Gurney's Inn
April 03, 2007

Green Light for Southampton Hiring Site

It's a go.

Southampton Village Mayor Mark Epley announced last week that he has given the nod to a hiring site, to be located on Aldrich Lane next to the 7-Eleven. The day laborer issue has been a hotbed of controversy in recent months.

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Upon hearing the news, protestors who have long renounced a formal hiring site in the village vowed to remain vigilant in their efforts.

Contractor Tom Wedell, a familiar figure who stands outside 7-Eleven protesting illegal immigration, promised to stand firm. "I intend to be there every day to prevent them from doing anything on that piece of property," he said on Sunday. "If they try to move one machine onto it, I'll be underneath the wheels, I promise you."

And on Monday morning, when village workers appeared at the site, Wedell was there, standing in a hole. He was arrested at 9 a.m. by village police for disorderly conduct. Wedell was back at the site protesting by 10:30.

An earlier proposal for a hiring hall to be located on the Aldrich Lane property upset residents. In the end, because the village-owned parcel was purchased with Community Preservation Funds, it was deemed that no hiring hall could be built.

Epley has been seeking a solution to 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.

The mayor's new plan calls for the empty lot at the Knight's Last Stand property — a six-acre parcel purchased by the village in 2001 with CPF funds — to be hedged in, with a gravel turnaround added where drivers can pick up day laborers safely.

"It's not a hiring hall," he said. "It's where these guys already stand."

Next, Epley plans to introduce legislation that prohibits solicitation of employment on a public right of way, measured from the curb to 10 feet in, and also in commercial parking lots.

Currently, the mayor said, the situation is escalating, with day laborers spread out onto North Sea Road, up Willow Street, and standing on Jobs Lane, Hampton Road and Hill Street. "I have them in virtually every parking lot on North Sea Road, and it has to get consolidated. It's not a pro-immigration or an anti-immigration stance."

He added, "My goal is very simple: To get day laborers off the streets and put them in a place that is aesthetically more pleasing and significantly more safe."

Epley traveled recently to Jupiter, Florida, a community that had experienced similar day laborer conflicts — until the town purchased a church, where Catholic Charities now operates a resource center which serves as a hiring function day laborers.

Epley, who toured the area with a Southampton resident who winters in Jupiter, was shown before-and-after pictures. "Before, he told me he couldn't even drive down that road without people running into the street, trying to get hired. When I saw the differences there, I got sick for my community. And I said, 'I've got to do something.'"

To that end, Epley met with members of The Coalition for a Work Link Center, seeking solutions.

Residents are outraged over the latest site plans. Elaine Kahl said, during Easter week, the hiring site signals "the crucifixion of the East End United States citizen."

Kahl questions what's behind the hedges. "Is it real, or is it criminal contempt?"

Epley said he's made it clear that there will be no buildings on the lot; Sister Margaret Smyth and members of the coalition have pledged to organize day laborers.

Sandra Dunn, spokesperson for the worklink coalition, said, "We're thrilled that he's taking this very important first step toward a formal hiring site in the village."

Dunn said that while a structure would have been ideal, coalition members are pleased, as long as the mayor pledges to provide security to "keep anti-immigrant protestors from encroaching upon" the parcel. Such security, and perhaps an ordinance, is needed, she said, "to keep anti-immigrant protestors from harassing the day laborers and their supporters. It's really gotten out of control with the forces of hate."

Epley said increased village police enforcement and presence will be provided, but not continually. He's looking to model municipalities that have set up buffer zones, with designated areas for protesting, allowing for freedom of speech but mitigating potential violence in the area.

Dunn confirmed the worklink coalition would be providing supervision and registering day laborers, but it will take time. "Ideally, we'd have a building, but we don't have to have one."

As for the CPF argument, Epley said it won't come into play because no structures will be built.

Assemblyman Fred Thiele said as long as only landscaping and a circular drive are added, the village won't violate CPF regulations. Only adding a building or offering services would violate the CPF requirements.

Epley said following East Hampton's lead and policing the area more heavily would have only spread day laborers all over the village and town.

The mayor has sought other alternatives and has discussed ideas with Legislator Jay Schneiderman, including utilizing rest areas on County Road 39 or Gabreski Airport. Both times, said Epley, he "ran into a stone wall."

Epley acknowledged that while "there's no easy answer," his goal has always been "consolidation and organization."

As for residents in the area protesting the hiring site on Aldrich Lane, Epley said the legislation he's proposing will move day laborers out of the 7-Eleven parking lot and away from residents' property onto the lot.

Epley said with plantings almost complete, this week, gravel will be put down and a curb cut completed. He anticipates the site will be ready this week.

The mayor added his attorney is drafting legislation, which he hopes to have ready for review by next week's village board meeting, so that a public hearing can be scheduled. "The reality is that legislation is probably a month and a half away."

As for costs, Epley said all plantings and gravel have been donated; he has instructed village workers to track all costs and hours spent on labor so that reimbursement can be sought from not-for-profit organizations. Police, presumably, would be paid by the village.

The mayor plans to proceed with plans to collaborate with Southampton Town Supervisor Skip Heaney, developing an inter-municipal agreement on code enforcement for the licensing of contractors.

The bottom line, said Epley, is that the village is shouldering a federal problem. "We're all alone," he said. "I hope the federal government gets off its butt and makes a decision."

Wedell started the Anti Illegal Immigrant Association, comprised of contractors.

Although he has four kids and other things to do, Wedell, an East Moriches resident who works in Southampton, vows to keep protesting. "When you corner a desperate man, this is what you get. Desperate times call for desperate measures."

Of the site, Wedell believes Epley is "trying to shove it down everyone's throat. He snuck it in the back door."

Epley's goal has always been a plan. "If this doesn't work, we'll go back to the drawing board," he said. "I'm not afraid to try something new."

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