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Charity’s Column: Who is a resident?

When the question of a transfer of moorings in Coecles Harbor to the new owner of the Ram’s Head Inn came before the Town Board last fall, it opened up deliberations on a subject as mysterious as the sea. Who is a resident?

The answer matters because residents of Shelter Island have rights that non-residents don’t and the right to apply for a mooring in some of the most sought-after harbors on the East Coast is just one of them. Moorings are only for residents.

The 2020 census showed that 3,253 people called Shelter Island home, but the Town Board started with the idea that a resident is anyone who owns local property, a much larger number. They embraced the notion that a resident can also be someone who owns a business.

After some public discussion, and an attempt to codify the question, the Board decided they needed more time to ponder it.

Last week, a bayman asked the Board to consider that whatever definition of resident they adopt, it reflects the rights of Islanders who work local waters. They live here, run a business that relies on increasingly rare resources, and have a compelling claim on the title of resident.

If our town is looking at a broad and inclusive definition, perhaps the question of who should have priority access to our land, our waters and our best parking spots should ask the following questions.

Do you live here in February?

It’s easy to live here in August, February takes dedication. If you are reading this in print, and it is still February you are one of our hardiest residents, and my Icelandic knit cap is off to you.

Were you born on the kitchen table?

Born on Shelter Island means being born at home, and it is a pretty strong indicator of residential status whether you own a place or not. These out-of-hospital babies are called hareleggers, and no one seems to know if the term refers to people who run like rabbits to catch the last ferry home to the Island, or a populace whose legs are shapely and well-formed. There are a handful of people left who can say they were born here. Surely, they deserve a mooring.

Have several generations of the family had their hair cut by Louis Cicero?

The cloudy question of which members of a household qualify for resident status could be clarified by granting permanent resident status to children who got regular haircuts from Louis the Clip.

Should dogs have resident status?

No question, some Island dogs are bona fide residents. Shout out to Daisy, who loves to eat freshly-caught bunker for breakfast when her bayman hauls them in. She has as much right to a mooring as anyone.

Ever lived on your boat in the summer, so you can rent your place for big money?

Some residents have discovered that to afford a boat and a home, they must be fluid in their living arrangements. Such resourcefulness and practicality are the markers of a true local. 

Has your home been in the family for four generations?

The family may only be here from Memorial Day through Labor Day, but they’ve been coming back to the same home since the Eisenhower Administration. Respect.

Did you attend every chicken barbecue from 1970 through 2019, except for that one on the same weekend as your niece’s wedding?

If you were crushed when the annual Chicken Barbecue was paused for the pandemic, does that qualify you as a resident even if you don’t own a home?

I don’t envy the Town Board having to figure out who gets access to the rights and privileges of being a Shelter Island resident. But until they do, none of us really know who we have to share those privileges with, no matter how many children or houses, or years we’ve accumulated on this beautiful, fragile island.