Fireboat told to get moving — or else

03/14/2014 8:00 AM |

Fire Fighter docked in Greenport Village. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder, file)

The flap over the fireboat Fire Fighter, which is still docked in Greenport, has gotten personal.

According to a certified letter sent to Charlie Ritchie, president of the Fire Fighter Museum, the historic vessel must be removed from the Greenport railroad dock by March 31 at the expense of either the organization or its individual members. 

“Should you choose not to remove the vessel by this date, Suffolk County will have no alternative but to bring an action against your organization and against you personally, in addition to other members of your organization, for its removal and all other remedies,” reads the letter, dated March 6.

“When I got the letter I was kind of shocked,” said Mr. Ritchie. “I am trying to find out what other options there are for us.”

Mr. Ritchie said he and the museum’s other board members couldn’t personally cover penalties or fines, or any of the exorbitant costs associated with relocating the boat. And the organization itself is wary of hiring legal counsel because any available funds need to be put toward Fire Fighter’s relocation, to cover fuel costs and whatever rent the boat’s next port might charge.

In January, Greenport Village Board members voted unanimously to approve a resolution terminating licensing for the berthing of Fire Fighter at any village-controlled dock effective Feb. 28, the final day of the vessel’s docking permit. The Village of Greenport leases the railroad dock from the county for a token fee of $1 per year, but the county retains the right to refuse any sublease agreement the village enters into.

Mr. Ritchie said he applied for a two-month extension of that permit on Feb. 18, but never heard back from village officials on the request.

Reached for comment Tuesday, deputy mayor George Hubbard said he “didn’t even know they had applied,” adding that the paperwork has yet to reach Village Board members for discussion.

Regardless of what the board might decide, Mr. Hubbard said, the ultimate decision remains with the county.

“We said the boat can stay here and [the county] said it had to leave even after we voted” to allow the boat to stay at the railroad dock last year, he said.

County officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Hubbard said the fireboat’s situation could be discussed among Village Board members during their public work session Monday, March 17.

With the impending deadline to remove Fire Fighter from the railroad dock, Mr. Ritchie and volunteers will hold a fundraising event this weekend, March 15 and 16, offering tours of the historic 134-foot vessel in hopes of raising the cash needed to relocate it.

“I think we are moving forward and that we are going to get someplace, but we need time to do that,” he said.

Mr. Ritchie said he has spoken with officials in Port Jefferson and Peekskill, N.Y., and New London, Conn., but as of now the boat has nowhere to go.

In the meantime, Mr. Ritchie said he is contacting county officials to better understand why the county is targeting the museum and a board made up of volunteers.

“They aren’t saying we’re in violation of this code or that code, they are just saying we want you out,” Mr. Ritchie said. “That’s the distressing part because they are making it vague.”

In past Suffolk Times coverage, county Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) said the boat’s presence at the railroad dock has created a potential liability for the county.

“If it sinks, it could damage the oyster beds there,” Mr. Krupski said, commenting on the vessel’s deteriorating condition.

But Mr. Ritchie said the nonprofit has been working to recondition and preserve Fire Fighter while it’s been in Greenport.

“We’ve had surveys done in the water. There is nothing in those surveys that would leave us to believe there is any danger of it sinking or of fuel leaking,” he said, adding that although the boat can hold 10,000 gallons of fuel, the museum group keeps only about 1,000 gallons total in its two tanks — which are not directly connected to the boat’s hull.

“If there were a leak in the fuel tanks or the boat hit something and sprung a leak in the hull, fuel would not get into the water,” Mr. Ritchie said. “We don’t have skin fuel tanks.”

Mr. Krupski had also said “the dock was intended to be used by commercial fishermen and they could be displaced with the fireboat there.”

According to village code, “it is unlawful for any person to use for an unreasonable period of time to the exclusion of others or to restrict or obstruct the use of any public bulkhead, dock or landing owned or controlled by the Village of Greenport.”

Fire Fighter was christened in 1938 and fought fires along the New York City waterfront for more than 70 years before being retired in 2010. The vessel spent two years at the Brooklyn Navy Yard before being transferred to the museum in October 2012.

It’s the third-oldest fireboat in the country and the fifth oldest in the world, according to the museum.

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