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Greenport seeks input on ferry fee, though Suffolk approval needed

Doug Roberts

The Greenport Village Board is pressing on with a plan to charge the North Ferry Company a per-car fee for its Greenport-Shelter Island traffic.

In a split vote at its meeting last Thursday, after its own attorney warned against levying the fee, the board voted to solicit opinions from other lawyers.

But the plan may already be dead in the water. While village trustees try to determine the legality of such a charge, representatives from the ferry company itself say they aren’t willing to support charging anyone on the village’s behalf.

And neither local Suffolk County legislator — who would have to vote to authorize such a fee — has endorsed the idea either. One of them said the county would need to study the effects a fee would have on agreements with other ferry operators. Suffolk regulates the fares charged by ferries that operate with in county boundaries.

“While this would be good for Greenport, and I understand they bear the ferry traffic coming through there … this would have ramifications for all the ferries,” said Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue).

The ferry fee was one of the talking points in the last village election, when Trustees Doug Roberts and Jack Martilotta — challengers at the time who went on to become the top two vote-getters in the four-person race — proposed charging the North Ferry one dollar for every car it shuttles across Greenport Harbor. Mr. Roberts said the fee would generate a “potential six-figure revenue swing” for the village, which could then be put toward making road repairs.

But at a March 17 Village Board meeting, village attorney Joe Prokop said the plan wouldn’t be legal. He cited a 2009 U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that found the Bridgeport Port Authority had been unconstitutionally collecting excessive taxes from a local ferry company.

Mr. Roberts pushed the board to seek a second opinion and at last week’s meeting, rallied three of the four board members present to approve a resolution asking for “pro-bono third party legal opinions” on the issue. He said a positive opinion could provide “leverage” for the Village Board in future negotiations with the ferry company.

“It’s being diligent to go ask around and I don’t see any harm in hearing other people’s opinions,” he told The Suffolk Times. “It is a very important issue and if we’re not going to be able to come through on this for the people of the village, I want to make sure we’ve tried every possible path.”

Mayor George Hubbard Jr. agreed, saying it couldn’t hurt to get another opinion and emphasizing that the resolution was not a reflection of Mr. Prokop’s abilities. Village Trustee Julia Robins, who had initially come out against the idea, eventually backed the resolution, citing Mr. Hubbard’s advice.

The resolution was opposed by Trustee Mary Bess Phillips, who said the Suffolk County Legislature had the local authority to set a fee on the ferry company. The state could also impose a fee, but it would have to install a toll to collect the money, she added.

Ms. Phillips also said the ferry company was working with the village and would need to apply to the county soon for approval of a larger vessel. At that point, she said, the village could discuss adding a fee.

“I think it’s better for us to work with them to build it into their fee schedule,” she said. “I think we’re moving forward on this.”

But that wasn’t backed up by Stella Lagudis, general manager of the Heights Property Owners Corporation, which owns the North Ferry. She seemed surprised by the implication that the ferry would be open to adding a fee.

“We’re trying to work with the village with respect to traffic and signage and things of that nature,” she said. “But we’re not supportive of a surcharge at all … and we’re not working with them, not in that regard.”

Ms. Lagudis also said it would be up to the Suffolk County Legislature — not the Village Board — to set such a fee.

Mr. Krupski said he understood that parking was at a premium in Greenport Village and that traffic around the ferry had become a problem. But he was unsure if the Legislature would be able to transfer revenues generate by any fee to the village directly. The current fee structure for the North Ferry is set “based on an economic formula on what it costs to run the ferries.”

Mr. Krupski also said a $1-per-car fee on the North Ferry would set a precedent for all other ferries in Suffolk County and spur other municipalities to demand their own agreements.

“All the other villages would come forward,” he said.

Legislator Bridget Fleming (D-Noyack), whose district includes Shelter Island, said she hasn’t been contacted about any ferry fee and didn’t share an opinion on the idea.

“I have not personally been approached by anybody from Greenport about the issue,” she said. “But I’m open to discussing their concerns and seeing what works and what seems not to be working.”

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Photo: Greenport Village Trustee Doug Roberts has proposed charging plan to establish a new revenue stream for road repairs by charging drivers traveling to the North Ferry. (Credit: Paul Squire)