For residents of Smith Point, what started as a grassroots drive to gain local control of the community has turned into a tale of two villages - would-be villages, led by factions that agree on almost nothing, from the reason for incorporating to the new village's boundaries and even its name.
Civic leaders, led by local day spa owner Delia McKernan, began the process a few years ago to form an incorporated village government in the tiny Brookhaven hamlet just north of Fire Island at the east end of Great South Bay.
But a schism among activists has spurred a competing group - led by electrical contractor and cabdriver Eric Hakam - to start its own drive for incorporation, spawning a flurry of lawsuits and delaying the process.
The feud has turned personal. McKernan sued Hakam for libel after, she said, he distributed a letter accusing her of trespassing and perjury in connection with her group cleaning and maintaining a building and a beach in the community. Hakam responded by countersuing for defamation and seeking a temporary restraining order against McKernan.
The two sides say they share a common goal - a village government that responds to residents' concerns about code enforcement of derelict buildings owned by absentee landlords - but admit that incorporation seems a long way off.
"We're so desperate now to hang on to our village and our historic boundaries," McKernan said. "What [Hakam] wanted to do was create confusion and diversion."
Hakam says he is the one with the community's interests at heart: "We just want to get the village done and get it done the right way."
The groups have different ideas about the village's parameters. McKernan wants it small, at about 3,700 homes and fewer than 3 square miles; Hakam's village would be more than 4 square miles and about 5,700 homes. McKernan focuses on preserving history, Hakam on encouraging business growth.
The two factions even disagree over the village's name.
McKernan's followers say "Smith Point" dates to the 17th century and William "Tangier" Smith, who owned the partially preserved historic estate Manor St. George. Hakam cites the fact that the U.S. Postal Service acknowledges three place names - Shirley, East Yaphank and Smith Point - for the local ZIP code. He wants the public to vote on a name.
The rift between McKernan, president of the Smith Point Beach Property Owners Association, and Hakam, founder of the Smith Point Village Exploratory Committee, began in May 2008 when the property owners expelled Hakam. McKernan said the group booted Hakam "because of his conduct and behavior" and because "he's a troublemaker." Hakam says he was unfairly removed.
At the time, the property owners were proceeding with the process of forming a village - drawing boundaries, taking a census, collecting petition signatures. Hakam then launched his own group, which sought to expand the proposed village north to Sunrise Highway.
McKernan alleges Hakam used the name "Smith Point" in his group for the sole purpose of confusing residents who had already heard from the first group of activists. Hakam denies the charge.
"It's unfortunate that members of both groups can't come to a meeting of the minds," said Mary Fischer, a retired teacher who lives on Beacon Street.
Brookhaven Town board member Dan Panico, who represents the area, said the town will review a petition for incorporation if either group can assemble one. "I believe that both groups want to do good. The acrimony that stems between the two groups is unfortunate."
Activists in neighboring Mastic Beach submitted a village petition in January and await a public vote. In Smith Point, neither group is ready to file such a petition, which requires signatures from 20 percent of the proposed village's residents.
But each promises a court challenge if the other files first.
Bob LiCari, a member of the property owners group, regrets the infighting. "The losers are the community," he said.