Citing environmental concerns, as well as complaints made by Sag Harbor residents, this week the Sag Harbor Village Board of Trustees passed legislation expanding its mass gathering law in an effort to prevent the annual Sag Harbor Boat Party from continuing to host its August event in Sag Harbor Cove.
On Tuesday night, the village board adopted a law that requires anyone hosting an event anticipating more than 75 people — whether on land or water under Sag Harbor jurisdiction — to first obtain a permit from the village.
The boat party has been a fixture on the South Fork for two decades, anchoring off Barcelona Neck in East Hampton as well as Shelter Island before finding its current home in Sag Harbor Cove three years ago. The event has drawn anywhere from 100 to 300 vessels whose owners and passengers spend the day listening to live music on a barge supplied by organizers. Donations are collected to pay for the bands and occasionally to provide charitable support to a worthy cause.
Both East Hampton and Shelter Island passed legislation to regulate the event through permitting, pushing it into Sag Harbor — a municipality without permit requirements for parties on the water.
Until now, that is.
According to Sag Harbor Mayor Brian Gilbride, the legislation was conceived specifically due to concerns that have arisen since the Sag Harbor Boat Party moved its event into Sag Harbor Cove. That prompted complaints from waterfront residents in the neighborhood and drew the ire of officials concerned about the environmental impact the party could have on an ecologically sensitive body of water.
On Tuesday night, Southampton Town Trustee Jon Semlear, a commercial fisherman, applauded the village board for the action and said it had the support of a majority of the trustees in Southampton.
“The feeling is it is too small an area to accommodate such a large event,” said Semlear, noting the cove has already been plagued with red and brown tides. Most recently, the area was closed to shellfishing by the state to protect residents from paralytic shellfish poisoning which can manifest itself during specific algae blooms. That ban has been lifted, but Semlear said it was a testament to how sensitive the coves in Sag Harbor are.
“To have 300 or 500 or 200 boats anchored in areas we have been working on with the Department of State and the Cornell Cooperative Extension to get eel grass to grow is contradictory to what we are trying to accomplish,” said Semlear.
“It may not seem like a lot, but a one day event is just another stresser on a tenuous body of water,” he added.
Semlear added the fact there is not one individual willing to take responsibility for the Sag Harbor Boat Party — an event so covert it generally announces its location the day it is occurring on boating and sailing weblogs — is even more concerning.
“My suggestion is it happen somewhere outside the cove where there is better flushing,” said Semlear.
David Beard, the president of the Bay Point Property Owners Association said the group is unanimously opposed to the event happening in Sag Harbor Cove.
The board of trustee’s decision was unanimous. In order for the party to move forward in Sag Harbor jurisdiction, a principal must come forward and pursue a permit from the village, which will be considered by the village board.
On Monday night, the party was also the subject of heated debate at the village’s Harbor Committee meeting. Without a quorum and only two of the board’s current four members present, the Harbor Committee could take no action to support the village’s legislation. However, Harbor Committee Chairman Bruce Tait made it clear he did not support the party continuing in Sag Harbor Cove.
During that meeting, Bay Point resident Charlie Canavan — who said on Wednesday he was not the party’s organizer but simply fact finding for the event — argued it would not pose an environmental hazard. He added that while the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) does close to the cove to shellfishing after the event it is merely a precautionary measure.
Tait countered that the DEC closes the area because there is the potential the party has had an impact on the cove’s water quality, just as they do after a heavy rainstorm when stormwater runoff is swept into the bays.
Peconic BayKeeper Kevin MacAllister approached the board not to support the event or decry its existence. Rather, MacAllister took Tait to task for suggesting at last month’s meeting that he could have a conflict of interest in weighing in on the impact of the party after Canavan suggested the BayKeeper could benefit from a donation from proceeds of the party.
MacAllister said he was not offered funding, but an opportunity to speak at the party about water quality issues.
“I seize every opportunity I can to advocate for clean water,” he said.
MacAllister added he was offended at the suggestion that his decades long work on the water would be compromised by a donation. He stressed the party could not be a fundraiser for the BayKeeper.
“With respect to the event itself and the question as to whether there is water quality monitoring, I don’t believe there is, but there needs to be,” said MacAllister, adding he would perform the service himself.
Tait said when he spoke of the conflict of interest it was after Canavan had offered that the BayKeeper may receive a donation from the event.
“Your integrity could be the best, but it doesn’t matter,” said Tait. “It is the appearance of a conflict of interest that matters.”
“The fact is we have had closures in this cove for shellfishing for a dangerous bacteria that causes death has us concerned,” said Tait.
“I don’t disagree but let’s put this in perspective,” said MacAllister. “Your concerns are well founded, but in fact the cove has bigger issues than the assembly of boats on a given Sunday.”
“I am not going to question your integrity on these things and that is not what I am doing,” added Tait. “What I was questioning was the appearance of a conflict of interest.”
“You need to know not in a million years will I sell my integrity for a crab net of dollar bills,” replied MacAllister.
Redwood resident Cam Gleason said another reason not to allow the party in the cove was the presence of the diamondback terrapin, a turtle which makes its home in Sag Harbor Cove and has been named a designated species of special recognition by the DEC.
“The party does not belong there,” she said. “Have it somewhere else.”