After a pandemic-caused hiatus of two years, the annual supervisor’s State of the Town report was back the evening of May 13 at the Library, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, Shelter Island and the North Fork.
Supervisor Gerry Siller was at the podium, listing accomplishments and answering questions. He had served as the Town’s chief elected official for two terms from 1998 to 2001, was elected again in November 2019, and re-elected in 2021. Mr. Siller told the in-person and virtual audience that the same issues that dominated discussions among Islanders at the beginning of the century are mostly the same 20 years later — water and housing.
And questions on those issues were mostly the ones put to Mr. Siller last week, and later to Town Engineer Joe Finora.
The supervisor began with a list of what he termed accomplishments in his terms, starting with the Town’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which started in February 2020. He noted that the pandemic was not over, breaking some news later in the evening by reporting that the Building Department’s office at Town Hall had been closed on Friday, and would be into this week, due to employees contracting COVID.
He touted the quick response the Town made two years ago, organizing an emergency response team and having regular public meetings to inform the public of the state of the pandemic on the Island and actions taken to mitigate illnesses. There were two vaccination events on the Island, with 500 vaccinations and 500 booster doses given. Mr. Siller praised the volunteers who were organized by the Town.
The Town had responded quickly to a State-mandated police reform program, installing “dash cams,” and hiring a woman police officer, and was moving forward with making municipal buildings, including police headquarters, compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act standards.
An electric Town vehicle has been purchased and the Town is looking at solar power programs.
New hires included a town engineer and town attorney, plus a full-time code enforcement officer.
In response to a question on lack of enforcement, Mr. Siller said the full-time officer will be diligent, as his administration wants to shift some revenue streams away from taxes and more toward fees and fines, so the burden of funding the Town’s operations is not imposed on everyone.
Mr. Siller said that the West Neck Water District had negotiated a 40-year contact with the Suffolk County Water Authority to upgrade and manage the system on a day-to day basis.
The Town has recognized the crisis of nitrates in drinking water and hired an engineering firm to design a system to transport wastewater for treatment from Center Buildings.
Questions about the process of hiring the Massachusetts-based firm, Lombardo Associates, were answered by Mr. Finora, who said the firm was chosen after fielding three bids and Lombardo was the lowest, responsible bidder.
Mr. Finora said the plant was essential “to turn the tide” against poisonous nitrates in drinking water, and also to have the ability to expand the system to treat pharmaceuticals and other dangerous materials in the aquifer.
To a question that the engineering firm was simply trying to sell a system it had designed, Mr. Finora said this was untrue, and Lombardo had looked at all options for a system.
As for oversight of the engineering firm that a questioner posed, Mr. Finora said his office would be that oversight, and that only enormous projects, such as skyscrapers, employ “third-hand” engineering oversight.
The sharpest questions during a civil and respectful evening, came about the location of the wastewater plant. Mr. Finora recalled that the first location the Town Board was ready to settle on, underground at
Klenawicus Airfield, had been proposed by the consultants and his office as the perfect place to pipe wastewater to be treated. But vigorous and organized community opposition made them change strategies to select 16 Manwaring Road. This brought reactions from neighbors in the audience, who said the Manwaring site would imperil drinking water, be an eyesore and reduce property values.
Mr. Siller said there would be no problem with drinking water and, since the system would be underground, there would be only a small shed above ground to house monitoring equipment.
On the affordable housing front, Mr. Siller said the lack of affordables had become a crisis, and that it was important for a community to have “all walks of life living together.”
The Town began moving on the issue when New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) signed legislation last October that would allow East End towns to establish a new real estate sales tax for affordable housing funds. The new law authorizes the five towns in the Peconic Bay region to hold referenda on adding 0.5% to the existing 2% Community Preservation Fund (CPF) tax on real estate transactions in those towns. Each town would need to present a plan for the funds to flow to their respective communities before holding a referendum.
Questions were asked about who would benefit from affordable housing. Mr. Siller said there could be different housing for different people, including young families, single people and the elderly, but what would decide eligibility was still up in the air. A point system could be implemented; for example, he said, one point if you already live here, one point if you work here, one point if you’re a volunteer, etc.
Mr. Siller said the optimum solution would be to build on Town-owned land.
The supervisor was asked if the referendum failed, would the Town still pursue affordable housing. And Mr. Siller said it would. The Community Housing Fund was in place to receive grants and town money, and a process of transferal development rights (TDRs) could aid the town in its proposals on affordable housing.
Town Attorney Stephen Kiely has noted that eight of 10 Suffolk County towns use TDRs, and Shelter Island could become the ninth by stripping such rights from preserved properties where construction is banned, to sites where affordables could be built.
To a question on the expansion of properties — especially hotels such as the Pridwin, the Chequit and the Ram’s Head — Mr. Siller said, as long as they’re doing everything right according to the Town Code, “they are entitled to do business.” He added, “We’ll be watching.” Speaking of the size of properties, he said there are a lot of changes going on and it’s prudent to be aware of those changes. “We’re trying to walk through this and not run.”
At the end of the session, Councilman Jim Colligan listed infrastructure projects undertaken by the Town. He said the town has secured more than $4 million due to the efforts of grant writer Jennifer Mesiano Higham. Mr. Colligan listed roads being re-surfaced; the Senior Center’s new generator and IT equipment; the Recycling Center’s new roof and solar panels could be on the way; the public basketball and tennis courts completely overhauled; the Community Center re-made; and the Town, along with the County, working to mitigate flooding at the ferry terminals and around the Island.
“On Shelter Island, it’s not just housing and water,” Mr. Colligan said.