County Legislature Listens to Ridership Discuss Fire Island Ferry Contract Fallout

On Monday, Feb. 28, Suffolk County Legislature addressed the ongoing dispute between the Village of Ocean Beach and Fire Island Ferries, Inc. during the Public Works, Transportation & Energy portion of its general meeting.

Several Ocean Beach residents addressed the committee after Legislator Nicholas Caracappa (District 4) opened the floor to comments. Among them were Maria Silsdorf, president of OBA and director of FIA; Judith Gerardi; George Eastman; Deborah Cohlan; Jon Randazzo, vice president, OB Chamber; Mark Alter; Patty Brahe, director, OBYG; Judith Steinman; Anne Niland; OBFD Chief Ian Levine; John Carew and Karen Bravin; as well as Judy Corcoran, president, Fair Harbor Community Association.

Audio was spotty at times, but all participants cited safety and health issues, freight delivery and the impact on the commercial district as some concerns, for both residents and visitors, if the ferry company goes ahead with a planned rerouting of ferries to Seaview and Ocean Bay Park (set to begin on March 7 as of this writing) if an agreement cannot be reached with the Village. Silsdorf noted that Fire Islanders are wholly dependent on the ferry service, so this situation is not just a typical landlord/tenant dispute, it goes much deeper.

Seaview’s dock is much smaller and disembarking there would mean a farther walk to reach OB. Steinman, who is 80 years old, believes this is a thoughtless action and a form of discrimination against seniors citizens. Wagons, the main form of transport, are kept at the Ocean Beach Ferry Terminal. She noted that she, and others, would have to walk from Seaview to Ocean Beach, get their wagons, walk back to Seaview, load their items and then walk back to Ocean Beach. She said the legislature, as public servants, should look into the legality of this.

Randazzo, who owns several businesses in Ocean Beach, admitted to being worried about a decline in commerce. In addition, freight would be delivered to Ocean Bay Park and he is concerned about perishables such as seafood and ice cream being exposed to the heat for longer times. He employs about 120 staff members during peak season, and thinks it will become more difficult to find help as getting to Ocean Beach would be difficult.

Besides the smaller size, there are no restrooms and limited shade at Seaview dock. OBFD Chief Levine discussed the long lines of people waiting for the ferry in Ocean Beach, which are managed by OBPD. Seaview has no police department and he can see fights breaking out as people grow frustrated, and possible medical issues due to heat exposure. He believes this will be a huge disservice to all communities.

Silsdorf noted the volume of traffic is already an issue during the peak season, and ferry riders would have to walk through the residential area of Seaview, while freight delivered to Ocean Bay Park would also have to travel through the town, which does not allow Ocean Beach carts. In addition, this volume could hamper emergency vehicle access.

Several of the speakers spoke of the ferry as a monopoly, which Gerardi pointed out makes it difficult for residents. She also expressed concern regarding how workers, lifeguards, staff, etc. would be able to get to their jobs easily. Eastman finds the use of service stoppage distasteful by a government licensed and regulated monopoly. As a volunteer community golf cart driver he worries about those who cannot navigate the trip from the ferry to their homes.

Alter has seen the ferry company expand with bigger and more boats and an expanded parking lot, and said, “good for them and good for us.” But after receiving an email regarding the suspension of service on March 7, he was deeply disturbed. He believes it is a tactic to force the lease in their favor and urged the legislatures to suspend the ferry’s license to operate in all communities (if they suspend service to OB), stating no government licensed entity should be allowed to simply suspend service as part of negotiations.

Corcoran is concerned about all FI communities because of a decrease in service and an increase in rates to Fair Harbor. COVID changed the world, she said, and while the ferry company said ridership was down, the freight charge “increased dramatically.” According to Corcoran, boats are more crowded due to fewer ferries to Fair Harbor, they are no longer coordinated with the LIRR and people wait upwards of three hours between ferries at times. She questioned if Suffolk County has access to ferry records (regarding ridership) and if there is adequate oversight.

Suffolk County Legislator Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey (District 14) said he was contacted by Ocean Beach Mayor Mallot, some of the trustees and the village attorney concerning the possible disruption of service, which was supposed to start on March 1. McCaffrey received some background information, and said this isn’t about the rates the ferry charges, but about the rent being charged to the ferry by OB for the use of their dock and ferry terminal. He explained that he contacted Tim Mooney, owner, FI Ferries, and had a long discussion, and that he has been back and forth with both parties. The ferry company does not want to stop service, McCaffrey said, as they understand the burden it would have on homeowners, the public safety issues and the breaking of the trust a disruption of service would cause.

“I convinced them, while they’re negotiating to extend service at least a week, and they agreed to do that,” McCaffrey said. He went on to say both parties would be meeting on March 1 to discuss the outstanding issues, and while he (McCaffrey) is not a mediator, he expressed the concerns of the Suffolk County Legislature.

While many speakers used the word monopoly, McCaffrey explained that anyone can apply for a ferry license, which would be looked at to determine if they had the capabilities, so this is not an exclusive franchise to FI Ferries that they grant. What the Legislature can control is the rates they charge. They have to be approved through the public works committee and eventually the entire Legislature. They can also revoke a license if a company significantly reduces the amount of service they provide. In this case, by not servicing Ocean Beach, which McCaffrey believes is 60 percent of the business, it would fall into that category and they would have the right to revoke FI Ferries’ license. He doesn’t believe they are at that point yet, and doesn’t know what good it would do, as it would shut out all the communities, and noted there is no other operator who could go in and fill that void right now. He said the Legislature and the county executive are working hard on a resolution.

The agreement between FI Ferries and Ocean Beach ended more than a year ago, and McCaffrey thinks both parties need to reach a long-term solution to this issue as no one wants to see a disruption in service. “We’re going to continue to monitor the situation, we heard what everybody was saying, we’re concerned about the impact it would have on the residents over there, and rest assured we’re doing everything we can to bring the parties together to come to a final solution that is going to work for  everybody,” he said.