Concerned citizens of New Suffolk and “people who are concerned about the concerned citizens” had their say over the future of the tiny North Fork hamlet’s waterfront at a packed hearing before the Southold Town Planning Board Monday night.
The New Suffolk Waterfront Fund, a community group formed nearly a decade ago to fight the overdevelopment of the 3.4-acre waterfront parcel that defines the heart of the hamlet, took title to the property at the foot of New Suffolk Avenue four years ago, and now plans to renovate the former Galley Ho restaurant on the site, which has been sitting on cribbing since it was moved back from the water after it was severely damaged in Hurricane Sandy. They plan to lease out the building, but had not yet begun searching for a tenant as of a community meeting in New Suffolk two weeks ago.
The Waterfront Fund sold the southernmost acre of the property last year to a holding company operated by hedge fund billionaire Louis Moore Bacon III, who owns Robins Island, in order to pay off their mortgage on the property. Mr. Bacon, who has fenced off that acre, plans to keep it maintained as a nature preserve.
The Waterfront Fund is currently rebuilding a 16-slip marina on the site, which was the home of the first submarine base in the United States, and has granted New York State a conservation easement on an acre of the property being used as a public beach, boat storage and a community garden.
The property had also historically been the home of the New Suffolk Post Office and General Store, which burned down in 1993.
It was standing-room only in the Southold Town hall meeting room Monday night, as many former and current Waterfront Fund board members applauded the renovation of the restaurant and many residents of the 380-person hamlet wondered why it was necessary that it be rebuilt in a neighborhood that suffers severe storm flooding and summer traffic congestion. The Galley Ho would also have to be elevated to take it out of the floodplain and to build a new septic system.
Planning Board Chairman Don Wilcenski said the board has already received more than three dozen letters both for and against the project. There were more than 140 signatures on petitions asking the board to scale back the project on file in the Planning Board office as of last week.
While many residents said they were taken by surprise that the Waterfront Fund was planning to open a 66-seat restaurant, former Waterfront Fund chair Barbara Schnitzler said that a post-Sandy site plan on display on a security fence surrounding the Galley Ho has said it would be renovated as a café for more than a year. She added that the zoning there allows a fish processing plant or a ferry terminal.
Current Waterfront Fund chair Pat McIntyre said she believes many of the issues raised by the community are not site plan issues.
“There are parking problems in New Suffolk with existing businesses,” she said, and added that the septic system, which must be raised 8 feet above sea level to meet health department guidelines, will only cause the building to be raised 2.2 feet higher than it had been before.
She added that existing cesspools in the neighborhood, whose bottoms are in the groundwater table, will cause more damage to the environment than the new restaurant.
“We think we have a well-thought out, thorough plan that will work for the benefit of the community,” she said.
But numerous New Suffolkers disagreed with that assessment.
“Many of us donated time and money to the project and are frankly disappointed that it became a commercial property,” said Victoria Germaise of Bunny Lane in New Suffolk. “The property can be self-sustaining with just revenue from a marina.”
Thomas McCloskey of New Suffolk Avenue said he had been told for years there would be no commercial venture at the waterfront.
“I recently learned otherwise,” he said. “My family and I have been supporters of the New Suffolk Waterfront Fund with time and money. We have recused ourselves from further affiliation.”
“The history of restaurants making it on that property are few and far between,” he added. “The community does not want to see a failed business on our waterfront or an improperly finished one similar to the bank on Main Road in Mattituck with a fence around it and grass three feet high.”
Julie Saul, who owns a house across First Street from the waterfront, said she had volunteered for the Waterfront Fund as recently as Memorial Day Weekend two weeks ago, when she served 500 hamburgers at their annual Chowderfest. But she doesn’t want to see the Galley Ho rebuilt either.
“I was very excited to halt commercial activity on that spot,” she said. “Even the notion of a simple café seemed like a very nice idea. This is now development in a negative sense in my opinion. This is creating a problem that does not exist. We have cleared the site and gotten things to a place where it’s beautiful. It’s not too late to stop.
“This is dividing the community and I believe it’s not really serving community,” she added. “The beauty of that site is preservation of the property as a beautiful natural site.”
Waterfront Fund board member Gregg Rivara of Southold said the Waterfront Fund’s board members had done great volunteer work.
“They’re talented, generous community-minded people,” he said. “I believe the plan is a good one for New Suffolk and all of Southold Town.”
“This happens any time there’s a new structure near where you happen to live,” said Michael Simon, who lives on Second Street. “I don’t have the same kind of perception [as people who don’t like the restaurant plan]”
Mr. Simon added that the last time the Galley Ho closed, it didn’t fail, but it was scrapped by the then-owner, who thought it would be more lucrative to build three-story metal boat storage buildings at the site.
“This is essentially kind of like a Central Park concession,” he said of the Galley Ho renovation.
Former Waterfront Fund board member Lauren Grant said she’s baffled by the lack of support from the community over the past month.
“We were under the impression we had the blessing of the community,” she said. “A lot of untruths are being sent around. Everything we’ve done to date has been in our newsletters.”
George Maul, who lives on the corner of First Street and Jackson Street, said the landscaping proposed on the site seems to further block the view of the water, as does the regrading proposed for the septic system. He added that he’d spoken with representatives of the New York State Parks Department, who say the Waterfront Fund can’t charge people to store their trailered boats on the conservation easement, as they are doing.
“If people are so environmentally conscious, why are they using public parkland to park boats?” he said.
“Nobody really knew when this project started that we would have Hurricane Sandy,” he said. “No one wanted this to be a festival site. I don’t know how these things came into the mix. Many people have given a lot of money to this project in the belief that it would be more preservation and less development.”
Former Peconic Baykeeper Kevin McAllister asked the Waterfront Fund to consider a state-of-the art septic system.
Ms. Schnitzler said the board had already looked into that possibility, but, while the system the Waterfront Fund proposes would cost $25,000, they’d received a quote of $250,000 for a state-of-the-art system.
William Grella, a doctor who had been in the restaurant business for 25 years and lives on First Street, said his family has contributed time and money to the Waterfront Fund, but he doesn’t understand why they would build a restaurant.
“My question is why? Why is it necessary?” he asked. “Restaurants have a failure factor of 50 percent. The traffic there is horrific, but it is short-lived. In the restaurant business, you have 10 weeks to make your money, and that period of time is when people in New Suffolk enjoy their properties also.”
“They say they’re only building on 7 percent of the property,” he said. “If I have a patient that has 7 percent cancer in their body, I don’t want it to be there. If it’s going to kill the person, I don’t want it to be there.”
Former Board Member Tom Wickham of Cutchogue said he believes the recently rebuilt bulkhead surrounding the property, which is two feet higher than the old bulkhead, will protect the neighborhood from storms.
He added that he envisions the restaurant as a snack bar, which was in the Waterfront Fund’s plans from the beginning.
“That was the concept at the beginning, and it still animates the board,” he said. “We want a place where people can visit with their friends and pick up a cup of coffee.”
Susan Dingle of New Suffolk Road asked the planning board to help the community work together.
“The spirit of New Suffolk has always been a community of neighbors who care about each other and listen to each other,” she said. “We have lost our way as a community of one spirit. Help us to return to a consensus that everyone feels great about what we’re doing with our space.”
Former Waterfront Fund board member Joe McKay, who had at one time owned the New Suffolk Emporium where the Summer Girl boutique is now, said the board had hoped to replace the meeting space at the general store and post office that had sat on the Waterfront Fund’s site before it burned down in 1993.
“It provided space where people, mostly from New Suffolk, could get together, sit down and talk, open their mail,” he said. “That kind of getting together caused New Suffolk to be as close and tight as it is.”
Mr. McKay added that both the “concerned citizens and people who are concerned about the concerned citizens” leave their doors open in New Suffolk at night because of that trust.
“We felt that this was something, at least, to help preserve this closeness. What we were missing was an opportunity to get together,” he said. “I believe once it’s on the ground and running, people will be very, very pleased and will want it to be there forever.”
Barbara Solo, a self-described “born and raised New Suffolk person,” said she remembered her father talking about shooting craps under the stars and drinking in saloons on the waterfront.
“That’s history,” she said. “You can go to post office and see the water and chat [now]. Why do we need the restaurant there? It involves spending lots and lots of money. We’re all supposed to be part of this New Suffolk thing. Why do we need a restaurant? Why don’t we stop now while we can afford it?”
“I’m sure if Donald Trump wanted to build a casino down there and he could get away with it he would,” she added. “But is it right?”
Victoria Germaise said she didn’t understand how the costs of construction, maintenance and flood insurance on the renovated building could be covered by a mere snack bar on the site.
“It would take a lot of cups of coffee and donuts to pay for construction of this thing. You can’t have it both ways,” she said. “There’s too many unknowns. It seems they’re doing it on spec. It’s a lot of money to spend in a serious flood zone. Why build something there? I don’t get it and I’d love to be convinced otherwise.”
Diane Harkoff, who owns Legends Restaurant across the street from the waterfront, said she believes the community should vote on the project, and urged the board to require a performance bond to ensure the work is completed.
She also said she believes the construction costs were too high to be carried by a snack bar.
Waterfront Fund members said at a public meeting in May that they are obtaining about $770,000 through a Small Business Administration loan, which would cover 60 percent of the project, and have already received a $400,000 SBA loan, which they are using renovate the marina.
“The community would be saddled with debt if this were to fail,” said Ms. Harkoff.
Phil Loria, the former owner of Captain Marty’s Fishing Station next door to the waterfront, said he believes the changes to the site will make the neighborhood more prone to flooding.
“I expect the fishing station will be eroded out in a nor’easter or another Sandy” he said. “I’m very concerned about the people on First Street. If Southold Town is going to do this, they have to think about people who live down the street.”
Paula Flarety of Mattituck said she thinks there should be a public vote.
“The residents feel very, very betrayed,” she said. “This started out as one thing, and really has evolved into something much bigger. I don’t even live in New Suffolk, but you’ve gotta do what’s right. You’re here to serve this community.”
“I think a majority of the community is pretty much saying they’re opposed to this. I think the whole thing is ill-conceived,” she added. “I’ve been listening and I wanted to hear the whole story from everybody to make an objective opinion. What is right is right. The people that live here have to live with this. Boards and people who operate restaurants come and go.”
Ms. Schnitzler vowed at the end of the meeting to work with the community to hammer out a consensus.
“The board and I have to take responsibility for this. We have been very remiss in communicating with the community,” she said. “We will make amends. We’re having a community meeting July 12 at which we can answer some questions.”
Her attorney, Janet Geasa of Wickham, Bressler and Geasa in Mattituck, was more circumspect.
“People raised a lot of issues that not really before this board,” she said. “They’re ZBA, health department issues. I’d ask you to refocus on that.”
“A lot of issues were in the category of speculation,” she added. “You can’t always determine that nothing is better than something. This is a very thoughtful, focused plan.”
Mr. Wilcenski said he hopes the community works something out.
“Everybody wants to get along and I think, with a little extra help and getting together more, coming up with a plan in solidarity will make everything better,” he said.
The board held the public hearing open until July 7.