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Southold Town may loosen beach restrictions this summer

As New York begins to ease pandemic restrictions on social gatherings, capacity and dining, officials in Southold are beginning to plan for a more active summer season.

During a work session Tuesday, Supervisor Scott Russell said he doesn’t see a need to repeat the “draconian” measures imposed at local beaches last year.

“It was quite restrictive,” he said.

Based on newly released guidelines by the state, the maximum capacity for gatherings in public spaces will increase from 50 people to 100 people indoors and 200 outdoors, starting March 22.

Limits on residential gatherings are also set to increase from 10 to 25 people outdoors while indoor gatherings will remain capped at 10 people. Masks and social distancing will still be required.

Last year, access to beaches in Southold was limited to residents only and the town hired additional traffic control officers to help with enforcement and turn beachgoers away if beaches became too crowded.

Citing several instances last summer where contentious situations arose between people trying to access the beach and beach attendants working the gates, the town may also consider adding more seasonal officers and beach attendants in order to staff the beaches properly.

In May, beach stickers will also be available to purchase through a drive-up window at the Town Hall Annex, officials said.

While restrictions may loosen up at other town beaches, resident-only restrictions could be left intact at New Suffolk Beach due to consistent problems with overcrowding and parking that date back to before the pandemic.

“New Suffolk still is overwhelmingly the most popular beach,” Mr. Russell said.

Capacity limits for indoor dining are also set to increase for restaurants outside of New York City from 50% to 75% beginning March 19.

Councilwoman Jill Doherty suggested the town allow local restaurants to continue offering outdoor dining under permits initially issued last spring. “Between indoor and outdoor, maybe they can get to 100% capacity,” Ms. Doherty said. “That’s going to help these small businesses and I think the town needs to do what we can to help them.”

RECREATIONAL USES

Members of the community center on Fishers Island are hoping to build new paddle tennis courts on a vacant piece of land nearby, but their plans were set off course after running into some issues in the town’s code, which does not permit accessory uses to be built on empty lots.

A new code amendment introduced by Supervisor Scott Russell would change that, allowing recreational uses like tennis and basketball courts or playgrounds to be considered accessory uses to community centers or other nonprofit organizations located within 200 feet of the property. It would not allow for more intense uses such as swimming pools or miniature golf courses.

The property would have to be owned or leased by the community center or a nonprofit and would have to be open to the general public, according to the proposal.

A growing dispute over whether such proposals would need to obtain site plan approval led the board to table action for at least two weeks as they discuss options.

At a work session Tuesday, Mr. Russell said he believes it would be “onerous and unnecessary” to require site plan approval for things like a tennis court. 

Deputy supervisor Jill Doherty agreed, noting that nonprofit groups may often lack the funds required to present formal plans.

Town attorney Bill Duffy said he included the planning board requirement in the latest draft since some projects may also include associated screening, parking and lighting. “That’s really the skillset of the planning department,” he said.

Councilman Jim Dinzio disagreed with establishing new code, arguing that past hardships for similar applications have all been handled by special exception. “Hardships unique to a specific piece of property is the reason why the Zoning Board of Appeals is there,” he said.

The board is expected to continue discussions later this month.