By Kathryn G. Menu
On Tuesday afternoon, Sag Harbor Village became the official owner of Long Wharf after the Suffolk County Legislature passed a resolution agreeing to sell the wharf, technically Suffolk County Road 81, to the village for $1.
“Christmas came early,” said Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman, whose office is in Sag Harbor Village. “I wanted to get this done before the end of the year, and we did it. Now the wharf belongs to the village, as it should.”
The sale has actually been over two years in the making, and it gives Sag Harbor full control of Long Wharf. It also makes the village financially responsible to cover the long-term costs of caring for the facility, which in December of 2010 were estimated to be upwards of $600,000 by the Suffolk County Department of Public Works.
It was those costs, coupled with a looming county budget deficit that originally led former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy’s office to suggest Sag Harbor Village take over the wharf and the full cost to maintain it.
What followed was more than two years of back-and-forth. The Suffolk County Legislature at first would not agree to sell the wharf, and the adjoining Windmill Beach, to the village citing its potential value. There were also discussions about the village sharing revenues generated by the wharf — used to dock luxury docks in the summer season — with the county. But according to Sag Harbor Village Mayor Brian Gilbride, the village’s basic upkeep of the wharf often can exceed the $30,000 to $90,000 generated by dockage.
Eventually, with the legislature assuaged the costs of Long Wharf would probably exceed its value and the wharf would best be served by giving it to Sag Harbor Village, on Tuesday Schneiderman was able to secure a 16-0 vote in favor of the sale. But even that was preceded with yet another discussion about the wharf’s value, according to Schneiderman.
Legislator John Kennedy, who represents the 12th District, including parts of Smithtown, Islip and Brookhaven, questioned whether it was appraised and what its actual value could be.
“I explained we could not sell this to an outside buyer because in essence it is a county road,” said Schneiderman.
Suffolk County has not performed any of the maintenance suggested in the 2010 report on Long Wharf. According to that report, while short term costs in 2010 for maintenance of the wharf totaled around $340,000, engineers estimated sometime in the next decade the village will need to spend $621,000 to cover repairs to the wharf to ensure no serious structural damage occurs.
The village already spends about $60,000 annually on basic upkeep of the wharf, meaning dockage at Long Wharf alone will not likely cover the cost of yearly and long term maintenance.
According to Gilbride, who attended the legislature’s session on Tuesday, he would like the Sag Harbor Village Board of Trustees to create a reserve account dedicated to the wharf, placing about $100,000 annually into it. Gilbride said he does not intend to bond for the cost of long-term maintenance, but would like to see it tackled piecemeal, when the village has the money to pay for it.
“I would like us to hire an engineer to look at this for us and develop a maintenance schedule,” said Gilbride on Wednesday. “There hasn’t been anything really done to the wharf in a long time. If we can put aside $100,000 and tackle this the old fashioned way, with what we can afford to spend, that is what I would like to see us do.”
While acquiring the wharf does place another financial burden on a village already operating on a lean budget, Gilbride said he believes it is in Sag Harbor’s best interest to control the wharf.
“It is a big part of our history and it should be ours,” he said.
While he would like to see more ladders and flotation devices placed on the wharf to increase safety, Gilbride said he was unsure the village would pursue larger plans for the wharf at this time, citing the village’s finances.
“The wharf is too central to the village’s identity for the village to not control it,” said Schneiderman, who drafted the legislation transferring the wharf to Sag Harbor Village and has supported the concept since it was first broached. “The county is not in a position to maintain it. For the last few years we haven’t spent anything on capital repairs even though it needs it. In the county’s fiscal shape, it is in the wharf’s best interest to belong to Sag Harbor. Even if we were fiscally sound, its destiny should really be in the hands of the people of Sag Harbor.”