More than 100 people — about a third of the population of New Suffolk — crowded into the main classroom at the New Suffolk School Saturday morning to hear about the New Suffolk Waterfront Fund’s plans for the old Galley Ho restaurant, and few seemed impressed with what they saw.
The Waterfront Fund, a non-profit formed by community members to stop development along a three acre waterfront stretch of downtown New Suffolk, submitted a site plan to the Southold Town Planning Board in April to re-open a restaurant in the old Galley Ho building, which was severely damaged in Hurricane Sandy. The building has since been moved back from the water’s edge and has been sitting on cribbing while the Waterfront Fund decides its fate.
Neighbors of the property began circulating a petition two weeks ago asking the Planning Board to consider the scale of the project, which will require the building be raised a little more than five feet to meet new FEMA flood requirements and to accommodate a new septic system.
What began as a project the Waterfront Fund believed had the full support of the community has since become a subject of intense debate in this tight-knit community, and nearly everyone who spoke at Saturday’s meeting at the school was skeptical of the plan to reopen the restaurant.
Waterfront Fund board member Andy Torgove told attendees that, in a visioning session several years ago, a restaurant was the third-most frequently chosen option, behind open space and a park, which led the board to believe there was some consensus in the community about opening the restaurant.
Mr. Torgove said the Waterfront Fund has plans to borrow a total of $1.2 million from the Small Business Administration for both a marina currently under construction and for the renovation of the Galley Ho, but that loan will only cover about 60 percent of the cost of rebuilding the restaurant.
Waterfront Fund President Pat McIntyre said the group currently pays $1,986 per year in property taxes, an extremely low amount for waterfront property, but members don’t know what they will pay when the restaurant is rebuilt.
Board member Patty Lowry said the Waterfront Fund plans to issue a request for proposals for someone to run the restaurant, which will stipulate what the ambiance, hours and menu can be. In addition, the Waterfront Fund hopes to share in the profits of the restaurant once it is up and running.
But people in the audience who are familiar with the restaurant business, and with the history of the Galley Ho, which closed several times after owners were unable to turn a profit, were skeptical.
Elaine Romagnoli, who lives on First Street just up the block from the waterfront and who used to own the First Street restaurant Legends when it was Bonnie’s by the Bay, was skeptical that the Waterfront Fund could make money from a restaurant, especially given the restrictions they plan to impose on their as-yet-unknown tenant.
“When and if you lease it, if they decide they can’t live up to your expectations who’s going to enforce what they’re doing?” she asked. “I’m speaking from experience. If people want to gather, why can’t they gather at Legends?”
Keith Haber was skeptical of the plan.
“You’re almost building this place on spec. What happens when now this is built and the restaurant is sitting empty? It’s almost like you’re doing this bass ackwards,” he said.
Barbara Solo said she thinks the Waterfront Fund should get rid of the building.
“We love our community’s peace and quiet. Why do we want to draw in more people from other places?” she asked. “The Galley Ho was a neat place, but that time has passed. Get rid of that darn building…. Hurricane Sandy has wiped out the Galley Ho, the water table is rising, and the bushes [in the site plan] further block the view. As a nonprofit, without the restaurant, your taxes are very low. Why do we have to spend more money? If we eliminate the damn thing, we eliminate the expense.”
Mary Steinfeld of Grathwohl Road said she had believed the plan for the site had been to have picnic tables so people could enjoy the beach and bring their own meal.
“Families don’t want to spend their bottom dollar” at a restaurant, she said.
Phil Loria, who last year sold Captain Marty’s Fishing Station, which is next door to the Waterfront Fund site, said he believes the newly installed bulkhead will worsen erosion at the fishing station and he’s very concerned about how the neighborhood will fare in future storms.
“The tide will be over the windows in Legends,” he said. “What’s going to happen on First Street?”
Joan Doherty of Grathwohl Road wanted to know more about the Waterfront Fund’s finances.
“We have no knowledge of how decisions are made,” she said. “Why is the running of the Waterfront Fund shrouded in secrecy?”
Willie Fisher, who has lived on First Street across from the waterfront since 1979, listed a litany of large trucks that make deliveries to Legends and the post office and boats on trailers that are being delivered to the ramp at the end of First Street.
“People ask me why I want to stay there if this is such a hassle,” he said. “The reason is the view of the bay. The view is going to disappear from street level if this is constructed.”
Gerard Schultheis suggested that New Suffolk form a park district to pay to manage the waterfront.
“Forget about the restaurant. People will pay by taxes,” he said.
Mike Withers of New Suffolk Road said he was surprised when he recently walked down First Street and realized that you can no longer see the water from the southernmost acre of the waterfront, which the Waterfront Fund recently sold to Louis Moore Bacon for conservation. Mr. Bacon is building a dune that obstructs the view of the water from the street.
Phyllis Curott of Grathwohl Road said she might not have donated to the Waterfront Fund if she’d known they were planning to open a restaurant.
“When working on non-profit boards, sometimes you lose sight of the forest,” she said. “Until you hit a crisis, everyone who trusts you and counts on you doesn’t show up.”
Ms. Curott said she had believed that the Peconic Land Trust’s involvement in the project had ensured that the land would be preserved.
“One third of the site devoted to a commercial enterprise wouldn’t have met my expectation of open space,” she said. “I wouldn’t have donated this. This challenges your tax exempt status. People are saying they don’t want a restaurant. They want a place where people can meet and open space.”
Phyllis Curott shares her concerns
Ann Ekster of Fourth Street said her father was born in New Suffolk, and spent many hours down on the waterfront exploring and fishing.
“His dreams certainly weren’t this,” she said.
George Cork Maul, who lives on First Street, read the Waterfront Fund’s incorporation papers, which state that the organization was formed “to solicit gifts from the public and to apply them for the purpose of the preservation, in substantially its present natural state, of littoral real property…so that any such property will remain a natural centerpiece of Eastern Long Island for all future generations.”
“I think the plan has no historic charm and very little character,” he said. “It looks like A Lure in Southold. Why can’t we have the centerpiece of the community be open space for the community?”
Frank Feiler agreed.
“I was under the impression this was going to be something like Mitchell Park, not a drastic change to the community,” he said. “Why did it change? I’m very concerned. I think this project is a little disingenuous. I want to vote on it. I don’t agree with the way this is being handled.”
Watefront Fund board member Linda Auriemma was the only person to speak passionately about the Galley Ho. She said the building, which has been moved to three different locations around New Suffolk over the past century, may have been used to build oyster barrels at some point.
“Don’t be telling me it’s going to be sand,” she said. “That’s not our history.”
“This is a decision for the ages,” said Nan Chaloner. “Are we going to have a legacy here? A lot of it is disappearing so fast. Is this the right way to use a little piece that hasn’t been destroyed?”
Margaret Brown wondered what would be done with the building if it doesn’t become a restaurant.
“The restaurant seems lovely and friendly to me, but obviously that feeling isn’t shared,” she said.
Former Waterfront Fund board member Tom Wickham, who holds a Ph.D in water engineering from Cornell University as well as being a farmer and former Southold Town Supervisor, said he believes the bulkhead will prevent some flooding on First Street.
But for another Sandy, he said, “nothing is really going to provide that measure of protection.”
Former Waterfront Fund president Barbara Schnitzler said Southold Town wouldn’t allow them to put a community center in the Marine II zoning district.
“We’re restricted as to what we can do,” she said, adding that few people seemed concerned when the Waterfront Fund received a variance for the restaurant from the town zoning board last year.
“In the last two weeks, everybody’s changed their minds,” she said.
Board members said they will need to hold another meeting to regroup before deciding whether to go forward with the project, modify it, or put it up to a public referendum, given the opposition they encountered on Saturday.
“It’s obvious there’s a lot of feelings and concern here today. We appreciate that,” said board member Barbara Butterworth. “The board has heard loud and clear. Quite a few people don’t feel it’s appropriate for the site. We’ll take that into consideration. We share the concerns of the community…. We obviously haven’t done a good enough job to let people know what’s going on.”