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Dering Harbor home to alleged nepotism, property disputes

Dering Harbor on Shelter Island is the state's tiniest village, with 11 full -time residents, 39 houses and expansive waterfront views. But this summer has been tumultuous. In the past two months, the mayor of 25 years resigned, as well as the village clerk and bookkeeper. Now the Village is scrambling to appoint new people to these positions. (Credit: Newsday / Rachelle Blidner)

Dering Harbor may be the state’s tiniest village, but it has some big drama.

Residents said they have become increasingly frustrated by alleged nepotism and cronyism on the village’s boards, and the tranquillity they value in the quarter-square-mile Shelter Island enclave — with 11 full-time residents, 39 houses, private docks and expansive waterfront views — has given way to tumult.

Since July, three mayors cycled through office in two weeks. A trio of incumbent trustees was ousted in June’s election, when nearly all of the village’s 81 registered voters favored candidates waging a write-in campaign. The village clerk — one of only three paid village employees — and a freelance bookkeeper both recently resigned. Even the woman who regularly cleaned Village Hall quit.

Residents and officials said the changes stem from discontent over nepotism, a lack of transparency and a property dispute over small strips of land on two residential lawns. The village has an annual budget of about $335,000 and provides few services other than water treatment and road management. Residents do not have to live in the village full time to register to vote or serve on boards.

“Because we’re so small, these things get magnified,” said Patrick Parcells, a resident who ran for mayor in 2014 and was defeated in a runoff.

Things began to escalate on June 20, when incumbent trustees Heather Brownlie, Kirk Ressler and Richard Smith were unseated by challengers Ari Benacerraf, Elizabeth “Betsy” Morgan and Karen Kelsey.

By July 1, Mayor Tim Hogue had resigned after 25 years in the unpaid position. Ressler, who was appointed in 2016 to the village board, whose members are also unpaid, was named interim mayor by the lame-duck board.

Within two weeks, Ressler resigned when the new board took office and was replaced by John Colby Jr., the sole trustee whose seat had not been up for election. His vacant seat is expected to be filled at a village meeting Saturday. Colby is responsible for paying the bills and keeping the municipality running in the absence of clerk Laura Hildreth, bookkeeper Wendy Kunst and cleaner Julia English.

Hildreth, a Southampton Town resident who worked for the village once a week for nine years, said she left when “the new guard” came in.

“I was especially upset to see what happened to that little community,” she said, referring to the recent contentious elections.

Ressler and Kunst could not be reached for comment. Hogue, Brownlie, Kelsey and English did not respond to requests for comment.

Morgan said in an email that she plans to “work toward a stronger community of neighbors, where we can resolve our differences in a fair and friendly, open way.”

Most trustees have also served on the village’s other boards. Colby is on the planning board and architectural review board, and Hogue is a member of the zoning board of appeals. Hogue’s wife, two former trustees’ spouses and a former trustee’s mother all served on either the planning board, architectural review board or zoning board of appeals while their relatives were village officials.

Ken Walker, an architect and member of the architectural review board, said “there’s not enough people to go around” to fill all those slots. He recently resigned from the planning board.

Colby echoed that sentiment. When new residents started moving in, they resented the governance structure, said Colby, who grew up in Glen Cove. “In the past, that was a necessity, but the new people felt disenfranchised,” he said.

Residents said the last straw came from a protracted lawsuit filed by Alfredo Paredes, executive vice president of Ralph Lauren, and his husband, Brad Goldfarb, a writer, who purchased a waterfront home on Shore Road next door to Hogue’s house in 2013.

The couple sued the village in December 2015, alleging they could not build a front porch because officials said they did not own a 25-foot strip of land on their front lawn. Martha Baker, a landscape architect and former fashion director for New York magazine, joined their lawsuit following a similar dispute over a 15-foot parcel in front of her house.

Colby and Linda Margolin, the homeowners’ attorney, said they expect the lawsuit will be resolved with the new board members in power.

Village attorney Joseph Prokop did not respond to a request for comment.

“We’re a small village, so if we make a mistake and get sued and have a big judgment or something, we all have to pay,” said Parcells, the former mayoral candidate and a retired Wall Street banker.

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