subsequent use would the large house and pool be used for?
He noted the effort that was undertaken to form a Comprehensive Plan for the town in 1994, when the whole community was involved in public meetings. “The plan said you’re going to have a nitrate problem and steps should be taken to protect the aquifer,” Mr. Dickson said. “Since then, what have we done?”
At the last Town Board work session of 2021, Supervisor Gerry Siller led the way thanking the councilman for his work. Most of all, Mr. Siller said, he appreciated Mr. Dickson’s knowledge of the history of the town, his love of the Island, and “obviously your passion.”
Resident Bill Mastro thanked Mr. Dickson for his “commitment, integrity and openness and dedication to the town and all of its residents.” He noted Mr. Dickson’s “good fight” on environmental issues, particularly in terms of water.
Water Advisory Committee Chairman Peter Grand said: “As a member of the Water Advisory Committee and then as a Town Board member and WAC liaison, Al recognized the profound public health and environmental challenge that contaminating our aquifer represents.”
Mr. Dickson has been “outspoken and clear and his determination to steer the town toward meaningful steps on a path back to clean, drinkable water and a healthy, recreational environment deserves our deepest respect,” Mr. Grand added.
The Water Quality Improvements Projects Advisory Committee is another body Mr. Dickson served. “Albert’s service as one of the Town Board’s liaisons to the WQIPAB underscored his commitment to Shelter Island and the water issues that we all face,” Chairman James Eklund said. “He spoke when he had something to say and not just to hear himself talk. His wisdom and enthusiasm will be missed.”
While he wasn’t a liaison to the Shoreline Access Task Force, he cared about that group’s efforts to improve landings and ramps, but it was his concern in fighting for easy access to the water for everyone that kept him most interested in following that group’s work.
Task Force Chairman Peter Vielbig said Mr. Dickson discussed parking restrictions at beaches and lamented that beach access for nonresidents is so restrictive. Mr. Dickson said he recalled a time not so long ago when Island beaches were open to everyone.
Community Preservation Fund Advisory Board Chairman Gordon Gooding honored Mr. Dickson’s contribution to his board, making the former councilman only the second to be honored with a “Gold Watch Image Award,” which came with a warning from Mr. Gooding: “I’m not finished with you. You’ll always be a part of Community Preservation. We know where you live and we know your number, so don’t be shocked if we continue to call you for your guidance.”