Public remains split on Strong’s Marine expansion

An overflow crowd packed the Southold Town Planning Board’s public hearing on the Strong’s Marine expansion proposal Monday evening, with chairs set up in the hallway and additional attendees on Zoom. The Planning Board’s goal for the hearing was to gather comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement submitted by Strong’s.

After the first dozen or so residents spoke, it was clear the public is deeply divided over the project.

The proposal, first submitted to Southold Town in 2018, calls for two heated, indoor storage facilities — 52,00 square feet and 49,000 square feet — to be built at Strong’s Yacht Center on Mill Road in Mattituck, a 32.96-acre parcel zoned Marine II and R-80, which permit marine and low-density residential development, respectively. The new buildings would house up to 88 yachts of 60 to 80 feet in length. The Strong’s property is currently home to two storage buildings, totaling 69,245 square feet, which cannot accommodate boats of that size.

Many of those who took the podium to oppose the project cited environmental risks and the disruptive nature of the construction process, concerns covered in the DEIS. Others spoke in favor of the expansion, including Strong’s employees and customers, commercial fishermen and other local business owners, who citied the potential economic benefits as well as the Strong family’s long-standing commitment to the community and their legal right to develop the property.

Despite deeply held opinions, the atmosphere remained calm in the clearly polarized room.

The public was provided with ground rules which explained that technical consultants would be first to address the hearing. But due to the large scope of the DEIS, the Planning Board limited the Strong’s team of technical consultants to discussing only half of the issues listed — traffic, noise, construction schedules and any unavoidable impacts of the development. Approximately 45 minutes into their presentation, the consultants announced they would push the unavoidable impacts discussion to the board’s second public hearing, scheduled for Monday, June 5. On that date, consultants will also discuss other matters of concern including groundwater modeling, ecological resources, air quality and development alternatives and their potential impacts.

During those 45 minutes, site engineer Doug Adams of Young and Young Engineering, traffic engineer Ron Hill of Dunn Engineering Associates and noise consultant Sean Harkin of SoundSense LLC focused their attention on information from the DEIS related to noise, vibrations and traffic caused by trucks hauling excavated sand and debris from the site. As a particular related concern, the public has already raised the issue of a historic water tower and accessory building on West Mill Road. Regarding those structures, the DEIS states that “field observation did not indicate any surficial damage due to daily truck movement.”

“To address the potential impact,” Mr. Harkin said Monday, “a vibration monitoring plan has been developed which will provide alerts to the acoustic consultant and the construction management team should vibration levels approach the damage criteria.” He added that “should two alerts confirmed due to truck vibration occur on the same day, the trips are to be halted until additional data can be collected and further mitigation can be implemented.”

In a dramatic display of opposition, Save The Mattituck Inlet, which formed in 2020 to oppose the proposal, parked a massive tractor trailer on Main Road directly across from Town Hall and covered it with signs that read “9,000 trips” and “Every Seven Minutes,” referring to the proposed debris hauling plan. The issue of the sand hauling trucks is also a concern for Riverhead residents, as current plans call for roughly 40 trucks that will travel to and from the site five days a week for an estimated six months via Route 58, Northville Turnpike and Sound Avenue.

Toqui Terchun, president of the Greater Calverton Civic Association, attended Monday’s public hearing to express her concern about that truck traffic, as well as safety concerns associated with the trucks’ use of the traffic circle at Peconic Bay Medical Center.

“I know you’re focusing on your local roads here in Southold and rightly so,” Ms. Terchun said. “Please do think of your neighbors in Calverton and Riverhead.”

Many residents expressed concern that the yacht center expansion would irreparably harm the environment. To fulfill their vision for the site adjacent to the Mill Road Preserve, the developers must remove 634 trees, the lion’s share of which lie in the Marine II zone. Speakers from various environmental groups voiced fears that altering the natural environment will harm various native species, from box turtles to bats.

“Turtles, snakes, turkeys, racoons, rabbits, deer, possums, hedgehogs all make this area their home, and the bird life is staggering,” said Marge McDonnell of Mattituck, who lives within walking distance of the preserve. “To listen to the bird song on a spring morning is to be in awe. It is a gift.”

At the end of her three minutes, Ms. McDonnell made a request to the members of the Planning Board.

“Please, before you make any decision about this project, if you have not already done so, walk the Mill Road Preserve,” she said. ”See it, listen to it, experience it for yourselves. I believe that will help inform your decision. I know it has informed mine.”

Several project supporters spoke to the potential positive economic impacts that could result from the new storage facilities, including the creation of 11 year-round jobs and the preservation of a working waterfront.

Cutchogue resident Terri Boyle Romanelli read from Southold’s comprehensive plan which discusses the town’s goals to create jobs, attract tourists and “preserve, encourage and continue to support existing and future maritime uses as an important business sector within the town’s economy.”

An overflow crowd packed the Southold Town Planning Board’s public hearing on the Strong’s Marine expansion proposal Monday evening.

“I’m asking the board to show your support for Strong’s and show your support for economic development in our town that will enable us to continue to thrive,” Ms. Boyle Romanelli said. “Change is inevitable, we are going to change, and we need to manage the change, but we also need to respect the businesses that have gotten us to where we are today and have thrived.”

Other proponents of the project, such as developer Paul Pawlowski, pointed to “practical” economic benefits of the development as a greater good that outweighs concerns over the disruptive construction process.

“As a North Fork town, don’t we want to support a working waterfront?” he said. “I agree, I wouldn’t want that many trucks going past my house, but [they’re] trying to work a waterfront.”

In recent weeks, Jeff Strong, patriarch of the family business, has expanded efforts to elicit community support for the hotly contested expansion. On April 25, he and his family hosted a three-and-a-half hour Q&A session at Mattituck-Laurel Library for residents interested in learning more about the project from the engineers and consultants behind it. As was the case at the library event, most of the hearing attendees seemed to arrive with their minds already made up.

Mr. Strong declined to comment following the public hearing.

On Monday, the Planning Board distributed information to those present about how the process will move forward. The same information was attached to the online meeting agenda. The Planning Board will host a second public hearing on the yacht center expansion Monday, June 5, and will accept written comments on the proposal and the DEIS through Monday, July 10.

At that point, the applicant is required to prepare a Final Environmental Impact Statement that addresses all relevant, substantive questions and comments raised by the public — either at public hearings or in writing. Once that FEIS is made public, there will be a 10-day comment period for additional input. That will be followed by the Planning Board’s evaluation of the project and findings statement.