Pondering the Ebb and Flow of Ligonee Brook

Posted on 23 October 2008

When Southampton Town Trustee President Jon Semlear was a child growing up in Sag Harbor they called Ligonee Brook, also known as Ligonee Creek, Alewive Dreen.

“My whole life they called it the alewive dreen,” he said. “My experience growing up in Sag Harbor was there were always alewives traveling up the stream, particularly on the west side of the [Sag Harbor] turnpike where the stream comes to the road.”

Semlear, fellow Southampton Town Trustees Fred Havemeyer and Edward Warner, Jr., Southampton Town Chief Environmental Analyst Marty Shea, with photographer and writer Jean Held, members of the Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt, the Group for the East End and the Sag Harbor Citizens Advisory Committee in tow, conducted an inspection of Ligonee Brook on Thursday, October 9 to assess its current condition.

In town politics the brook has been caught up in a debate over a proposed Sag Harbor Gateway Study, which, at its core suggests the rezoning of a little over half a dozen properties on the Sag Harbor Turnpike – including land that borders the brook. But for Semlear, and a number of others on the Thursday afternoon ramble, the excursion was more about familiarizing themselves with the brook, its history and about addressing what the trustees can do to ensure the brook’s health.

The brook is a part of the Long Pond Greenbelt, a system of ponds, swamps, streams and woods, which extends from Sag Harbor to Sagaponack. The greenbelt includes 30 freshwater ponds, as well as a number of swamp and marsh areas and Sagg Pond, a salt pond that occasionally lets out into the ocean. As Held noted on Wednesday, the Long Pond Greenbelt has a plethora of rare flora and fauna specimens as a result of its delicate ecosystem.

Ligonee Brook is first referenced in New York State records in January of 1803, according to a history of the brook in a record compiled by Held through Southampton Town documents and histories in local newspapers. In New York State records, “legonee creek or brook” is defined as a boundary marker to what the state referred to as the “port of Sagg Harbor.” 

According to Held, while often referred to as Ligonee Creek, Alewive Dreen, the Long Pond Dreen, or the Long Pond Drain, the proper name for the stream is Ligonee Brook, which she notes is what the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation calls the stream.

Throughout old issues of The Sag Harbor Express, the brook, in all its various identities is shown to be the site off great eel catches and alewive sightings, as the migratory species used the brook to travel from Sag Harbor Cove to Long Pond. As early as 1874, in local papers there were calls for Sag Harbor residents to roll up their sleeves and help clear debris – brush and leaves – from the brook during the dry season, as it would accumulate at levels that would block the flow of water during the times of year the water would run.

Whether the brook is still a part of the migratory patterns for alewives and eels has been a debated subject as of late, particularly when discussed in Southampton Town Hall as a part of the Gateway Study. There have also been questions raised as to whether the brook still runs with water, or if it has dried for good.

Robert Reid’s family has owned a parcel of land that now houses Reid Brothers Incorporated, an auto repair shop, for several decades. The Reid property is one of several being considered for re-zoning by the town under the Sag Harbor Gateway Study. For a majority of the parcels looked at in the gateway study, the town’s department of land management suggests a change in zoning from highway business, which allows large commercial enterprises to hamlet office, which would permit only smaller professional offices and retail locations.

Any business, like the Reid Brothers, that is already in place would be considered pre-existing, non-conforming and could operate business as usual even if the business changed hands as long as a change of use was not proposed.

At a Southampton Town Board hearing on the Gateway Study in September, Reid asked the board how Ligonee Brook – cited by a handful of residents and advocates in support of the gateway study – could be a viable breeding ground for a number of species if it was dry.

According to Reid, at one point the brook, which borders his property, was dry for 23 years, although he said it did start to run again when water was pumped from the Rowe Industries Superfund site nearby.

“But it miraculously stopped running this past winter,” said Reid.

Reid also believes the brook may have been man-made, although he said if that was the case it was likely around the time of the first settlement in Sag Harbor.

Held said the brook does run dry, but said it is a part of the natural ebb and flow of the brook, and said as early as last fall the brook was running. Held added outside influences, like the Sag Harbor Water Company which used Long Pond as a water source, did have an effect on the flow of water in the brook, although she said she did not believe the brook ever remained dry for a period as long as 20 years.

“I have no problems with making this creek do what ever we can to make it a real creek,” said Reid on Wednesday, noting his concerns with what have been discussed on the town level have less to do with Ligonee Brook and more specifically lie with what he sees as spot zoning of his family’s property. Reid said he would attend this Tuesday’s 6 p.m. Gateway Study public hearing at Southampton Town Hall.

According to Semlear, the trustees do have every intention of ensuring the brook’s flow is not interrupted by debris or build up of sand.

During the walk on October 9, the brook was in fact dry, although member of Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt and trail leader Dai Dayton said she had personally seen the brook flowing last year. The walk, which began at the trail entrance at Mashashimuet Park and ended where Long Pond and the brook meet, was productive, said Semlear, who noted a number of trustees had yet to walk the brook.

“The alewive stream is in pretty good shape,” he said on Wednesday. “There are a few areas where debris should be removed so we can ensure during times of high water [alewives and eels] have the ability to make it up the pond. There is also some areas where we need to clear some sand out of the culvert.”

As a lifelong resident and trustee, Semlear said there were many times he observed the brook dry and many times where he saw it run fully. Regardless, he said, there is no question in his mind that Ligonee Brook is an essential part of the Long Pond Greenbelt as a whole.

“When you remove something from an ecosystem, it sets things out of balance,” said Semlear. “When the creek is running it has a productive, positive influence on the pond and Sag Harbor Cove on the other end. It is definitely a key element in the uniqueness of the Long Pond Greenbelt.”

And, according to Held, it is the ebb and flow of the brook that lends the area to a vast array of rare flora and fauna species, some of which would not be able to survive there if the level of water was constant.

“That is part of what makes them rare,” she said. “And that makes the area very interesting to me.” 

 

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