Shelter Island officials are hoping that a study of the grasses growing along the Ram Island causeway will show that the area is a wetland, unsuitable for any kind of construction under state law.
If that is the case, it will save the town from a big problem — what to do about possible construction of several homes along the nearly two-mile stretch of road that links Shelter Island proper to Little Ram Island and Ram Island.
State law prohibits construction in wetlands, and the property along the causeway is currently zoned for residential use. The town has implemented a moratorium on all construction along the causeway and, after a public hearing on Friday, decided to vote on whether to extend it to the end of the year when the board next meets on July 8.
Town officials fear that they could be legally liable if they issue permits to build houses on the low-lying causeway land and the homes are later swept away by storms. But they are also concerned that they would have to pay property owners for the land if they simply refuse to issue building permits.
If the property is officially classified as a wetland, those two problems would go away. At the standing room only meeting Friday in Town Hall, town officials said the property had never been studied to determine if plant growth and other characteristics mean it should be classified as a wetland.
Supervisor Jim Dougherty said that, as part of the planning process, the State Department of Environmental Conservation reviews building permits to see if they are in defined wetlands areas. But, he noted, pilings have already been driven into the ground where one new house along the Ram Island Causeway will be built.
Because marsh reeds such as Spartina Alterniflora and Phagmites Australis thrive only in wetlands, their presence is considered a strong indicator.