After a decade balancing the needs of Fire Island’s national park with those of island residents, Superintendent Chris Soller will retire at the end of March.
“I’ve accomplished a lot of milestones,” said Soller, 65, by telephone.
The Fire Island National Seashore’s longest-serving superintendent cited the park’s recovery from superstorm Sandy; the Watch Hill Marina’s renovation is the last such project.
Soller also wrote a series of long-range plans to safeguard the fragile resort’s future.
New plans cover the park’s management, the deer herds, tourism and visitors, and the breach Sandy cut.
Those plans and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dune-building project, sprang from often contentious hearings, with residents decrying everything from deer-culling to about two dozen home buyouts to clear space for the dune.
Soller’s recognition that the park’s governing framework did not bar dune-building — unlike other national parks — is one of the main reasons the Army Corps is erecting dunes in front of the communities.
His collaborative approach helped to heal the bitterness some residents had toward the park for undervaluing their role in its founding in 1964.
“I think there was a long struggle between the National Park Service and Fire Islanders because there still was very much a mindset that ‘We make the rules and you have to abide by them,’ ” he said.
The federal agency initially assumed the communities would fade away; instead, the 32-mile-long island attracted many more mostly summer residents.
Soller’s emphasis on partnering with them can be seen in his 1991 reworking of zoning, which he said, relaxed “cookie-cutter” rules, instead ensuring, for example, that new homes did not imperil dunes.
“It took us out of a more adversarial role with the residents, and really started looking at what made the most sense.”
Soller, a native of Youngstown, Ohio, began his 41-year career in public service as a VISTA volunteer in 1977.
The park service hired him one year later, rotating him between Washington, D.C. and field positions in New York, including the Gateway National Recreation Area.
From 1983 to 1988, he managed Fire Island’s land use and community relations.
“One of the reasons I wanted to come back here was . . . I believed there was a different way to manage Fire Island . . . as a dynamic landscape with different managers,” he said, including the communities, the county, and the state.
The threats to its future include the lack of sewers, climate change, with increased flooding from the bay and the Atlantic.
Overdevelopment has been a problem almost since the park opened. Although Congress empowered it to condemn homes that violated zoning, lawmakers never provided the funds.
“The issue is that people are always wanting to do more and more. People don’t understand what the impacts are, and so that’s part of our job, to make people aware, and try to hold the line on the density that’s there,” he said.
That task — and the rest of the duties — will be fulfilled by Assistant Superintendent Kelly Fellner, who becomes acting superintendent.
Soller anticipates finally getting to see more of his family — in Ohio, California and Texas — painting, reading and going to the opera.
He and his partner of 25 years have been dividing their time between Brookhaven and Arlington, Virginia. He said:
With retiring, “You just sort of know when it’s right for you.”