By Shoshanna McCollum ~ It was a misty and unseasonably warm evening at the Ocean Beach Tree Lighting celebration on Saturday, December 14. In an autumn that has been punctuated by nor’easters, the most recent round of puddles had only begun to recede, but none of this stopped the congregation of residents from an assortment of Fire Island communities at CJ’s, Fire Island’s sole year round bar restaurant, to meet their neighbors for cocktails. From there they were off to sing carols around the village’s modest tree decked out in lights, with the bayside air salty and crisp, and then topping the night a potluck supper at the volunteer fire department meeting hall as is annual tradition.
However festivities were overshadowed by a bittersweet tone this year. News had circulated quickly around the island that CJ’s would be closing this winter on New Year’s Day, and would not reopen until March 1, 2020. Since opening for business in 1971, CJ’s has maintained a year round presence on Fire Island with few interruptions – even doubling as a bodega for the residents over the sparse winter months. However denial of an over sand vehicle permit application now threatens to change all of this, which struck a chord of empathy among the residency who are presently experiencing challenges of their own in this arena with Fire Island National Seashore. (FINS).
“This was a difficult decision to make,” said CJ’s Restaurant and Bar co-owner Chris Mercogliano. “Staying open on Fire Island through the winter has never been easy, but it’s a labor of love for us. [FINS] denying us that permit is just too much of a hardship.”
The Mercoglianos never even got the opportunity to submit an application.
“Although your business may supply essential food items, it is not required as stated in Resolution No. 2013-015 because there is at least one other market in town that does as well,” stated an email sent to Laura Mercogliano from the ranger presently administrating permits. “After reviewing our records we will not be issuing a permit to you this year.”
Such is the way with the labyrinth of vehicle permits on Fire Island.
Unlike much of the United States, automobile driving on Fire Island is not a given. That is the trade-off that was made when the slender barrier island was declared a national seashore in 1964 to settle once and for all the grand ambition of Robert Moses and highway he wanted to build here. Now the 17 recognized Fire Island communities exist within National Park Service jurisdiction, and vehicular driving is regulated with layers of permits that residents, businesses and municipalities must obtain on the federal, town and incorporated village level. It’s an elaborate system that has been in place for nearly a half century, and its existence has kept Fire Island reasonably pristine at a time when massive development projects continue to transform many formerly bucolic hamlets on Long Island.
Still the driving conundrum can be frustrating. Waiting lists to obtain that first permit can be long, the stipulations of when and how often one can drive constricts autonomy, and the expense of fees add up – but in truth those who live or do business on Fire Island know what they are signing on for when they choose to settle here. However as 2020 approaches, this complicated relationship is taking on new twists and turns, as FINS has made abrupt changes in vehicle permit renewal procedure.
“Holding a driving permit within the National Park Service is a privilege,” reads an excerpt of a letter signed by FINS Superintendent Alexcy Romero on August 12, 2019. “Routinely violating the conditions of that permit will result in revocation in 2020.”
The letter cites the U.S. Department of Interior, National Park Service, as well as Fire Island National Seashore in its letterhead – but does not include any description of what these alleged violations may be – only that committing three of them will result in having one’s permit revoked, prompting locals to nickname this peculiar communication “the three strikes letter.”
FINS held one of their “town hall” meetings at Fire Island School on September 12, encouraging audience attendees to have their say, and write their thoughts on the subject of driving on interactive boards with post-it notes. The meeting lasted about two hours, but the three strikes letter was never brought up once.
Shortly after Thanksgiving the FINS permit renewal applications arrived in residents’ mailboxes on schedule – only to be followed-up with an addendum document hastily emailed after the fact on December 5. The newly minted Year Round Resident Driving Permit Verification form asks some interesting questions.
“List below all absences when you were gone from your residence on Fire Island for more than 5 consecutive days from the current date through the past twelve months,” asks section six. “Why were you absent?” that section continues.
“Have three individual year-round residents, who currently have National Park Service Year-round Residential driving permits, from two separate households on Fire Island, verify your year-round residency by signing the following statement of witness,” the form continues. “Providing false information may result in suspension/revocation of their existing driving permit and privileges.”
Many of the 150 or so year round permit holders have lived on Fire Island for decades, raising their families and building their lives here. Some have quietly confided to this publication that they would not mind having some indiscretions in the current permit system cleaned up a little, but are concerned that the newly introduced mechanisms are an overreach.
Meanwhile Christmas is swiftly approaching. Some of the off-season staff at CJ’s are preparing for departure and have said their goodbyes, but the establishment patrons have not given up so easily. A petition is being circulated amongst them to keep their gathering place open. Cheers!
EDITOR’S NOTE: Since 2013, CJ’s Restaurant and Bar has been owned by Palms Management, the parent company of this publication.
This news item has been included and updated in “Marking Waves: 2019 in Review with Fire Island News” article.
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