The Sherman family has run the Davis Park Ferry for 74 years, but none was worse than 2020.
The company, which carries thousands of passengers annually between Patchogue and Fire Island, saw a 20% drop in ridership last summer amid coronavirus restrictions. And in August, company president and family patriarch Charles Sherman died at 71 from a heart attack.
Then last month the family learned Brookhaven Town planned to let leases allowing the company to use town marinas expire on Dec. 31, leaving the service's future in doubt.
"We were stunned, honestly stunned by it," said Sherman's widow Stephanie, who co-owns the business with her brother-in law, Matthew Sherman. "All of a sudden, they want to take the business away from us. We don’t understand how or why they want to take it away from us."
The ferry company has leases to use town-owned facilities at Sandspit marina in Patchogue and at Davis Park. Town officials said they plan to put those leases out for bid.
It wasn't clear when the town would award new leases. Sherman said bids are due by the end of this month.
Brookhaven Councilman Neil Foley said the town and the company signed a 10-year lease in 2010 that included five one-year options, which could have extended the lease to 2025. Foley said town officials decided not to exercise the option for this year, causing the lease to expire on Dec. 31.
"It was a pretty straightforward, black-and-white legal issue," Foley said, referring to the lease expiration and adding the Sherman family may bid for a new lease. "They’re more than welcome to be part of the contract. They know what they’re doing. They know the routes."
Brookhaven deputy chief of staff Kevin Molloy said it’s standard to put expired leases out for new bids.
Under the expired lease, the ferry company had paid the town $45,295 annually for the use of the marinas.
Bids for the new lease — a five-year deal with five one-year options — are due on Jan. 28 and will be opened by town officials the following day.
Stephanie Sherman, 67, who met her husband while working for the company, said her family plans to put in bids to continue using the marinas. The company operates ferries on Great South Bay under a Suffolk County license, which is not affected by the town leases.
The family also has a lease with the National Park Service to use the Watch Hill marina on Fire Island.
If a different company wins the town leases, that firm would have to obtain a ferry operating license and fare approvals from Suffolk officials, said county legislature Presiding Officer Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue).
He said it would take two to four months to process those approvals, including public hearings before the legislature. That doesn't leave much time for a new ferry operator to get up and running before Davis Park renters and property homeowners want to prepare their homes for the summer, he said.
"It would be a very tight push to get rates [approved] for the spring," Calarco said.
Stephanie Sherman said family members had expected to be able to renegotiate new leases with the town, as they had done in the past. She said losing the leases would effectively put the family out of business because they would have no place to dock their vessels.
"This is all I’ve ever done," she said. "I started when I was 17. … This is my life’s work."
History of the Davis Park Ferry
1947: Fred Sherman and his wife Kiki found the company to run ferries between Patchogue and Davis Park on the eastern end of Fire Island. The community, which family members said had few houses when the business opened, has since grown to include 350 to 400 homes, with a marina that has about 250 boat slips.
1964: Fire Island National Seashore established, including Davis Park and other communities on the barrier island.
1982: Fred Sherman dies. Ownership of the company passes to his sons, Charles, Matthew and Fred. Fred Sherman no longer is involved in the business.
2010: Family signs new lease with Brookhaven Town to use Sandspit and Davis Park marinas. Ten-year lease includes five one-year options.
2020: Lease expires Dec. 31. Town does not exercise options.