Block Island Conference
June 3 - 5, 2005

by Patricia Shillingburg

    This past weekend (June 3-5, 2005), I had the privilege of participating in a conference sponsored by the National Trust for Historical Preservation on Block Island. It was part of a series called Your Town: The Citizen’s Institute on Rural Design which has been presented throughout the country for 10 years. The purpose of the conference was to identify major design issues (“feel of the place”) confronting Block Island today and to seek strategies to solve them. This is a highly professional program with experts from around the country who bring national expertise but focus directly on the community being discussed. I was invited by Phil Herr, Comprehensive Plan consultant to Shelter Island, to see if challenges facing Block Island might be similar to those that concern Shelter Island.
    I took the 9 am ferry on Friday from Montauk. I shared it with a handful of young people among whom were four young men going to a wedding with their surf boards.
    Arriving at New Harbor, I was struck by the vision of a large party tent between two rather charming houses on a bluff. I learned later that the tent is on private residential land and is “temporary,” in that, during the summer season, it is lowered every Monday and raised every Friday for another wedding. When I asked about using land zoned as residential for commercial purposes, I was told that the woman had a right to make a living. Nothing better describes the quandary of conflicting values on the Island.

The Island

    Block Island is a tear shaped 6,000 acre island about two hours north east by ferry from Montauk and about forty minutes south of Port Judith in Rhodes Island. It has no natural harbor. The North end of the island is dominated by Great Salt Pond, and the most descriptive characteristic is the wind. It was settled in 1661, and its early history bears a similarity to that of Shelter Island. Its early inhabitants made their living as farmers, shepherds, and fishermen. The Island was dotted with small salt boxes and by the late 1800s these had been joined by high pitched roofed farm houses. The Island was at one time forested, but is now open fields and shrub. Trees are not common. The fields of the Island are separated by distinctive stone walls, many of which are several hundred years old, but remain well tended. From all points on the island, there is the constant presence of the sea, and such view sheds are considered a public right.
    In the 1870s Block Island was discovered by summer visitors. A harbor, now known as Old Harbor -- was built with breakwaters in 1870. Soon nearly a dozen grand hotels were build around Water Street along the harbor. A number of them remain and have been renovated to serve guests today. Apparently, the arrival of the tourist hotels did not affect the daily occupation of the residents who continued to fish and farm. By the turn of the 20th Century small Victorian houses had joined the salt boxes and farm houses.
    However, the Depression, the advent of the automobile, and finally the Hurricane of 1938 left the Island ruined, desolate and abandoned except by the local residents.
    In 2005, in the census taken on Ground Hog Day, there were 1,000 year-round residents. The school had about 125 children (K-12) and is considered excellent.  In the winter, the only services open are the grocery store, the hardware store, the bank, the gas station, and the Post Office. There is no way to get prescriptions filled locally. There is a doctor; however, he is threatening to leave. The only place to “hang out” is the Library. Electricity is very expensive. Much of the year, there is one ferry a day to Port Judith three or four times a week.  Many people keep cars on the mainland or borrow them. Many people, particularly the retirees, spend several months in Florida.
    The Island was rediscovered by summer visitors in the 1960s and there are now over 1,700 homes on the Island, the newer ones dotting the coasts. Seventy-five percent of them are occupied only seasonally. As land becomes less available for purchase, the small pre-20th century houses are being purchased, torn down and replaced with houses which, to many, do not reflect the cultural heritage of the Island. While only two houses are more than 6,000 square feet, a number of Islander are concerned that the trend toward very big houses will continue. The seasonal development has been most concentrated in the south-west quadrant, but is not limited to that area and is creeping north. Also, there is concern that the big houses, often placed on the top of hills are cutting off valued view sheds. Most of the desirable lots are valued at over $1 million, with $1 million dollar houses built on them.
    Because of sustained and consistent effort, over 40% of the land has been preserved and can never be built on.
    There are two centers of commerce: Water Street and the docks on the west side of New Harbor (once Great Salt Pond and breached to the sea in 1890). There are about 650 guest rooms on the Island in both the handful of remaining grand Victorian hotels and bed and breakfasts. From Memorial Day through September, not only is the Island inundated with summer residents, but their is lively activity -- one might say unruly -- centered around the commercial districts where there are 37 “watering holes.” The ferry from Port Judith, which plies back and forth continually during the day, bring hundreds of day trippers and over-night guests with each trip. The new high speed ferry from New London (started last year) can bring up to 500 visitors every trip. The ferry from Montauk, which makes only one trip a day, can bring another 100. Visitors enjoy magnificent Crescent Beach on the ocean, shop in the few shops along Water Street, with limited and inexpensive merchandise, and enjoy the rollicking night life. This crowd is generally under 30.
    Block Island, with the huge and protected New Harbor, is also a popular destination for yachters.
    The most important summer weekend is the Fourth of July. Many thousands of day trippers fill Water Street to watch the parade. I had the impression that there is a certain amount of trepidation in anticipation, as bad behavior among the visitors has not been unknown.
    There is no public transportation on the Island, and those without their own car must rely on their feet, bicycles, or taxis. Taxi drivers are a powerful lobby and they would not welcome a bus. Half of the roads remain unpaved.
    The Island has three cell towers, but there is no high speed access to the Internet. It appears that that will be solved in the next few months.
    Residents, both winter and summer, have access to the beach through over a dozen public access paths. The Block Island Club offers swimming, sailing and tennis (but no golf) to the Island’s children at a low cost.

The Conference

    The issues of concern identified at the conference were: housing development; tear-downs; communication, education and outreach; affordable housing; and commercial development.
    The conference agenda began with a 1900 power point tour of the Island which was followed by a bus tour of the northern end. Then we returned to the meeting hall to discuss what makes Block Island unique, what is threatened by this uniqueness, and why do people come. That evening was an address by Edward McMahon who showed the difference between awful and tasteful development. This presentation is available on video tape, and I will get a copy. Saturday morning was introduced with a presentation on community character and growth management -- the importance of place, followed by a presentation on the cultural landscape of Block Island.  The most exciting tools were computer software that allows for data manipulation that in the past has never been possible. The most useful were those that manipulate a map based on the Assessor’s database and other databases programmed by a local participant. Using the Assessor’s database, they have successfully inventoried every house on the Island by style and year built which were all pasted to display boards and provided a visual statement of the rich heritage of the past and the present problem.  I brought home copies of the computer tools as they relate to Block Island and am happy to share them.
    The cultural heritage, as defined by the landscape of small salt box and farm  houses, fields and stone walls, is in jeopardy, according to the participants, and all the other issues were, in their minds, related to that issue. The southwest quadrant has been lost. Now, new building is encroaching on the rest of the Island, threatening the “feel of the Island,” as we describe this issue on Shelter Island. The fear is that within time, the traditional appearance of the Island will be lost.  Old houses are being torn down and replaced by much larger ones which destroy the landscape and the view sheds. Two years ago the Town Council set up a committee of architects to whom people planning to build could go to on a voluntary basis, at no charge, to discuss cultural landscape issues, but no one has taken advantage of that opportunity although about forty houses are built each year. The challenge remains to lead people who buy land on the Island to develop or improve to value of the Island’s cultural landscape and encourage them to seek guidance in conforming to it. Voluntary compliance has not been the solution.
    Bizarrely, people are buying stone walls, dismantling them, and reconstructing them where they never existed before.
    Block Island is much further ahead of Shelter Island in creating affordable, or attainable housing. There are 25 units created in the past few years, and another 20 units are planned and funded. This will meet the Rhodes Island requirement for a ratio of affordable units; however, it is clear that a more wealthy class of people will be retiring on the Island in the future, and the local population will be differently composed over time. Most businesses provide housing for their seasonal workers.
    Activities around the commercial centers are not compatible with the cultural landscape. The Chamber of Commerce is mostly engaged in the affairs of the tourist trade. They run a reservation service for the hotels and bed and breakfasts and promote the Island for that base. The stores in the commercial areas are owned and operated primarily by people who live off Island most of the year. They sell low end merchandise like tee shirts, sun glasses, hats and inexpensive souvenirs. Motor bike and bicycle rental shops abound. The participants did not imagine that appealing to a more affluent customer might change the dynamic of the Island’s visitors, but some obviously would like to see that happen. They were all, however, pleased with the goals of the new police chief who is promising to make sure that everyone conforms to the law, particularly the law prohibiting the carrying of open alcoholic beverages on the street.
    Although there was a great deal of good advice and thoughtful presentations, the best was: If you can’t move the Island further out to sea, and you cannot start a global depression, the only thing to do is to plan for change and use the best planning tools available.
    Returning home, I met several young people returning from a weekend on the Island. One fellow was one of ten who had rented a house up the road from Water Street for a week (he was returning to NYC for a funeral and would be returning), and he had enjoyed the beach and particularly the “drinking” on Saturday night in various bars. A Long Island City couple, who had spent their second weekend in three weeks on the Island, had enjoyed the beach and also “drinking.” Their only regret was that the bars close so early, 1 am. The guys with the surf boards were also on board the ferry.
    Block Island has identified the threat to its cultural landscape, and like Shelter Island, is struggling to develop strategies to confront it. If you cannot say “no” to a wedding business on residential property, how do you say “no” to a house that offends the character of place?