A petition signed by over 1,200 people — more than half of Fishers Island’s peak summer population — was presented to Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell last Wednesday, during the Town Board’s annual meeting on the island. The petition asked the board to follow through on promised sidewalk repairs and assist with a bicycle path extension.
Bicyclists wearing neon vests held up signs demanding “long overdue” improvements and needed repairs.
“I have spoken with many people working on Fishers Island … who feel that we are not being heard,” said island resident George de Menil. “It has been deeply troubling to hear several year-round residents say, ‘Southold does not like us.’ ”
Mr. de Menil read directly from the petition, asking the board to “live up to your promise to repair and build sidewalks at the western end of the hamlet and to support the construction of a recreational path between the post office and Wilderness Road.”
He said cyclists risk being struck by vehicles while riding on roads with blind corners that lack shoulders and sidewalks.
Last August, the town made a $1.25 million capital bond project commitment to Fishers Island, pledging to allocate $250,000 for sidewalk repairs and installations annually over the following five years. To date, $620,000 of that total has been set aside for sidewalk work – $120,000 for drainage work that has been completed and $500,000 for the initial phase of repairs, which encountered delays due to other island priorities. State Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) also pledged $100,000 for road repairs, which has been officially appropriated.
Mr. Russell said in a phone interview Friday that the town’s commitment is to sidewalk renovations. The existing bicycle path was built largely by community effort, he said, adding that an island engineer designed it and that town engineers have spent a substantial amount of time reviewing it.
“In order to get from where their bike path ends to where … [the town’s] ownership starts, you have to go over a piece of property that’s actually owned by the Navy,” the supervisor said.
Access to that area is blocked by an eight- to 10-foot fence that might need to be relocated if a bike path extension goes forward.
Mr. Russell said he contacted Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer to discuss a property transfer and the steps that would need to be taken. The supervisor said he gave Mr. Spencer his email address about a year ago, so he could send related information for review.
“To date, I haven’t received it,” he said last week. “I haven’t been presented with a dotted line and that’s part of the problem.
“You’re talking about linking a bike trail on part of the public road that essentially is a bike trail that largely exists on private roads,” he said.
Based on his appearances at community meetings on Fishers Island, Mr. Russell said he found that the residents’ “priorities weren’t a bike path. Their priorities were new sidewalks.”
He decided to shift gears due to the potential costs of the path, how far the Navy fence runs and the fact that the town could not take on both sidewalk renovations and a bike path extension. He told residents that any financial commitment he made previously would be redirected to the sidewalks.
John McGillian, representing the Fishers Island Recreational Path Foundation, said at the meeting that it has been over four years since conversation on the extension first began. He said the foundation is willing to privately cover bike path extension costs, with the town’s help.
“We still need [your] staff to spend some time and energy on dealing with the Navy and this transfer,” Mr. McGillian said.
Willard Soper of the Island Community Board said the proposed sidewalk repairs, which were set to begin this year, were put on hold due to other projects involving the Fishers Island Utility Company.
“We realize that for many reasons — some of our own doing, in trying to coordinate utility company activities — that nothing has happened yet,” he said.
Given the amount of time the process has taken, however, he asked that the supervisor be proactive in moving the sidewalk repairs forward and that the town highway department provide a three-year projection of what work will be done and when.
“As taxpayers that provide 10 to 12 percent of the town’s yearly revenue, we would like to see some specific attention to these long-overdue needs,” Mr. McGillian said.
Applauding island residents for “holding public officials accountable,” Mr. Russell said the sidewalks have been designed, and the board has been ready to go, but was beholden to the utility company’s timetable. Because that sidetracked parts of the process and sidewalks are a capital bond project, new bids will need to be secured, the supervisor said, adding that he anticipates work will begin in the spring of 2020.
“With respect to a comparison on how much gets spent in each hamlet versus the hamlet of Fishers Island, the $1.25 million dollars I proposed for sidewalk repair not only exceeds any of the hamlets in Southold, it exceeds all of the hamlets of Southold combined,” Mr. Russell said.