September 20, 2006

Community Heats Up Over Hiring Hall

The heated debate over undocumented workers, which has polarized Southampton Village and surrounding communities, is ratcheting up, thanks to a new proposal by village Mayor Mark Epley.

It was standing room only at Southampton Village Hall last Thursday as scores of residents crowded inside for close to three hours to speak out about Epley's controversial proposal to build a hiring hall and recreational facilities on village owned land, purchased with community preservation funds.

Epley has proposed a temporary measure he hopes will stem the ever-escalating dangers on North Sea Road and County Road 39 posed by crowds of more than 200 day laborers who congregate outside 7-Eleven, as well as irate protesters who appear with signs in hand at the gateway to Southampton.

The mayor's plan calls for a portion of the Knight's Last Stand property on Aldrich Lane to be used as a temporary hiring site for workers, complete with a parking lot, pavilion, benches and bathroom facilities, as well as tennis and basketball courts. The property would be hedged in. The six-acre parcel was purchased by the village in 2001 with CPF funds.

The goal is to mitigate sanitary, littering, traffic control and "eyesore" issues plaguing the village as problems continue to percolate. "Most people recognize this is a problem that's been dumped on the Village of Southampton. We're just trying to come up with a solution," said Epley.

Although not a formal public hearing, proponents of the plan faced off with angry residents opposed to a hiring hall.

Comments kicked off with Montauk resident Herbert McKay, representing the Save Our Society group, questioning the legality of using CPF-funded land.

Epley said he has written to New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele asking for the state's legal opinion about the use of CPF funds.

North Sea resident Elaine Kahl asked whether a municipality should condone a site where undocumented workers are hired. "I am not against immigration. The key word is legal," she said.

Epley said similar hiring halls were instituted successfully in communities such as Glen Cove, Freeport and Huntington and have been instrumental in establishing order. "What is the federal government going to do, come in and say, 'We're going to fine you for this,' because they can't get their act together?"

Other questioned costs. Sister Margaret Smyth of the Work Link Coalition and the North Fork Spanish Apostolate as well as representatives of the Peconic Community Council, League of Women Voters, Catholic Charities, Inc., and Darren Sandow, director of the Port Washington-based Horace Hagedorn Foundation, offered assistance and said the project will be funded through the efforts of not-for-profit organizations.

"Southampton already has a shape-up site," said Sandow. "It's your Main Street. You can live with the chaos, or you can take the proactive approach."

The mayor assured the project would be entirely funded by not-for-profits or private sources. "You can't expect the village taxpayer to carry the burden of a federal issue."

Bob Schepps, president of the Southampton Village Chamber of Commerce, supported the idea and said growing up in Queens, he'd seen how racism and bigotry injured a community.

Many village residents were firmly opposed to a hiring hall. One resident questioned why non profits from Riverhead and points west were involved with local issues. "Why do we have day laborers at the gateway to Southampton? It's egregious," she said.

Mardythe DiPirro, associate director of the Peconic Community Council, countered that not-for-profits didn't create the problem. "Day laborers have chosen Southampton. We've come to help with a solution."

Southampton resident Richard Zeiss said undocumented workers are "illegal aliens," not illegal immigrants and hiring illegal workers is "aiding and abetting." East Hampton solved the problem by reporting license plates of contractors hiring undocumented workers to ensure taxes were paid, he noted.

Southampton Village resident Julie Harrison speaks Spanish and volunteers translating services. "If anyone had ever told me I'd stand in a position opposite to Sister Margaret I would have said it would be impossible." But U.S. citizens, she said, have rights that have "been won by the sweat, work and blood of our ancestors." Harrison does not oppose immigration, but does say no to "breaking the law."

For resident Robert Williams, the problem is too close to home. "Most people are well insulated because they don't live there. I live near the site." He added, "I don't know why we need athletic fields — are you trying to make basketball players out of them?"

Epley countered the sports facilities would be created for use by all residents.

Resident Christine Sullivan questioned insurance and liability issues.

Epley said those issues still needed to be examined.

Resident Frank Zyckowski said most who spoke in favor of the hall were not from the village. "I hope residents have the right to vote on this," he added.

And, for village resident Blzej Stec, there is "no rest." At 70, Stec has worked for years, paying taxes, while undocumented workers "pay no taxes, nothing. It's money in the pocket."

The day laborers, he said, are noisy round the clock and cause pollution. "These people look in my yard, my windows, every day. It's very noisy. I can't live like this. It's very bad."

Epley is sympathetic to his opponents' concerns. "They're local people who have been here all their lives and worked hard for what they have. They're afraid of diminishing property values." But, he added, there is presently no other solution. "I can't continue to stick my head in the sand."

If the CPF-funded parcel is not legally usable, positive dialogue has sparked other possible site opportunities, the mayor said.

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