The New Suffolk Waterfront Fund’s plan to operate a commercial restaurant on a portion of the nonprofit’s 2.3-acre First Street property has come under criticism from neighbors who claim the group is choosing revenue over preservation.
Just weeks before plans for the restaurant go up for public hearing before the Southold Town Planning Board, neighbors have started a petition, hoping to stop the project from moving forward.
“NSWF’s apparent change in mission to make this property into their own money-maker rather than a preserved open space is troubling to those who choose to live in a quiet beach community,” the petition states. “We need to have these plans out in the open so those on the fence about the plans can see what the area will look like with the proposed restaurant in place and make an informed decision about what they want New Suffolk to look and be like in the future.”
The proposal calls for the now-vacant Galley Ho restaurant building, which previously sat 18 feet from the shoreline, to be relocated, renovated and expanded by 47 square feet. The building was badly damaged by floodwaters during Hurricane Sandy. The new 66-seat eatery would be situated roughly 75 feet from the water’s edge, according to the nonprofit’s vice chairwoman, Linda Auriemma.
Additionally, the proposal calls for construction a 16-slip marina, a retaining wall around the restaurant and a raised external septic system.
The owners of businesses across the street from the site — including Legends Restaurant and Summer Girl boutique — and some residents are petitioning against the project. They claim its scope would have a negative impact on the environment and cause parking issues. They also accuse the waterfront fund of a “lack of transparency” during the process.
The petition states the “full-fledged restaurant” would be larger than the original footprint of the Galley Ho and would be “devastating to the delicate waterfront property, destroying views for residents and having an environmental impact that will be felt throughout the community.”
Additionally, the document states that the nonprofit has not disclosed its financial information or its overall planning process to the community.
Diane Harkoff, who co-owns Legends Restaurant, said she used to support the group, even donating food for its fundraisers, but now believes a “shroud of secrecy” surrounds it.
“I asked if I could see the financials and the answer was, ‘No,’ ” she said. “And you talk about transparency to the community? It is a charming, funky little town and we like it preserved that way. And that’s what we were promised by this 501c3 corporation. They’re breaking their promise and they’re doing it very secretly.”
Ms. Harkoff and about 20 other protesters who signed the petition say the operation of a for-profit restaurant conflicts with the fund’s mission of conservation and preservation. They also fear that the raised height of building will block waterfront views and redirect floodwaters toward other buildings and that the parking proposed for the eatery won’t be sufficient.
“It started out [in 2005] as a really well-intentioned community effort,” said George Cork Maul, a New Suffolk property owner who signed the petition. “Somewhere along the way, things changed.”
Members of the New Suffolk Waterfront Fund’s board denied the allegations Tuesday, saying the petition was “unfair” and “inaccurate.” They said the plan is in line with the organization’s mission, which states its goal is to support recreational, educational and commercial activities on the site.
Should the site plan be approved, the group hopes to lease the restaurant space to a private vendor and use the rental income to cover the costs of the property’s insurance and maintenance. It will be modeled the after the former Galley Ho, with a relaxed vibe and inexpensive food, Ms. Auriemma said.
Waterfront fund members say plans for the restaurant have been well documented since planning for the site began several years ago and that it would actually accommodate fewer people than the former Galley Ho, which had 99 seats.
The café, they said, would not be open late or have televisions.
As for the environmental concerns, group members said they’ve been working with the town, county and state to meet regulations to properly rehab the restaurant and have several public meetings on the proposal, including one scheduled for Saturday, May 17, at 10 a.m. at the New Suffolk School.
Most of the 2.3-acre property will remain open space because of conservation easements, former fund chair and current board member Barbara Schnitzler said.
“We are not blocking views, we are enhancing them,” she said. “We worked really hard on our site plan to keep all of that intact.”
No stranger to New Suffolk’s limited parking, members said the site plan follows town code on that issue, adding that they hope to attract more people traveling by boat or on foot rather than by car.
Waterfront fund board members said they hope that once the public hearings end, the tension will too.
“We are a really small, close-knit town here. We usually all get along,” Ms. Auriemma said. “We love going to Legends and Summer Girl and it is very hard having this turmoil right now.”
The Southold Town Planning Board will hold a public hearing on the site plan at Town Hall on Monday, June 2, at 6 p.m.