(May 25, 2010) The inclusion of East Hampton Town's two docks in Montauk on a list of properties that might be sold to help cover the town's deficit sent dozens of upset commercial fishermen to Town Hall last Thursday night.
Members of the fishing fleet who keep their boats at the town's commercial docks in Lake Montauk said they would lose their livelihood if the docks were privatized and fees went up. The town, they said, would suffer the loss of a year-round industry that pumps $50 million annually into the local economy.
By Friday afternoon, a potential sale of the docks was deep-sixed. Town officials had confirmed an assertion by Bonnie Brady, the executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, that East Hampton's state-approved Local Waterfront Revitalization Program precludes the sale of the public docks.
The L.W.R.P., which is a component of East Hampton Town's adopted comprehensive plan, requires maintaining publicly owned "access points" to the water, said the East Hampton town attorney, Dan Adams, on Tuesday. With Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and Town Councilwoman Theresa Quigley in attendance, he researched the law on Friday.
Among the waterfront program's goals are to "strengthen the economic base of small harbor areas by encouraging traditional uses and activities" and to "maintain, promote, and expand commercial fishing opportunities."
At the board meeting last Thursday, Mr. Wilkinson listened to the fishermen's concerns but did not back away from the idea of selling the docks, saying that he had a "mandate" from voters to get the town back in the black. He insisted that selling the docks would not necessarily change things for the fishermen.
Ms. Quigley backed him up, but Councilwoman Julia Prince said that selling the docks was "not an option," and Councilman Pete Hammerle said that he would never support a sale.
A group of about 30 fishermen, along with Ms. Brady, who is married to a commercial fisherman, sat through hearings and discussions of other topics until close to 10 p.m. last Thursday. That was just hours before many of them had to wake up to head offshore again, they said.
They were there to express their displeasure at the idea of privatizing the docks, as well as their disappointment in Mr. Wilkinson, who during his campaign had promised to support the fishing industry.
"You lose the town docks, you lose the commercial fleet -- that's all there is to it," said Ms. Brady.
Under private ownership, dock fees, now between $45 and $80 per foot, depending on tonnage, would inevitably rise beyond what commercial fishermen can pay, she said. Private marina fees for year-round slips in Montauk range from $200 to $240 a foot, Carl Darenberg, the owner of the Montauk Marine Basin, said at the meeting.
"Face it, these guys have a bull's-eye on their back to begin with," Ms. Brady said, referring to fishing regulations and other hardships. "If you remove our ability to dock our boats, we will lose our jobs."
Mr. Wilkinson acknowledged that the group filling the courtroom at Town Hall wished to make him "chum."
"I don't want to reduce slips," he said. "I simply want a new owner. We shouldn't be in the marina business."
"I have a mandate," he said, referring to the need to raise money and get the town back in the black. "This has nothing to do with whether I back the fishermen."
"These were 2 out of 22 unrestricted properties," Mr. Wilkinson said of the list of properties that potentially might be sold, which he had released last week.
"I would gladly entertain private partnership, with various marina owners or boat owners, to get together and pitch in. I would encourage anyone in this room to get together as businesses and say, 'Sure, we'd like those docks.' "
Already struggling economically, the fishermen said that they were already struggling economically and that such a partnership was not an option.
"I completely hear you," Ms. Quigley told the fishermen, "but unfortunately you're not the only group that are suffering with taxes they can't afford to pay. I don't feel right helping one industry when there are industries that are suffering worse."
"What about the carpenters, the electricians, the hairdressers that don't get subsidized by the Town of East Hampton?" she asked. "We, as a town, are in essence giving you a better rental rate than we give other people in the town."
Dock fees have tripled in recent years, Ms. Brady pointed out.
But, Ms. Quigley said, they are "still half of what it is at other marinas," Ms. Quigley said.
Ms. Brady said Tuesday that she had researched the fees charged commercial boats at public docks elsewhere. In Gloucester and New Bedford in Massachusetts, the docks are overseen by a municipal corporation, and boat owners pay $4 and $10 a foot, respectively.
In Southampton, the fee is $50 a foot, she said.
"We're not subsidized by the town, and since we bring in all sorts of income, and are the only year-round industry in the Town of East Hampton," the board should "find other sources" to cover the deficit, Ms. Brady said at the meeting last week.
This week, state legislators approved a bill authorizing East Hampton to issue an additional $15 million in bonds to cover its deficit, which, it has been estimated, will reach $30 million or more when audits of recent years are completed. A previous state law allowed the town to issue $15 million in bonds.
Repayment of the bonds would take place over the next decade, adding to taxpayers' costs. Property sales have been proposed to bring in income to reduce that tax burden.
"It's like selling the Lighthouse, or selling the windmill," Vincent Carillo Jr., who owns three fishing boats, told the board last week. "Every one of these guys . . . voted for you because you were one of us," he told Mr. Wilkinson, who lives in Montauk, adding that he had offered him his support when Mr. Wilkinson campaigned at the docks.
Mr. Wilkinson said that he had demonstrated his commitment to the fishing community by advocating on their behalf with state and federal agencies and officials on fisheries issues.
"If you have that consistent commitment to the fishing community, take these docks off the block," Ms. Brady told him.
Another speaker noted that having the fishing fleet here helps generate tourism, and that commercial fishermen themselves help keep other local businesses, such as delis, going year round.
"The cost of financial recklessness -- you're feeling it right now," Councilman Dominick Stanzione told the group.
"Commercial fishing is the heritage of this town, and I'll be damned if you'll sell it," Elaine Jones said. "We'll go out and get a referendum to stop it."
According to state law, if a certain percentage of voters sign a petition within 30 days of the date a resolution on the sale of public property is approved, the matter must be put to all voters in a referendum.
The docks were listed with 20 other properties across East Hampton Town, which include an access strip to Lake Montauk, woodland, undeveloped building lots, and duneland, that the supervisor said would be considered for sale.
It grew from an annotated, comprehensive list of all town properties that was prepared by the Planning Department for further review.
The Local Waterfront Revitalization Program requires all actions to be undertaken in the town's coastal area to be evaluated for consistency with the provisions of the program.
It also requires the creation of a waterfront advisory committee, which has apparently never been convened. It calls for the town supervisor to oversee management and coordination of the program, to issue an annual progress report on the implementation of L.W.R.P. provisions, and for him or her to convene, annually, a town L.W.R.P. coordinating council. The council's members are to include representatives of the town board, planning board, town trustees, zoning board of appeals, and waterfront advisory committee, as well as members of town departments such as Planning, Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation, and Emergency Services.
Mr. Adams said Tuesday that the attorneys' office will begin a systematic review of the properties considered potentially eligible for sale, researching deeds, for example, and whether provisions of the L.W.R.P. would apply.
Ms. Brady said that fishermen, now galvanized by concern over the potential dock sale, plan to organize after the summer season, perhaps becoming members of the waterfront advisory committee. They might also look into how opportunities for year-round waterfront industry might be maximized.