It is now legal in Sag Harbor Village to apply for a permit to run a passenger ferry service.
That is for now, anyway.
At Tuesday night’s Sag Harbor Village Board of Trustees meeting that board voted 4-to-1 to amend village code to allow passenger ferry service in the village between now and October 31. Under the village code, both passenger and vehicular ferry service was prohibited in Sag Harbor. Once this new local law sunsets in October, the village board would have to introduce new legislation to extend the allowance or discontinue it.
That will hinge on the success or failure of the Peconic Bay Water Jitney, a Sag Harbor to Greenport passenger ferry service that Hampton Jitney president Geoffrey Lynch and Response Marine’s Jim Ryan hope to launch this summer as a pilot program to study the success — and impact — of a passenger ferry service on the East End.
Lynch and Ryan have proposed a passenger ferry service that would dock in Greenport Village, but offer service to Sag Harbor via Long Wharf. The ferry would offer around nine round trips between the two villages starting at 7 a.m. and would utilize a low wake catamaran Lynch intends to lease from New York Water Taxi. The catamaran can hold 53 people.
Lynch has proposed a Hampton Jitney shuttle service connecting to Suffolk County Transit buses and will offer service between Sag Harbor, Bridgehampton and East Hampton in an effort to reduce traffic and parking connected with the ferry. Lynch said he is also in talks with the Sag Harbor School District to lease a parking lot on Montauk Avenue where passengers will be encouraged to park and board a bus to Marine Park. From there, they would then walk to the ferry on Long Wharf.
On Tuesday night, the Sag Harbor Village Board remained resolute in their support of the proposal, particularly in the concept of it being a pilot program that can be scrapped come the fall if it proves too burdensome on village residents or businesses.
Mayor Brian Gilbride said he has already formed a committee including Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Tom Fabiano, Village Clerk Beth Kamper, Superintendent of Public Works Dee Yardley, Harbor Master Bob Bori and Planning Board Chairman Neil Slevin to study the impact of the ferry this summer. Mayor Gilbride said he would also welcome any other members of the village boards to join that effort as well as a business owner representing the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce.
Trustee Robby Stein said that many of the questions raised during the public debate surrounding the ferry, including impacts to traffic, parking, the environment and village liability, were valid, but that passenger ferry service is a concept being batted around nationally as a new mode of transportation.
“I do want more answers from the Jitney, but I want to try this,” said Stein.
“It is always easier to say no to something,” said trustee Ed Gregory, who said he would like the community to have a chance to assess the service before it passes judgment.
“And if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out, but we will never know if we close the door on this process,” said Gregory.
“This is a waterfront village,” said trustee Bruce Stafford, adding parking in Sag Harbor has been an issue since he was born.
The lone dissenter on the board was Deputy Mayor Tim Culver, although he praised the village board for taking the initiative to try a service like this in an effort to study it rather than rely on traffic models drafted by consultants in offices.
“I will say every neighbor of mine on High Street and Bay Street has come up to me and really objected and opposed the ferry,” said Culver, noting it will likely be the most impacted residential community in the village.
While the vote passed, the proposal will still be vetted as a formal application by the village board, said Sag Harbor Village Attorney Fred W. Thiele, Jr. Lynch will also need the approval of Suffolk County for the ferry’s charter and fee schedule, as well as a nod from the Village of Greenport, which must approve where the boat can dock, before the Peconic Bay Water Jitney becomes a reality.
Since it was first proposed, the idea has sharply divided many in the Sag Harbor community. Tuesday night was no different.
Former Sag Harbor Mayor Pierce Hance criticized board members for not attending the hearings on the county level about the ferry service nor a Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce dinner last week where several business owners expressed concern about the negative impact it could have on their way of life.
Hance added that Lynch is seeking a five year license from the county, not one for six months, and said that details regarding the landing of the vessel on Long Wharf remained murky.
Holding a village code, Hance noted that of all allowed businesses and uses in Sag Harbor only three are expressly prohibited: nightclubs, large uses like nursing homes and, of course, ferries.
“If you really want to consider one of the three things precluded in this document and allow them a special permit to see if it works I think someone should come back with a six month permit for a nightclub,” said Hance, adding he did not believe this was a well planned project, but one that would make Sag Harbor a “guinea pig.”
As the administrator of the Custom House, Ann Lieber disagreed.
“We used to have a ferry that came from Connecticut and people went to lunch and to the stores and the Custom House,” said Lieber. “I think the ferry would be a wonderful idea. Not only would it support stores and restaurants, but our historic places. It’s only for this summer we are trying, so why not give it a shot? I know I would love to take it to Greenport.”
Dr. Tom Halton, a member of the village’s Harbor Committee, agreed that giving it a try was the best course of action. That committee sent a memo of support for the pilot program earlier this spring.
Former board member Jennifer Houser disagreed sharply questioning the planning that has been completed to assess the ferry service. Houser also noted that surrounding communities on the South Fork have long shunned passenger ferry service because it is not desirable.
“Sag Harbor doesn’t want it either,” she said.
Houser asked whether the Town of Southampton, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Peconic Baykeeper or the Environmental Protection Agency had weighed in on the ferry. She also asked whether a formal Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan consistency review had been completed by the Harbor Committee.
“In fact what review process is in place and has been contracted for on the village level,” asked Houser, wondering who was liable if there was an accident or gas spill and who would monitor the moving ferry.
“I hope you realize there are too many issues adrift to stand behind this idea,” said Houser.
High Street resident Tim Martin presented the board with a petition against the ferry.
“Part of the reason I moved to High Street from Jermain was the traffic,” he said, adding he did not see the commercial benefit of the ferry service except for the Hampton Jitney.
“Only one person that I showed the petition to said they did not want to sign it, so it was pretty overwhelming,” said Martin.
Margia Kramer said new businesses, many paying high rents, would suffer if the service is allowed believing it will create parking issues throughout the village. She called for a village referendum before trustees considered the idea seriously.
“It is just silly,” said Kramer. “Why say, ‘Just do it, just try it’ when it can have an adverse impact on people doing business here.”
Another Division Street resident said he supported the idea because it was “forward thinking” and suggested an account could be set aside by the Hampton Jitney in the wake of a problem to cover any costs.
“Parking has always been a problem, will always be a problem,” he added.
“I have lived in Sag Harbor for 10 years,” said Steve Frankel, whose wife Debbie Rudoy owns life’style clothing boutique on Main Street. “I am listening to all these ideas being put forth and a lot of them are not based on facts. They are romantic notions of what could be, should be and won’t be.”
Frankel said this was not an “experiment” to be considered but something that could truly hurt businesses.
“My wife has a business on Main Street and she is scared to death because she knows if people cannot find parking they will not stop here,” said Frankel. “Most things in this village happen very slowly because things are considered very carefully, so it seems out of character to me that there is the decision being made to try this experiment this summer.”
Not wanting to continue to defend his plan, Lynch said he commended the board for considering the proposal.
“I believe it is forward thinking and there are a lot of transportation advocates that have come up with a lot of ideas and there have been a lot of studies,” he said. “I think it is time we try something out.”
“We are a waterfront village,” agreed Kate Plumb. “If it doesn’t work out we won’t do it again, but we are not going to know what the consequences are unless we try it.”