For sale: One very long wharf.
Suffolk County has offered to sell Long Wharf, also known as Suffolk County Road 81, and an adjacent county-owned parcel known as Windmill Beach to the Village of Sag Harbor for the sum of one dollar.
While Sag Harbor Mayor Brian Gilbride said his board of trustees would undoubtedly accept the offer to purchase Windmill Beach, he questioned whether or not the village could afford Long Wharf, citing the millions of dollars it would cost the village over the years in repairs.
If the village demurs, the wharf could be put up for auction.
On Wednesday, October 27, Gilbride met with Ben Zwirn, from Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy’s office, as well as Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman and several members of the county’s department of public works to discuss the offer.
“It was a cordial meeting,” said Gilbride on Tuesday. “They came to us and said they would like to get rid of the wharf and the beach in front of the windmill.”
This issue was originally raised earlier this month by Schneiderman, who noted the village collects all the revenue from dockage at Long Wharf, but that the county must pay for any substantial repairs. Schneiderman originally suggested some $600,000 in monies earmarked for repairs could be given to the village with Long Wharf to ease the long-term financial burden, but it appears as of last Wednesday, that offer is off the table.
“That is not the county executive’s idea,” said Gilbride. “And they are not even sure they legally could do that.”
“The idea of giving them money with the wharf is off the table,” agreed Schneiderman on Tuesday. “It originally made sense — we were going to spend $600,000 to do some repairs and bring it up to snuff, but that is bonded money, so there is not actually money in our budget for that. In the county, we can’t make up money, we have to take it from somewhere.”
Schneiderman said he even explored whether or not the county could use bonded money for the repairs and once those were completed sell Long Wharf to the village. However, Schneiderman discovered the village would still have to reimburse the county for the cost of those repairs through the lifespan of the bond once it has purchased Long Wharf.
“I said, ‘Listen, we are a small village,’” said Gilbride. “I have village minutes that go back to 1938 and up to 1945 that show Sag Harbor Village acquired Long Wharf from the railroad and turned it over to the county because it was too much of a financial burden.”
According to Gilbride, records show that the village took Long Wharf from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for failure to pay taxes, and Sag Harbor in turn gave the property directly to the county, which at that point in history was governed by town supervisors.
Gilbride added that he informed the group last Wednesday that former mayor John Ward had told him that after the hurricane of 1938, the county cut off the end of Long Wharf and used those stones to reinforce the bay side of the Shinnecock Canal.
“I said, ‘I think you owe the village something for that,’” said Gilbride.
“I kept saying, ‘I can’t make a deal based on a question mark,’” added Gilbride. “I need to know what the potential damage could be in the next five, 10, 20 years.”
According to Zwirn, the county’s department of public works is in the process of completing an inventory of Long Wharf, which will show what kind of repairs will be necessary in coming years. Zwirn said so far, it appears the repairs would be minimal, but that a formal report will be given to village officials in coming weeks so they may have that information before making their decision.
“It seems to be in good shape, so far,” he said.
Annually, Gilbride said the village’s own public works department already maintains Long Wharf, but that the county is responsible for substantial repairs, which he said could cost millions over the next decade and beyond. In return, the village collects all dockage fees, which it manages through its Harbor Master. Last year, according to village records, $93,000 was collected in revenues from boats docking on Long Wharf.
“I have said to the county that I have a split board, but I don’t want to be the mayor that lost Long Wharf,” said Gilbride.
“To me, both of these properties are so iconic and symbolic of Sag Harbor,” said Schneiderman on Tuesday. “They should be owned by the village.”
According to Gilbride, the county has said if the village does not accept Long Wharf it could be put up for auction.
Schneiderman said that is indeed true, but that he would personally be against any sale to a private developer.
“That certainly does strengthen the village’s hand,” he admitted.
However, the other option is that the county take over operation of Long Wharf, which not only provides dockage in Sag Harbor, but much of the village’s parking, and develop new revenue sources to make it financially viable.
Schneiderman said charging fees for anyone who wants to use Long Wharf for events could be one revenue source, but that parking could also be looked at.
“But what I am really concerned about is I do not believe the county has the ability to properly maintain the wharf and that it will get pushed off,” he continued.
Long-term plans for the beautification of Long Wharf, in an effort to make it more pedestrian friendly, will certainly be pushed off, he added, noting it would in fact be easier for the Village of Sag Harbor to obtain a downtown revitalization grant through the state for such a project.
“It has been a brutal county budget process,” said Schneiderman. “If I had to find $600,000, I would be asked where it was coming from, how many people are getting fired for this. We will see where this goes, but at the end of the day, the village could get more revenue from Long Wharf if they planned it, and they stand to lose those revenues completely, so I think that needs to be thought through.”