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County Looks to Find Middle Ground to Protect Turnpike Turtles

Tessa Raebeck
The Sag Harbor Express

Jay Schneiderman walks up and down the Sag Harbor/Bridgehampton Turnpike most days. The Suffolk County Legislator introduces himself to passing constituents, greets familiar commuters and, most importantly, looks for turtles.

Addressing concerns raised by members of the Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt (FLPG) and the South Fork Natural History Museum (SoFo) that the curbs on the turnpike’s new sidewalk are hazardous to crossing turtles, salamanders and other wildlife, Schneiderman says he checks the area for animals daily.

The turnpike borders a section of the Long Pond Greenbelt, a 1,100 acre expanse of ponds, woods and wetlands, over 500 acres of which are preserved. The main area of concern for FLPG and SoFo is the impact on Slade Pond, located on the western side of the turnpike, across the street from SoFo.

According to Frank Quevedo, the executive director at SoFo, baby turtles leave their nests in search of new territory during September and October. Quevedo maintains that smaller turtles and the eastern tiger salamander, an endangered species that lives in the Greenbelt, are unable to climb the sidewalk’s curbs in their efforts to cross the road to reach Slade Pond.

“This is an obvious crossing,” said Dai Dayton, executive director of FLPG and a resident on the turnpike. Although turtles are always in danger when crossing the street, the curbs give them an additional obstruction, maintains Dayton.

Completed in June, the project represents “a million dollars in sidewalk,” according to Schneiderman. After hearing from FLPG and SoFo last October, Schneiderman met with officials from the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and redesigned the curbs to make them “turtle friendly.” They are now slanted at a 45 degree angle and painted with a ridged surface, under the notion that turtles can grip the curbs and climb up.

“All baby turtles and some adult turtles, depending on their level of maturity, cannot get over it,” said Barbara Bornstein, a member of FLPG who lives around the corner from Slade Pond.

“There couldn’t be anything worse to happen to these turtles and salamanders,” agreed Dayton. “They can’t make it.”

Dayton and Bornstein are calling on the county to remove the curbs and drainage from the sidewalk, but other residents of the turnpike are fighting to keep them.

Julie Hopson, a lifelong resident of the turnpike, has seen two of her cousins killed on the road, one of whom died getting off the school bus when she was 10 years old. Hopson’s family has been fighting for sidewalks in the area for over 40 years. In 2004, she took up the cause, delivering a petition with over 400 resident signatures to the newly elected Schneiderman.

Schneiderman initially considered a sidewalk without curbing, due to his own environmental concerns, but Hopson and the community asked for a cement curb.

“What do you do when you have 400 people who want something and five who don’t?” asked Schneiderman, walking the turnpike with his eyes to the ground in search of struggling turtles.

Bornstein, Dayton, Quevedo and Schneiderman met with representatives from the Department of Public Works (DPW) Wednesday to discuss possible solutions and work toward a compromise. They lamented the need for a “turtle expert” to clarify the best option.

Although nothing has been officially approved, the group discussed installing an asphalt ramp along the 300 feet of sidewalks that border Slade Pond, which would extend out from the curb, ending about halfway across the road’s shoulder. With the crossing of baby turtles expected to begin within the next couple of weeks, all parties agreed that it was a necessary — if not ideal — temporary fix.

Until then, members of the FLPG and SoFo will continue to document instances of flipped, crushed and dead turtles. “It would be like seeing puppies every single day,” said Bornstein. “It would be like seeing eight puppies dead on the highway, to us.”