Thursday, April 20, 2006

A ferry good education

Although I became co-publisher of the company that publishes The Suffolk Times in July 2004, it wasn’t until recently that I began to really dig into the history of the Cross Sound Ferry controversy. One big reason: until January, I was also pulling duty as editor of another Times/Review paper, The News-Review, which covers Riverhead Town, where I live.

I had some rudimentary understanding of the issues involved, of course. And I couldn’t help being aware of the P.R. battle being waged by Cross Sound Ferry to paint the opposition as a small group of fanatical NIMBYs and the Town of Southold’s lawsuit as an attempt to put the ferry company out of business. It was unavoidable because this newspaper had been drawn into the fray, accused by the ferry company of siding with Southold Citizens for Safe Roads, a vocal opponent of ferry expansion and sometime litigant against both the town and the ferry company. That accusation grew out of the opinions of our former publisher, Troy Gustavson, an Orient resident, in his semimonthly op-ed column. In fact, this newspaper’s position on the ferry issue is completely consistent with every position it has ever taken on any environmental issue facing the North Fork: We have passionately advocated the preservation of the North Fork’s character and quality of life.

In the wake of editor Tim Kelly’s resignation last month, I now find myself charged with the responsibility for putting out this paper every Thursday. As such, a stranger in a strange land, I’m taking a very intensive “crash course” on Southold — a baptism by fire that of course includes the ferry controversy. I realize that no matter what I say, there are some who will prejudge me on this and perhaps other issues, just because I work for Times/Review. So be it. I’ve never been anyone’s stooge and, at age 48, I’m not going to start now.

My opinions on the subject of Cross Sound Ferry are, quite frankly, still being formed. As a lawyer (J.D., NYU, 1982), one of my first points of entry to this dispute was the file of court documents in the suit brought by the town last fall. I’m still digesting the pleadings, affidavits and exhibits in the file. But it’s been an education.

As a former Riverhead Town councilwoman — elected in 1987, I served one four-year term — I know something about politics, government, zoning and dispute resolution. Reading through the five-inch-thick court file, I can’t help but wonder why this matter wasn’t resolved long ago.

It’s obvious the ferry company has a right to operate at a location that’s been in active use as a port since long before Southold had a zoning code. It’s equally obvious that the town has the right to regulate the site where the ferry company operates. And it’s also obvious that the increase in the ferry company’s business over the past decade or so — in part thanks to casino-bound vehicles and passengers — has created stress on the local road — albeit one under state jurisdiction — leading to Orient Point. Ferry traffic has many Southold residents seeing red, and they fear what the future holds if the ferry continues to add more vessels and more service between Orient and New London without restriction. Will that happen? If left to the free market, the odds are very good. At least one casino is undergoing a large expansion, and there are plans for a major theme park and a NASCAR race track in eastern Connecticut, both of which would undoubtedly bring more New England-bound vehicular traffic through the formerly quiet country byways of Southold Town.

This has all the makings of a classic land-use controversy, and the responsibility for solving it rests squarely with the Town Board. It’s rather incredible that the board has up until now taken very few proactive measures to bring this bitter dispute to a reasonable, if not happy, conclusion. It hasn’t yet undertaken any study of the traffic volume and patterns on State Route 25, and might not even be discussing doing so today had SCSR president Freddie Wachsberger not shamed board members into it at the last work session. The supervisor pointed out to me that lawsuits have a way of sucking the energy out of everyone. And the town’s been wrapped up in its lawsuit with the ferry company, no doubt. But that’s really no excuse for inaction; inaction is what got the town into this predicament to begin with.

For starters, the Town Board has to get a handle on the facts of the traffic situation as it exists at the peak of the season, and during the off-season, too. It needs to have a clear understanding of what it can and can’t do to regulate the company’s growth at the Orient Point terminal, and it should take the steps needed to put lawful regulations in place.

Cross Sound’s contention that the town can’t regulate its business doesn’t hold water; a municipality has the right to regulate all businesses operating within its borders. If the company’s parking needs are greater than its ability to accommodate its customers’ cars, it can’t simply expect to have the unlimited right to use the public right of way for its customer parking. Nor can it expect to keep annexing the surrounding residentially zoned land to its commercial site to meet its parking needs. At some point, it must recognize that it’s outgrown its present location, and should seek to establish another port.

This isn’t about the ferry company being “evil” or a “bad neighbor,” and it isn’t about a desire to put it out of business. It’s just common sense.