For the moment, the debate over the New Suffolk Waterfront Fund’s plan to relocate and renovate the Galley Ho restaurant is something to admire.
Too often, when a potential issue arises in our communities it fails to attract attention from the community at large. It’s often the usual suspects or the NIMBYs who have their voices heard by town officials, while their neighbors tune things out and fail to participate in the conversation.
That’s certainly not the case in New Suffolk, where a large faction of the community has spoken out against the Waterfront Fund’s proposal, and a seemingly equal number of outspoken residents have turned out to support the plan.
Healthy debate on civic issues can make a good community great, but the line between healthy and unhealthy debate is a thin one. The residents of New Suffolk must be careful moving forward on this issue not to let passionate self-interest win out over reasonable consensus.
An unbiased observer could easily spot certain flaws in the arguments presented by both sides at a Southold Town Planning Board hearing Monday.
On one side is the nonprofit itself, which aims to reconstruct the Galley Ho and use the revenues the restored restaurant generates to fund its mission of preserving the waterfront; supporting recreational, educational, and commercial activities on the site; and assuring public access.
The public’s request to have the Waterfront Fund share its business plan for the restaurant and open its books to the community is reasonable. As a 501c3 nonprofit, the organization is correct when it says it need only share its financial statements in its annual filing with the state and federal governments. But there are no laws preventing a nonprofit from opening its books when that’s the right thing to do for the community it serves.
New Suffolk Waterfront Fund executive committee chair Barbara Schnitzler suggested the organization will be more transparent about its finances moving forward. Sharing the business plan for the proposed restaurant with its neighbors, most of whom have donated to the cause, at a community meeting scheduled for July 12 would be a good start.
At that same meeting — which we believe should be rescheduled for before the continuation of the Planning Board hearing on July 7 in hopes that a consensus can be reached sooner — the project’s opponents could strengthen their position if they abandon rhetoric and stick to reality.
Comparing the project to cancer and using phrases like “bring back democracy,” as opponents did at this week’s hearing, doesn’t elevate the discourse. And the implication that the Waterfront Fund property is in pristine condition comes off as disingenuous; to hear opponents of the project tell it, you’d be left believing that the nonprofit is looking to drop a T.G.I. Friday’s in the heart of St. Peter’s Square. Fact is, the waterfront site is a local treasure, but recent storms and years of neglect have left it in desperate need of a facelift.
The opposition to the plan would also feel a little more genuine if it weren’t being led by the owners of a neighboring restaurant, who have taken out an advertisement in this newspaper and written letters to the editor to help fuel the debate. One has to wonder if they would mind this plan as much if something other than a restaurant were attached to it.
The best point made during Monday’s hearing came from Planning Board chairman Donald Wilcenski, who said both sides should take care to iron out their differences so this plan can move forward without further fracturing the community.
A healthy debate can strengthen the bond of a close-knit community; an unhealthy one can crush its spirit.