Tiny Fishers Island sits just two miles off the Connecticut coast but it’s part of the Town of Southold, 11 miles away.
That creates a peculiar circumstance for the permanent residents of the island, who have little affinity for New York — and much closer ties to Connecticut. The only ferry service on the island, provided by the Fishers Island Ferry District, travels to and from New London. The island has a Connecticut zip code (06390). All the Fishers Island School athletic teams compete against Connecticut teams. Half of the students at the school commute from Connecticut. The island’s trash is disposed in Connecticut. The local Boy Scout troop is part of the Connecticut council. The Roman Catholic church on the island is part of a Connecticut diocese.
Yet, thanks the 1879 settlement of a border dispute between the two states, Fishers Island belongs to New York.
The relationship between Fishers Island residents and Southold Town?
“It’s complicated,” explains the privately run FishersIsland.net website. The site even has an FAQs page to help clarify.
Inhabited by about 230 people year-round — less than half what the year-round population was in 1940 — the island’s population rises tenfold in summer, when well-heeled part-time residents flock to their summer homes to enjoy a quiet — and very private — getaway.
There are tennis courts and golf courses, country clubs, a yacht club and sparsely populated beaches.
Most of the year-round residents live on the western end of the island, where the town center is located. It boasts a grocery store and liquor store that are open year-round, a deli-style market, an ice cream store, three gift shops, two art galleries, a hardware store, a post office, two bike rental shops, a gas station, a movie theater, a community center, a museum, a marina, the Fishers Island ferry terminal and a small airport. Nearly all of the businesses close for the off-season.
The place is a throwback to mid-20th Century small-town America — no doubt a large part of its appeal and perhaps a factor in its dwindling year-round population.
The remainder of the island — about two-thirds of its 4,000-acre land mass — is private land, including the roads. There are only about a dozen miles of town roads on Fishers Island.
The disconnect between island residents and the town is real — and longstanding.
“Some there have claimed they’re being ignored by Southold but in many instances they’ve isolated themselves too, Supervisor Scott Russell said in an interview yesterday, following the annual Fishers Island Day town meeting. The annual meeting is a tradition going back many, many years, Russell said. Yesterday, he led a delegation of dozens of town, county and state government officials on a field trip to Fishers Island, where they met with local residents, took tours of the island and enjoyed a community barbecue.
Russell says he has consciously worked to build rapport with Fishers Island residents, making regular trips to the island for community meetings and staying in regular contact with the president of the Island Community Board, Tom O’Neil.
The Fishers Island Community Board is a private non-profit organization, formed in 2005 to promote the economic, civic and social welfare of island residents, according to its bylaws. Its board of directors consists of has six elected representatives (three seasonal and three year-round residents), plus representatives of the ferry district, the waste management district, the utility company and important nonprofit organizations dealing with issues such as health and affordable housing.
The community board serves in a coordinating role on the island and also functions as sort of a bridge to the government on the remote mainland — along with elected Town Justice Louisa Evans. By law, Fisher’s Island must have one representative on the town board, a justice of the peace.
The Island Community Board president said he is pleased there is more communication between Fishers Island and Southold Town government. The more communication there is “the more efficient and effective our strategic partnership will be,” O’Neil wrote in a July 31 letter to the town supervisor, which he read aloud at yesterday’s meeting. “Having you out here more often helps our community feel as though it is being heard by Southold, and further helps us establish a cohesive punch list of priorities that we, as a group, can tackle,” O’Neil wrote.
At a community meeting with the supervisor last month, ICB members discussed issues of importance to Fishers Island, ranging from needed sidewalk improvements to affordable housing and health care. The residents also expressed their desire to have a Southold Town administrative employee on the island, a proposal Russell made to the town board and plans to budget for in 2018 — on a part-time basis. He has also pledged to include $250,000 for sidewalk improvements in next year’s budget.
“We try to work in a collaborative spirit,” Russell said in an interview yesterday. “By and large I think the community is interested in working with the town and I think we have good rapport with a lot of the island leaders. I think were in a good place right now.”
The supervisor said Fishers Island issues “generally aren’t any different than the issues on the mainland,” including roads and sidewalks, bike paths and affordable housing. But as an island “they have unique challenges,” he said. “Everything you want to do there is much more expensive.”
Among those making the trip yesterday was State Sen. Ken LaValle, who after a tour of the island, pledged to obtain $100,000 in funding for highway improvements.
“It’s a beautiful, very special place,” LaValle said. “I always enjoy attending this meeting and getting an opportunity to meet with the residents here first hand.”
Suffolk County Legislature presiding officer DuWayne Gregory, County Legislator Al Krupski, County Legislator Kara Hahn, members of the town planning and zoning boards and officials representing nearly every department of town government and many departments of county government were also on hand.
The officials, along with three reporters from local news organizations, including SoutholdLOCAL, traveled together on a special trip by a Fishers Island Ferry District passenger vessel, which made the round-trip between Orient Point and the island.
SoutholdLOCAL photos by Denise Civiletti