The Top Ten Stories of 2017

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A tour of Deepwater Wind's wind farm off Block Island. Peter Boody photo
Members of The Sag Harbor Partnership who in 2017 helped raise $8 million to purchase the Sag Harbor Cinema property.

#1 Sag Harbor Cinema Purchase is Funded

The Story

Just three days before the one-year anniversary of the December 16, 2016 fire on Main Street in Sag Harbor — a blaze that partially destroyed the village’s iconic cinema — the Sag Harbor Partnership learned from New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr., that it has received a $1.4 million state grant to purchase the former cinema property from longtime owner Gerald Mallow.

According to a press release issued after the announcement of the state grant, an additional $500,000 donation — made by an anonymous individual — put the Partnership above the $8 million it needed to close on the contract it signed with Mr. Mallow last April. The Partnership also announced that Leonardo DiCaprio, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick and Darren Star had joined a list of luminaries that have come out in support of the purchase, and the creation of the non-profit Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center.

The Partnership, led by a board that includes Nick Gazzolo, April Gornik, Hilary Loomis, Susan Mead and Jayne Young, among others, kicked off fundraising for the purchase of the cinema property in April with a $1 million donation by artist Eric Fischl, Ms. Gornik’s husband. It will now begin the process of raising $5 million in funding to construct the theater.  Plans call for the division of the existing 480-seat auditorium into two separate screening rooms, one with 250 seats, the other with 150 seats. The ground-floor portion of the building that was once home to the RJD Gallery will be transformed into a café. Above that, there would be a 30-seat screening room that would double as a classroom and be available for private events. Shortly after confirming the grant award, Assemblyman Thiele said he believed it would be the beginning of a public-private partnership to aid the arts center, hinting state funding to help with construction may be available.

“We are ecstatic that our efforts over the last year have helped us meet our funding goal to save the cinema. This was truly the work of an incredible community of people with a common goal,” said Ms. Gornik.

The Upshot

Don’t underestimate the ability of the Sag Harbor Partnership to achieve its goals. Now that the purchase is funded, the Partnership and the board of the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center will need approvals and permits, in addition to funding, before they can begin to redevelop the Sag Harbor Cinema, and return its iconic façade to Main Street.

Conca D’Oro proprietor Frankie Venesina tosses the dough for a fresh pizza in July, shortly after it was revealed the Sag Harbor mainstay would change hands. Michael Heller photo

#2 Conca D’Oro Closes for Good

The Story

Conca D’Oro, the Sag Harbor restaurant, where Little Leaguers by the thousands celebrated their victories and salved the wounds of their defeats with a slice or two of its famous pizza, announced in July that it was changing hands.

Frankie Venesina, a familiar face behind the front counter, who owned the local institution with his parents, Tony and Lena, said the business had been sold to Laurent Tourondel and Michael Cinque, the owners of LT Burger across the street.

“It’s kind of bittersweet, but it’s time for us,” he said. “Mike and Laurent are nice guys and they share the vision of my parents and me and want to keep it an affordable, family-friendly restaurant.”

The Venesina family opened the restaurant in 1975, shortly after arriving from Sicily. It became a regular destination for diners seeking a quick slice of pizza from the front counter or a reasonably priced Italian meal in a small dining room to the rear.

Although a December 31 closing date was originally set, residents were startled to learn last fall that the restaurant would actually close its doors on October 31. As trick-or-treaters made their way down village streets, long-time customers, former employees and other well-wishers dropped by to pay their respects, as Frankie Venesina and his team of pizza makers churned out hundreds of pizzas and tried desperately to keep up with orders that came in for five to 10 pies at a clip.

Children from the Sag Harbor Elementary School, who parade in costume down Main Street, every Halloween, were this year accompanied by a float with a sign made out of pizza boxes that read “Thank You Conca D’Oro.” Stopping in front of the restaurant, they serenaded the family, singing “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.”

The Upshot

The comments of last-day customers sum it up: “It’s a big loss for the community,” said Marion Cassata, “not just for the food but for the family.” “This is another piece of Sag Harbor that will never be recaptured — food made with love,” said Cathy Santacroce. “This is the best of what this community is about,” added Peter Solow, a Pierson high school art teacher and soccer coach.

Officials celebrate at a ceremony in front of the newly-minted Stony Brook Southampton Hospital.

#3 Hospital Merger is Complete

The Story

Health care on the South Fork got a boost this year when Southampton Hospital officially became Stony Brook Southampton Hospital. The merger had been in the works for more than a decade.

The hospitals joined forces in August, and already patients have begun to have access to more services and providers.

Stony Brook Southampton’s new cardiac catheterization laboratory at the Audrey and Martin Gruss Heart & Stroke Center opened, the emergency room at Stony Brook Southampton became a provisional Level 3 trauma center with 24-hour coverage by emergency medicine doctors and a trauma surgeon available within 30 minutes, and the hospital received sophisticated imaging capabilities in its hybrid operating room. Additionally, a new general cardiology practice opened, patients will benefit from Stony Brook’s academic medicine capabilities and the hospitals broke ground on the Philips Family Cancer Center on County Road 39A.

Health care professionals and local elected officials alike have acknowledged medicine on the East End had been lacking for a long time.

“The combination of Southampton Hospital and Stony Brook University Hospital will ensure that residents have access to specialists and vital services close to home,” State Senator Kenneth LaValle said during a flag-raising ceremony in August. “I am pleased that the community will be able to benefit by the blending of these great medical providers.”

Similarly, when the merger was officially completed, Robert Chaloner, chief administrative officer for Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, said, “By joining Stony Brook Medicine, the new Stony Brook Southampton Hospital has strengthened its ability to fulfill its 100-plus year mission of providing access to the highest quality healthcare for the communities it serves. We look forward to our elevated role as part of the Stony Brook family to bring the very best in academic medicine and patient care to the East End.”

The Upshot

If the two hospitals can deliver on the significant promises that were made during the merger process, South Fork residents will undoubtedly emerge the winners.

A tour of Deepwater Wind’s wind farm off Block Island. Peter Boody photo

#4 Deepwater Wind Earns Criticism and Support

The Story

Deepwater Wind’s plans for a 15-turbine, 90-megawatt, $740 million wind farm off the coast of Montauk are taking shape, but have come up against questioning so far from local fishermen and residents of the hamlet where the cable landing is proposed.

Deepwater Wind president Chris van Beek claims he has studies that show fishing is “spectacular” within the Block Island Wind Farm, a five-turbine project that is serving as a model for the proposed South Fork Wind Farm. And the company is offering East Hampton Town $1.8 million in financial incentives plus payments in exchange for access to public real estate to bury its transmission cable below ground.

But local fishermen like Dan Lester and Hank Lackner said they want Deepwater Wind to also guarantee the local commercial fishing community a safety net – no pun intended – in case the South Fork Wind Farm winds up decimating the fishing industry here.

“We want to go to work. We just don’t want it messed with,” Mr. Lester said at a recent East Hampton Town Trustees meeting. “But in the future is there going to be something to help us if we are put out of business?”

Residents of Wainscott, the hamlet where the transmission cable’s landing is proposed, are also concerned, with Si Kinsella recently urging the trustees to withhold granting permits until they are satisfied with the information from Deepwater.

Clint Plummer, Deepwater’s vice president of development, said the company would continue to listen to input from the public, and pointed to the decision to relocate the cable landing from Napeague to Wainscott as evidence they have already begun incorporating community feedback.

The Upshot

During the most recent East Hampton Town Trustees meeting, trustee Rick Drew told Deepwater Wind to show them hard proof that wind farms don’t harm fish populations. If it materializes to the trustees’ satisfaction, that will likely be a turning point in the project’s future in East Hampton. A vote by the trustees is expected in early 2018, but we expect Deepwater will battle headwinds up until the last minute on this issue.

#5 Addressing Water Quality Through Wastewater

The Story

Both East Hampton Town and Southampton Town this year passed laws that enable them to take steps toward improving water quality through the updating of old septic systems within their borders.

Sag Harbor Village, which straddles the two towns and is therefore caught in the middle between two differing sets of rules, has yet to take action on the septic issue.

Starting January 1, in East Hampton Town, all new construction and substantial expansion projects anywhere in town will have to use one of the new county-approved, low-nitrogen-producing septic systems. In September, Southampton Town began mandating new systems for new construction and substantial expansion in “high priority” areas, which are those areas where groundwater takes up to two years to reach the bay or other surface waters. The towns have also adopted slightly different rebate programs, providing funding from a pool of money that voters approved for water quality projects in November 2016 as an extension of the Community Preservation Fund.

Sag Harbor’s Harbor Committee has urged Mayor Sandra Schroeder and the Board of Trustees to take action. In November, while acknowledging she is concerned about water quality, Ms. Schroeder told The Sag Harbor Express the village board was not ready to take on septic laws. “I don’t want to have a law that matches one town law but not the other,” she said.

Where Sag Harbor Village has not acted, though, some locals are stepping up to the plate, as evidenced by many development projects recently put forth before the village’s various regulatory boards. Each time the Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review or Zoning Board of Appeals has met over the past several months, many building projects have included new, more environmentally friendly septic systems. People are paying attention.

The Upshot

In a very development-heavy municipality, 2018 could turn out to be a critical time for Sag Harbor Village to find a way to incorporate East Hampton and Southampton towns’ septic regulations into legislation of its own. Water quality isn’t going to magically improve by itself.

#6 East Hampton Petitions Supreme Court Over Airport

The Story

Attorneys for the Town of East Hampton petitioned the United States Supreme Court, seeking to regain local control over the East Hampton Airport, in March, following an appellate court ruling that the town did not have the right to impose restrictions at the airport that did not comply with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, even if it had not accepted federal grants.

The basis for the town’s petition was its hope the Supreme Court would recognize the issue of whether local governments can regulate their own facilities when they do not accept federal grants to maintain them was one that applied to all municipally owned airports.

“For the last three years, this town board has been fighting to regain local control of our airport,” said Supervisor Larry Cantwell, announcing the effort to get the Supreme Court to take the case. “We followed the FAA’s advice and elected to forgo federal funding so that we could protect our residents. We engaged in a lengthy public process to identify meaningful but reasonable restrictions, and the district court agreed that we met that test. But, with the stroke of a pen, the appeals court decision has federalized our airport and stripped us — and the thousands of similarly situated airports — of the ability to exert local control.”

In June, the court announced it would not review the appellate court decision.

“The town board is deeply disappointed in the Supreme Court’s order not to review the Second Circuit decision, which strips municipal airports like East Hampton’s of their traditional proprietary powers to limit airport noise,” said Mr. Cantwell in a release issued Monday. “Nonetheless, the Supreme Court gave serious consideration to our petition, ordering a response from the plaintiffs, as it does in only a small number of cases. The denial of a petition for certiorari has no precedential force, and does not mean that the Supreme Court has taken any view on the correctness of the Second Circuit decision.”

The Upshot

In October, the town board voted to move forward with an application to the Federal Aviation Administration that ultimately will seek approval to impose restrictions on aircraft flying in and out of the East Hampton Airport. Called a Part 161 application, it is made through a provision in the Airport Noise and Capacity Act that allows municipalities to ask the FAA for restrictions on air traffic at local airports, and will take a minimum of two years to complete. The town’s aviation attorneys, Morrison Foerster, estimate the study could cost between $1.5 million and $2 million to complete.

#7 East End Residents March on Washington

The Story

Hundreds of South Fork voices were among the millions heard chanting in Washington, D.C., New York City and Sag Harbor on January 21, the day of the Women’s March on Washington, with sister marches held in many other cities around the world, in response to the inauguration of President Donald Trump the day before.

It’s estimated that as many as 4.2 million women, men and children marched that day. The message was pro-women’s rights, pro-Black Lives Matter, pro-LGBTQ rights, pro-environment, pro-peace, pro-choice — and decidedly anti-Trump. People carried signs with messages such as “Rise up,” “The future is female” and “We refuse toupee with our bodies,” and chanted phrases such as “Love, not hate, makes America great” and “Hey hey, ho ho, Donald Trump has got to go,” just to name a few examples.

More than 300 South Fork residents boarded buses that day bound for Washington, D.C., and among them was Maryann Calendrille, co-owner of Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor. “The message of the day was ‘This is the beginning, the beginning of sustained momentum in a non-violent, peaceful way to advocate for all people,’” she said.

Still others from the East End headed to New York City to march, and about 300 people rallied here in Sag Harbor, walking up and down Main Street in a peaceful event that resident Bob Weinstein said made him proud.

“To see this activism — it is a light to follow to move forward,” he said. “Now we have to keep the momentum and turn it into something actionable.”

The Upshot

Election Day in 2017 was proof that the momentum kick-started on January 21 turned into something actionable. Across the nation, scores of women were elected into office — including Virginia’s first transgender legislator, who defeated an openly anti-transgender incumbent — and in East Hampton and Southampton towns, Democrats swept the majority of open seats. With mid-term elections next November, it remains to be seen if this will impact the control of Congress in 2019.

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman speaks as election returns came in on November 7.

#8 Dems Post Big Wins in Local Elections

The Story

Democrats rolled to easy victories in local elections in both East Hampton and Southampton towns in November.

In East Hampton, the results were less of a surprise because the Democrats have been the dominant party there since 1984, but in Southampton, where the Democrats have long played second fiddle to the Republicans, the victory of all three Democratic candidates on the town board ballot means that party will have its first-ever super majority come January 1.

The races were not close in either town. In East Hampton, incumbent Democratic Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc defeated Republican Manny Vilar for the right to replace Supervisor Larry Cantwell, who announced his retirement last summer. Mr. Van Scoyoc will be joined on the board by fellow incumbent Councilwoman Kathy Burke-Gonzalez and newcomer Jeffrey Bragman, an East Hampton attorney, who bested former East Hampton Village Police Chief Gerard Larsen and Paul Giardina, a retired engineer with the Environmental Protection Agency.

With Fred Overton, the sole Republican on the board, retiring, the results mean Democrats will have a 4-0 majority come January. Mr. Van Scoyoc had two years remaining on his term, and the board is expected to appoint a replacement to fill his seat prior to a special election in next November.
In Southampton, incumbent Supervisor Jay Schneiderman defeated Republican challenger Ray Overton. He was joined in the winner’s circle by incumbent Councilwoman Julie Lofstad and first-time board candidate Tommy John Schiavoni of North Haven, a member of the town Zoning Board of Appeals and of the Sag Harbor School Board. Incumbent Republican Councilman Stan Glinka, who was seeking a second term, was turned back, along with his running mate, Thea Dombrowski-Frye.

The Upshot

This year’s results are the clearest indication yet that local political demographics are changing, especially in Southampton, where Democratic party leaders say their numbers have been on a steady uptick for a decade. But they also mean the Republicans’ ability to serve as a minority party counter balance will be severely limited, leaving Democrats to mind the store largely on their own.

Sean Ludwick, inside Judge Fernando Camacho’s courtroom at First District Court in Central Islip on Wednesday, October 18. Ludwick was sentenced for killing Paul Hansen while driving drunk in Sag Harbor.

#9 Ludwick Sentenced in Deadly Crash

The Story

Sean P. Ludwick, a 44-year-old Manhattan developer with a home in Bridgehampton, was sentenced to three to nine years in state prison on October 18 after pleading guilty to aggravated vehicular homicide in the death of Paul Hansen, 53, a popular Sag Harbor builder and real estate agent, two years before.

Mr. Ludwick admitted he was drunk when he lost control of his 2013 Porsche 911 convertible early on August 30, 2015, and crashed into a utility pole next to Mr. Hansen’s Noyac home. Mr. Ludwick further admitted he left the dying Mr. Hansen at the scene and tried to flee, getting about a quarter mile away before his car broke down.

Before they decided to go out earlier that evening, the two men only knew one another through their children: Mr. Ludwick’s son was a friend of one of Mr. Hansen’s sons and was sleeping over at the Hansen home the night of the crash.

“You deserve a sentence of life in prison,” Suffolk County Justice Fernando Camacho told Mr. Ludwick. The judge was joined by several members of Mr. Hansen’s families in castigating Mr. Ludwick for his actions that night.

Before its resolution last fall, the case took several strange turns. Mr. Ludwick was free on $1 million bond until January 19, 2016, when prosecutors said they discovered he was scheming to flee the country. Prosecutors said they had been tipped off that Mr. Ludwick had inquired about purchasing a 50-foot sailboat that would allow him to sail to a foreign country, such as Venezuela, that does not have an extradition treaty with the United States.

After that discovery, Mr. Ludwick was ordered held without bail at county jail in Yaphank, and the case dragged on for another year and a half before his legal team reached a plea deal with Justice Camacho.

The Upshot

Mr. Hansen’s older brother, Robert, who acted as the family’s spokesman through the ordeal, said the family would never truly have closure, but they did get the apology they had been waiting for more than two years when Mr. Ludwick turned to face them at his sentencing and said, “I will live the rest of my life knowing I have caused you immense pain.”

Local attorney and EMT Denise Schoen works with a patient at a Team Rubicon medical mission site in Puerto Rico.

#10 East Enders Give Back

The Story

Following the devastation left in the wake hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, back-to-back storms that pummeled Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, East End residents and organizations proved once again they would waste no time getting involved in the relief effort.

East End Cares, a Montauk-based non-profit that formed after Hurricane Sandy, quickly mobilized after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, offering support to Team Rubicon — a non-profit that specializes in sending military personnel and first responders to places in need of emergency services. The Sag Harbor Lions Club matched donations during Andy’s Run in September for the Lions’ Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, with some of its membership donating an additional $1,500 each towards the effort. Hamptons Risk Management Insurance Agency in Bridgehampton collected American Red Cross-requested dry goods to send to Texas — an effort other businesses and schools took on as well across the East End.

Sag Harbor’s Denise Schoen — a critical care rated emergency medical technician and long time volunteer with the Sag Harbor Ambulance Corps — traveled to Puerto Rico in November with Team Rubicon. Her husband, Jon, a retired police officer, travelled with Team Rubicon to Houston in September.

“It’s really cathartic for me to give of myself and expect nothing in return,” said Ms. Schoen, who has also volunteered helping refugees in Greece three times, after her trip in November. “For people who are thinking about volunteering, it really is life changing.”

Mr. Schoen said the work he did in Houston was “probably the hardest work that I ever did but it was the most gratifying work I ever did.”

“It’s clear that we have it pretty well made out here, and you don’t see it until you go to places like that,” he said. “When you see people who have absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing, you want to help.”

The Upshot

The East End really does care. Ms. Schoen recommends volunteering with, or donating to, East End Cares and Team Rubicon. More information on the organization can be found online at teamrubiconusa.org.“I think they’re doing incredible things,” Ms. Schoen said. “If you want to know that your donation is definitely getting to the place it needs to be, that is the place to donate to. They’re really, really good — an efficient, smooth, lean, professional organization.”

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