The Fire Island Pines Property Owners Association (FIPPOA) began studying the feasibility of incorporating the Fire Island Pines community as a village in 2000. The following report describes the proposed village, summarizes the highly technical incorporation process, and outlines the major pros and cons of incorporating The Pines. To date, the FIPPOA Board of Directors has only studied the feasibility of a change in governance and has not taken a position on the proposal or made a recommendation to FIPPOA members and other property owners.
The Proposed Village
The proposed Village of Fire Island Pines would incorporate the approximate, but not exact, area of the current Fire Island Pines Fire District. The area, currently within the Town of Brookhaven, contains 630 taxable parcels of land with 620 single-family homes, a 100-unit cooperative residence, several commercial buildings and an east-west roadway (Fire Island Boulevard). The boundaries of the proposed village would extend northward at least 500 feet into the Great South Bay and possibly southward into the Atlantic Ocean to give the village jurisdiction over structures such as docks on or near the water.
The Fire Island Pines Fire District and the Suffolk County Police would be required to continue providing the same protection services upon incorporation as they currently do. The proposed village would remain within the Fire Island Union Free School District. The road, rights-of-way and walkways currently owned by the Town of Brookhaven would become the property of the proposed village. The Pines Harbor and surrounding property currently owned by FIPPOA, as well as the Community House on Coast Guard Walk, would remain the property of the association.
Local governance of the proposed village would be provided by an elected mayor and four trustees. The relationship between FIPPOA and the proposed village must be determined.
Assessment and Taxes
The total assessment of all the taxable real property in the Fire Island Pines Fire District for the tax year from December 1, 2000 through November 30, 2001 is $2,912,258. The Town of Brookhaven will collect a total of $3,400,607 for this tax year. Brookhaven distributes the monies collected from property taxes to both the town and to Suffolk County.
The New York State Constitution limits the total amount of annual taxes a municipality may collect (2 percent of fair market value of all property), as well as well as the amount of outstanding debt the municipality may incur (7 percent of fair market value of all property). Based on the calculated equalized fair market value of all property, the proposed village could raise no more than $3 million in annual taxes, an amount that should be sufficient for projected services to be provided by the village. Outstanding debt would be limited to no more than $10.5 million, an amount believed to be sufficient for the village to operate.
A study completed last year by Joseph Prokop, an attorney specializing in village incorporation, included a comparison of the taxes currently collected by Brookhaven for the various services provided by the town and Suffolk County with the rates and amounts to be collected after incorporation. The comparison indicates that the amount of town and county taxes paid by the community would be reduced annually by $215,187, an amount available to the proposed new village without raising property taxes. School district and county police assessments would remain unchanged. School district and county police assessments would not be determined by the proposed village.
In addition to property taxes, the proposed village would be entitled to revenues from various sources that are currently received by the Town of Brookhaven. For example, the village would receive an allocated share of the mortgage taxes paid in Brookhaven. It is estimated, based on the assessments and revenues of other villages in the town, that the proposed Village of Fire Island Pines would receive approximately $34,000 annually. Other revenues could be realized from revenue sharing and highway improvement grants from New York State, franchise taxes paid by Long Island Power Authority and Verizon for operating within the village, and fees and violations charged by village agencies and courts.
Administration and Services
In addition to a mayor and four trustees, the proposed village would have salaried administrative staff, some or all of whom may be part-time. Two positions, village clerk and village treasurer, are required by law, although the two functions may be combined. A village administrator responsible for overall daily management may be advisable. In addition, the village would need to retain a tax assessor, attorney and auditor.
In the areas of building and planning, a number of functions would be required. A building inspector would need to be appointed to review plans for construction and to issue building certificates and violations. A village engineer would work with the Building Department and be responsible for planning and management of any village projects including roads and walkways. A Village Planning Board would include five unpaid members, a clerk and an attorney. An unpaid Zoning Board of Appeals, along with a clerk and attorney, would review variance applications.
Maintenance of the road and walkways that are now town-owned would become the responsibility of the village, with work performed by contractors hired through competitive bidding. Code enforcement is an additional responsibility that would require a code enforcement officer. A new village must consider establishing a village court by electing or appointing a justice that would serve for a nominal amount and hiring a part-time court clerk.
A transition period lasting between 18 and 24 months is required by law to follow the incorporation of a new village. This period provides for an orderly transfer of services, financial obligation and management, and taxing authority.
Incorporation would be initiated by the filing of a petition with the Brookhaven town supervisor. The petition must have the signatures of at least 20 percent of the people who are registered to vote in the area to be incorporated. The petition for incorporation must also include a census of all the people who are considered residents of the community but aren’t registered to vote elsewhere, indicating that at least 500 of those residents are not registered to vote elsewhere. This filing starts a review and hearing process of approximately four months. After the supervisor or a court determines that the petition is legally sufficient, a referendum is scheduled for approximately two months later. Voting is conducted by the town and held in the community. Only people who are registered to vote at addresses in the community can vote.
Voter Registration, Jury Service, Rent Control And Non-NYS Residency
For many years, FIPPOA has encouraged residents to become registered voters in The Pines to give our community more political clout in Brookhaven and Suffolk County. Voting absentee is very easy and convenient. Although FIPPOA has been extremely effective in being heard by town and county officials despite the relatively small number of registered voters in The Pines, so much more could be accomplished with much less time and effort if elected officials knew they were responding to a greater number of voters.
During initial discussions of incorporation, FIPPOA members have expressed three concerns regarding registering to vote in The Pines: being called for jury duty in Suffolk County, losing rent-controlled or rent-stabilized apartments in New York City, and losing out-of-New York State residency status for tax purposes. While residents should consult with their attorneys or accountants regarding their particular circumstances, the following is a general discussion of the issues to assist in those consultations.
Being registered to vote in The Pines does not automatically mean that one will be called for jury duty in Suffolk County. Prospective jurors are selected randomly from a number of lists of state residents including tax, licensed drivers and registered vehicle owners. Many who have been registered to vote in The Pines for many years have never been called for jury duty in Suffolk County.
To maintain the status of a rent-controlled or rent-stabilized apartment in New York City, the apartment must be the tenant’s primary residence. The courts have typically viewed a person’s voter registration address in combination with other information (driver’s license, vehicle registration, mailing/billing address and tax records) as one component in determining primary residence. For taxation purposes, New York State determines residency as the place one resides for more than half a year. Without undertaking an investigation, a landlord is unlikely to be aware of a tenant’s voter registration and is unlikely to commence an investigation unless there is some other basis for suspicion. If all other records indicate residency at the New York City apartment, it is unlikely that voter registration in The Pines by itself would jeopardize the apartment’s rent-controlled or rent-stabilized status.
A number of Pines residents declare primary residency in states without state and local income taxes. Florida, the most common example, also provides a reduction in local property taxes to those who qualify for a “homestead exemption.” Florida residents would lose their homestead exemptions if they are registered to vote outside of Florida. New York State tax authorities weigh a list of evidence when challenging out-of-state residency and exemption from NYS taxes. In addition to source(s) of income, driver’s license, vehicle registration, credit card billings, documentation indicating that one spends more than six months out of New York, proof that the square footage of one’s New York domicile is smaller than the out-of-state residence, and location of important personal possessions, voter registration address and record of actual voting record are considerations by New York State.
Arguments For Incorporation
Clearly a major reason to incorporate is to be able to control the destiny of The Pines more easily and effectively and to better manage our affairs, both short-term and long-term, through increased decision-making and governance within our own community. The Pines is a very small part of the Town of Brookhaven and must currently deal with the town’s bureaucracy to achieve what would be considered routine. While we have been extremely effective in our relations with the town to date, there is no question that our voice and influence has been disproportionate to the number of registered voters in The Pines. The enormous amount of time and effort that FIPPOA must currently invest to accomplish even modest objectives could be redirected to accomplish far more for ourselves. In addition, our voice and influence as a village would be greater at the county and state levels.
The disposition of a large percentage of the property tax monies collected within our community would be controlled and determined by The Pines, with many services delivered at the most local level. An independent study commissioned last year by FIPPOA states: “The incorporation of the Village of Fire Island Pines with proper planning will be able to be done without any effect on the taxes of the community, and with the residents and property owners receiving services that are at least the level which they now receive.” The firm conducting the study said this conclusion is supported by other recent incorporations such as the Village of West Hampton Dunes, another largely seasonal community.
In addition, a new village would be entitled to revenue from various sources other than taxation, including federal money. For example, federal funding might be available for the harbor marina infrastructure project that FIPPOA is now planning. Saltaire, an incorporated village on Fire Island, recently received federal money to reconstruct its harbor. The existing town code of Brookhaven, including zoning and building ordinances, would be automatically transferred to a new village, which could in turn amend that code. Zoning and building ordinances would continue to conform to Fire Island National Seashore guidelines. This increased governance at the local level enables the enactment and enforcement of a code by residents who best understand the uniqueness and needs of the community. In addition, an incorporated village would eliminate the tremendous amount of time and effort FIPPOA must currently expend to amend the Brookhaven code. For example, an inordinate amount of time was required to recently amend the town code to legitimize the gatehouses that are prevalent in The Pines.
Much of the work in governing our community is currently provided by FIPPOA volunteers. Fewer people seem willing to commit the ever-increasing amount of time required. An incorporated village would rely less on volunteers by hiring paid staff to be responsible for the operations of the village.
Arguments Against Incorporation
The most compelling concern about incorporation is that a relatively small percentage of property owners and residents of the village might actually be involved in making decisions that affect their governance and taxation. The critical question is how many residents will be willing to become and remain registered voters in the village. There are currently less than 60 registered voters in The Pines, with only 11 voting in the Fire Island Pines Fire District election this summer. There is an historic reluctance by Pines residents to switch their voting residency for a variety of reasons. Foremost among those reasons is the fact that most people consider The Pines a seasonal residence at best, and most do not consider it their primary residence. While a vote in the proposed village might be considered to have more impact than a vote elsewhere, the result of last year’s presidential election causes people to recognize the importance of a single vote in any election. If only a small number of people registered and voted in the village, that small number of people would determine elected officials, taxes and way of life of the entire community.
While some services would be contracted (highway or boardwalk maintenance, for example), the proposed Village of Fire Island Pines would need to hire employees with responsibilities such as administrator, clerk, treasurer, assessor, building inspector and engineer. Some of these responsibilities are part-time and some could be bundled into the job description of a single individual. However, the labor pool within our community is small and the costs of employing qualified people tend to be considerably higher in The Pines than on Long Island. It is likely that employees who are not residents of the village would need to be hired. In addition, the quality of the work of part-time employees hired by the village may prove to be lower than the work currently performed by career professionals in Brookhaven.
As with anything new, a transition period can be difficult and a learning curve can be steep. This period, for however many months or years it endures beyond what is required by law, may produce more problems and inconveniences than the majority of Pines residents are willing to tolerate. Many who are not unhappy with the current state of affairs may prefer the status quo to the potential, temporary problems that change is likely to bring.