Fishers Island full time

By Erin Schultz

Meredith Doyen has a population problem to solve. It's a small number -- but a big problem.

She's the island administrator of Fishers Island, the easternmost hamlet of Southold Town, about 11 miles away from Orient Point and only two miles from the southeastern coast of Connecticut. Ms. Doyen said she's tired of the "lifestyles of the rich and famous" references to Fishers Island -- even though it's hard to deny the exclusivity of this famous resort for the megawealthy, isolated from New York geographically and politically.

"There's a part of us you all don't know about," she said.

That part is a year-round community of about 245 (according to her last "very unofficial" count). This population, which has reduced gradually from 1,500 in 1950, resides on the western "public" part of the island. It's made up of business owners, firemen, electricians, constables, teachers and schoolchildren.

Many, like Janio Spinola, also work as caretakers to this country's richest of the rich, who populate the gated eastern end of the island and increase the population to around 2,000 during the warm months.

Mr. Spinola, a native of Brazil and former New York City cabbie, lives near what he calls the best spot to fish on Fishers Island -- an island named not for its phenomenal fishing, allegedly, but after a man named Visher, who served as navigator for the Dutch explorer Adrian Block. From there, Mr. Spinola said, he can see Connecticut, Rhode Island, Block Island and Montauk.

"I came here in 1983 with $3,500 and a dream," he said. "This is my dream."

He's the caretaker of a castle built near the turn of the century by the Simmons family (of mattress fame), now owned by the oil-baron Hanley family. He's worked for the Hanleys for 23 years and just recently bought the local liquor store, the downtown establishment with the most reliable hours.

He and his wife say they couldn't ask for more.

"It's not even America out here, is it?" said his wife, Eliana, juggling her toddler and Star Wars Legos in an upstairs room of the castle's caretaker's quarters, part of which used to be a garage. "We love it."

Mr. Spinola's kids have either graduated or are currently enrolled at Fishers Island's school, a K-12 operation specializing in marine biology and graduating one to 10 kids a year. Around 10 kids from Connecticut take the ferry over every day during the school year on something called the Magnet program, a strategy by islanders that's helped to keep the place open and widen scholarship opportunities.

"It's great for them," Ms. Doyen said.

Married, with a 1-year-old son herself, Ms. Doyen, 31, has lived on Fishers Island for five years. A native of Georgia, she has a master's in town planning from Iowa State. Working for a Maine-based group called the Island Institute, she said, she was supposed to help manage one of the inhabited islands in Maine, but the opportunity presented itself on Fishers Island.

"'Oh, by the way, we're sending you to this place,'" she remembered hearing. She was a little hesitant about her sentence on what's often referred to as "the rock," but, she said, "by the time winter rolled around, I knew I'd hit the jackpot."

Her job is to find ways to get families to move here and to stay here. One of those ways was to implement a very successful affordable housing program.

Affordable homes on Fishers Island start at around $150,000 and max out at around $400,000, according to Ms. Doyen.

"They do whatever they can do to complement what they need on the island -- teachers, activists," said Phillip Beltz, special projects coordinator for Southold Town. Because if they don't, he added "they won't have a home to come back to."

Ms. Doyen is paid by donations from wealthy part-time residents. And part of her job is to keep the peace between the two very different worlds of east and west.

She said that though the seasonal residents want to ensure that the island will always be there for their own generations, these families -- with iconic names like duPont and Roosevelt -- are not the unapproachable lords over the working-class year-rounders. She said it's a necessary symbiotic relationship with perks.

Funded exclusively by private donations from seasonal residents, a multimillion dollar community center will open in mid-October, transforming a once-abandoned brick Army warehouse into a place where year-rounders and part-timers can grab a bite to eat, watch a movie, work out on state-of-the-art equipment or go bowling on a cute four-lane alley -- the only one in Southold Town.

Fishers Island generates 7.7 percent of Southold Town's tax levy, according to Kevin Webster, chairman of the Southold Town's board of assessors. Many of the seasonal residents play golf on a world-famous 18-hole course, full of brown patches, in keeping with the island's themes of preservation and ecofriendliness.

"They don't irrigate out here," Ms. Doyen said.

Pierce Rafferty, the curator of the island's Henry L. Ferguson museum and first cousin to George W. Bush, said that Fishers islanders on both sides of the gate are self-sufficient, loathe speaking to reporters and cherish their privacy above anything else.

"It's just a historical fact," he said.

Which might be why it's hard to find Fishers Island on some New York State maps -- or Cross Sound Ferry's map. The island has its own ferry system with its own schedule that doesn't match up very well with those of other ferry systems.

It also has its own fire department, grocery store, waste management, utility department, post office, seasonal hotel/restaurant-bar, two golf courses, three private clubs, and a new nonprofit medical facility run by Maria Frank, a doctor from New York City.

"I'm the only game in town," she said. Dr. Frank also treats emergency patients to free up the Sea Stretcher, a floating ambulance available to rush patients to a Connecticut hospital.

If every full-time Fishers Islander has to wear many hats in the tiny community, Cynthia Riley is the ultimate woman about town. A full-time resident since 1989, she's the program director for the library, a girl scout leader and a theater director. She's got a husband, two dogs, named Zelda and Sebastian, and she loves Fishers Island.

"It's literally God's country," she said. "I love the solitude in winter."

But according to Ms. Doyen, part of the problem with trying to repopulate Fishers Island with even the most self-sufficient, multitasking people is simply "the scene." On the west end, there's only one bar. It's called the Pequot Inn. A young man by the name of Josh Horton, 28 (no, not Southold's former supervisor), tends bar there for the summer. But only for the summer. He heads back to Massachusetts to go to school in the fall.

"It's a wonderful island," he said. "We work hard and play hard."

Brianna Whelan, 22, another Pequot employee, has more of a history with the island. The liberal-arts student tried to live year-round with her aunt on the island when she was 11. She said the isolation was a bit much, but the school and the lifestyle of the island is "a comfort zone."

"If you go running, someone's not going to harass you," she said. "There's a sense of security here unlike any other place I've ever been."

She said she understands why people come back. But it's just not for her.

And it's Ms. Doyen's job to make young people like Ms. Whelan change her mind.

"My hope is to maintain what we've got and try to build on that a little," she said, adding that to double the population is "not at all a realistic goal at this point, but it would be quite cool."

Fishers Island facts

John Winthrop Jr. became governor of Connecticut in 1657 and included the island in the colony's royal charter.

A 1664 royal charter given to the Duke of York (later King James II) gave all of Long Island, including Fishers Island, as part of New York.

Officials from New York and Connecticut finally decided in 1879 that Fishers Island is part of Southold Town, as it remains today.

Famous families include duPont, Simmons, Roosevelt, and Luce (longtime publishers of Time, Life, Fortune and Sports Illustrated magazines).

Steady year-round population decline:

1950: 1500

1960: 500

1990: 321

2000: 289

Today: about 245, according to civic planner Meredith Doyen's recent "unofficial" count.

Fishers Island generates 7.7 percent of Southold Town's tax levy.

Justice Louisa Evans and town planning board member Kenneth Edwards are the two Fishers Island representatives for Southold Town.

New York state troopers patrol the town for six of the warmest, most populated months. Part-time constables take care of the rest of the year.

No business operating or private person living on Fishers Island is listed in the Suffolk County phone book.

Fishers Island is often either excluded completely from some New York State maps, as it is in one produced by Rochester-based Map Works Inc., or it's included as an inset like Hawaii or Alaska on a map of the continental U.S.

The original Winthrop House, built on the mid-1600s, still stands on a hill on the east end of the island.

Once the bowling alley is finished in the community center, it will be the only public bowling alley in operation in Southold Town.