For years now, Fishers Island has been losing its full-time population — which has never been booming anyway.
A military base on the island in the 1940s helped maintain a small town level of a population — 1,500, according to the 1950 U.S. Census. But the military left, and residents left, subsequently — 1960: 500, 1990: 321, 2000: 289, 2010: 236.
At Wednesday’s annual Board meeting, Fishers Island native Bob Wall, who is the head of the island’s utility company, said that when he was in first grade, he was in a class of 20. In third grade, he was one of two students in the class.
“In 1959, I graduated in a class of two,” said Wall, who is now 70. “I can tell people officially that I was the salutatorian of the class.”
Finding ways to stop the bleed of emigration from Fishers Island and to possibly boost full-time numbers continues to be a frustrating process for full-time and part-time residents, Southold Town Board members, and the island’s civic planner, Elizabeth Reid, who took over for planner Meredith Doyen three years ago.
At the meeting, part-time resident Tom Mayo said that he still felt that there is a general tension between Fishers Islanders and Southold Town regarding affordable housing options for those who might want to work on the island. Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said that it’s frustrating to attempt to create affordable housing anywhere in the town.
“These issues can’t be solved by just the Town or Fishers Island — there are several agencies that need to work together,” he said. “And this isn’t just about affordable housing — this is about the creation of meaningful employment. How can we attract industries?”
Fishers Island is essentially two Fishers Islands — the western public part of the island and then the rest of the two-thirds of the rock, which is a gated part-time community of some of the country’s richest made up of famous names like duPont and Roosevelt. When they visit their estates in the summer, Fishers Island is home to about 2,000 people and keeps business owners, caretakers, landscapers, builders and electricians busy. But in the winter, the infrastructure becomes more delicate.
Full-time resident Gary Vollinger, who is semi-retired but works part-time building jet engines in Connecticut — only a three-mile ride as opposed to the 11-mile ride to the North Fork — said he’s frustrated with having to take care of what should be easy, routine things. He recently spent a whole day driving through Connecticut to a New York State Department of Motor Vehicles location upstate, as the Fishers Island Ferry-to- via New London, Conn., path is too time consuming and expensive for him to try and get to Long Island.
“Years ago, I believe a DMV representative came out here once a year so we could take care of things like car registrations,” he said. “Now, there’s nothing. My question is why aren’t we talking about these things and why aren’t they being addressed?”
Existing affordable housing on the island ranges from $150,000 to $400,000, and according to Bob Wall, Fishers Islanders are encouraging the teachers at their tiny K – 12 magnet school, which ships kids from Connecticut and graduates one to 10 kids per year, to live on the island.
“It’s almost mandatory now,” he said.
At the meeting, resident Tom Mayo said that he hoped that Fishers Island residents could have a bigger voice in the processes of Southold Town to help solve the ever-present issue of population decline. John Stype, head of an economic development committee for the town, said he’s working on that.
“We encourage everyone to fill out a survey we’re sending out,” he said. “We need input to figure out which way to go.”
Vollinger said that he’d like to see the creation of a seasonal ferry that connects Fishers Island directly to Orient Point.
“Why can’t we do that?” he said. “I just think that we’ve gotten so small that it’s not worth the investment.”
Supervisor Russell said that another ferry company outside of the existing Fishers Island Ferry has never been mentioned before — probably because the majority of islanders simply don’t want tourism.
“Two-thirds of the island is a private community,” he said. “I think it would be a challenge for even a seasonal ferry to stay afloat.”
What do you think could help Fishers Island revive its full-time population? Tell us in the comment boxes below.