Registering Discord on the Sag Harbor Waterfront

A graph of the expanded area of enforcement in the water off Sag Harbor Village.
Unofficial map of Sag Harbor’s Expanded Waterfront Jurisdiction Area, based on an aerial photo and created to provide a guide to the area.The outside line shows the actual expanded area with the line running along the buoys on the south side of the channel. Credit: Harbor Committee / John Parker

By Douglas Feiden

When Harbor Committee Chairman John Shaka sketched out the agenda of a work session on Monday, December 5 — discussing how best to implement a major new state law increasing village jurisdiction over its own waterfront — he said the goal was to “bring people together” to generate ideas in a “collegial” session.

Well, it certainly brought people together in the same room, they did thrash out ideas, and it was, for the most part, collegial.

But it was very spirited, too, as business owners, committee members and waterfront stakeholders clashed on how Sag Harbor should use its new authority to govern waterways that are as far as 4,500 feet from its shoreline — an expansion of the current boundary, which abruptly dead ends at 1,500 feet.

At issue was the challenge of bringing order to what has long been a no-man’s land in which boats are often haphazardly moored or anchored and can pose safety risks to fellow boaters, swimmers and other watercraft users. The bill does so by setting up a vessel-regulation zone in the expanded waterfront jurisdiction area.

But in order to carry out the goals of the state legislation, signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo on October 3, the village will have to modify sections of its code; redefine its mooring area and harbor management area, and probably amend the 1986 Local Waterfront Revitalization Program and 2006 Harbor Management Plan.

Mr. Shaka stressed that no decisions would be made at the work session, but that proposals would be drafted over the next couple of months so specific recommendations could be made to the Board of Trustees, which is expected to vote on the likely code changes by the spring, in time for the upcoming boating season.

The twin flashpoints: As the village significantly extends its regulatory oversight, should it register vessels moored or anchored long term in the expanded mooring area? And should it charge mooring and anchoring fees for craft in the area outside the breakwater?

Bruce Tait, the former chairman of the Harbor Committee and a member for 15 years, dominated the ensuing discussion, speaking for almost half and hour, on and off, over the two-hour meeting. And his answer to both questions was a resounding no.

A resident since the 1970s, Mr. Tait, who stepped down from the Harbor Committee in 2014 and was tapped as a member of the Harbor Advisory Committee by Mayor Sandra Schroeder in 2015, harkened back to venerable maritime traditions associated with anchoring in America.

“Anchoring in this country is a very funny thing: I can sail all over the northeast and go anchor, and nowhere — when I anchor in Block Island, or Camden, Maine, or anywhere else — has anybody ever asked to see my papers,” said Mr. Tait, who owns a family-run yacht brokerage firm.

“I’m not required to show my papers in this country, nor am I required to show my papers when I walk down the street in Sag Harbor, nor are you required to show your papers when you anchor,” he added. “To regulate anchoring and ask somebody to show up and register because you’ve anchored is the equivalent of asking them to show their papers. And I just don’t think that in this country we’re required to do that.”

One measure the Harbor Committee is considering is expanding the village’s no-discharge zone to facilitate enforcement and compliance, and curb the improper overboard disposal of garbage into local waters.

Mr. Shaka, in a rejoinder to Mr. Tait, said, “I assume that when you go to Camden, Maine, you don’t discharge into their waters.” Indeed, Mr. Tait said, he did not, but he noted that current New York law bars discharge, too.

East Hampton Town Trustee Rick Drew took a very different view of a registry for vessels, saying the town trustees “know a little bit about bottomland management” and the associated risks because they’ve managing them for 350 years.

“I am concerned about what is left behind,” he said. “I think it’s important to know what’s being put out each year, and if we’re putting out 50 moorings, we don’t want to see 10 left behind, and if we’re putting out 75 boats through anchorings and moorings, we don’t want to see a sailboat left behind in the bottomlands out in the harbor.”

Accordingly, Mr. Drew argued, “Putting money and fees aside, I think having a proper registry, having proper tackle standards, and having proper insurance requirements for users of the community is very important.”

The trustee said he grew up fishing, water-skiing and clamming, and that he works in the local marine industry and has long supported it. But he said it was appropriate to take the time to do the due diligence and make sure the area is well mapped and a proper registry is created.

“It’s really important that there’s an accountability for the assets that are being put into this area and managed, and taken out at the end of the year when necessary,” Mr. Drew said.

And he added, “If you’re one of the guys who’s scalloping out there, and you catch your scalloping dredge on an old mushroom anchor that’s been abandoned by someone, that’s going to cost you 250 bucks, and you probably lost your dredges and damaged your equipment. So I think being respectful to other traditional users out there is part of the responsibility to manage the area properly.”

But there are new users in the harbor, too, and the most dramatic of them are the mega-yachts that increasingly have made Sag Harbor a port of call in the past decade.

Committee member John Parker noted that one of the largest such visitors was the Freedom, a 229-foot-long vessel with a crew of 27 that came calling last summer — offering charter rates of $470,000 a week, or $2,000 an hour.

“What if we had three of them?” he asked. “What if we had four of them? What if we had five? The point is, I think we should know who’s here.”

When Mr. Parker observed that, “Every boat has an effect on the environment,” Mr. Tait shot back, “So does your house, so does your breathing.”

The issue of registering vessels is different from the issue of charging them for mooring in the expanded area, and Village Harbormaster Bob Bori said owners could simply fill out an “informational sheet” listing the name of the boats, phone numbers, emergency contacts and a list of the tackle they use.

More detailed information would be needed “only if we charge, is that right?” asked committee member Jeff Peters.

“Hold that thought because that’s my second point,” Mr. Bori said. “When we went into this whole thing, there was never any talk of charging anybody out there. The main reason we wanted this to move forward was for safety reasons, and so we’d have a little more information on the boats out there, but at no point when this was discussed did the village ever talk about charging anyone for being out in the mooring field.”

The impetus was accountability, he said, “so John Smith can’t just go out there and put down a mooring.”

When the idea resurfaced later in the meeting, Mr. Bori said, “We’re beating a dead horse on the issue of charging.”

Still, the increase in boat traffic and size is impacting the village, and at one point, Mr. Shaka said, “They’re using our docks, they’re discharging their garbage, and I don’t think Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer on Jermain Avenue should be subsidizing their garbage.”

Said Mr. Tait, “We don’t want to be known as the town that’s unfriendly to visiting yachts. If you charge for a boat to be here, you can charge for a car to be here, too. They don’t have a God-given right.”