Teen’s Environmental Project May Result In Trail System At Cilli Farm In Sag Harbor

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On a recent Monday afternoon, 16-year-old James FitzGerald climbed through a patch of overgrown grass on the vacant property that is Cilli Farm in Sag Harbor. Clad in hiking boots and knee-high socks to protect against ticks, James pointed out different plant and tree species that grow on this 9-acre parcel of land, which has turned into a dumping ground over the years.From the Japanese black pine to the Russian olive, James has created an internal catalog of all the native and invasive species that inhabit Cilli Farm as part of a project he has been working on this summer for Sag Harbor Village Trustee Robby Stein. The idea behind the project, James said, is to help Sag Harbor residents better understand the ecology of the site—with hopes of increasing its appreciation, and perhaps allow it become a place other than one plagued by littering and illegal dumping.

Ultimately, James said, he would like to help the village develop some kind of trail system on the property.

“The goal is to remove as many invasive species as possible and then let nature take its course,” James explained. “It really isn’t logical to have this big [area] that isn’t used.”

The trail would be a short path that would not interfere much with the native fauna on Cilli Farm, James said. It would start on the northern part of the property and work its way south, eventually emptying out on the Railroad Path sidewalk on Long Island Avenue. Additionally, the 16-year-old said the trail system “would probably change over time to respect residents who live near Cilli Farm.”

After wrapping up his data-collecting on the types of plant species at the farm this summer, James, a former Sag Harbor resident, will be returning to Lakeville, Connecticut, where he now lives full time, but with all intentions of coming back to Sag Harbor in November to begin putting in a trail. James said he is confident that Mr. Stein and the rest of the Village Board will be up to implementing the trail system.

“Everyone has been really forthcoming,” he said.

And James is not mistaken. Mr. Stein, who works closely on ecological issues in the village, said James’s project has opened a dialogue about low-impact uses for Cilli Farm. Although Mr. Stein said everything is very preliminary right now, he agreed that the end result would be some kind of public access to the farm without disturbing the natural environment.

“The idea, really, right now, is we’re looking at stewardship of the property,” Mr. Stein said. “[James] made us aware of how the property has been neglected.

“I’ve been pleased by his work and dedication,” he added.

In the 1990s, after the Cilli family sold it, Cilli Farm was eyed as the possible site of a large nursing home, but it was eventually purchased with Community Preservation Fund money in order to preserve it. It is bordered by Glover Street, West Water Street and Long Island Avenue, and has become a haven for wildlife in Sag Harbor. Deer, birds and all sorts of insects flourish there, making for a little pocket of serenity right on the outskirts of the Main Street business district. It contains several types of habitats, from wetlands and coast watersheds to cedar groves and sand flats. But, as is often the case with vacant lots, the property has become a place where people dump garbage and litter. Homeless individuals have also been seen sleeping there, something that has concerned residents.

If the trails are put in place, James said he is not sure how those problems would be addressed, but he recognized that littering is an issue he would have to tackle. “They come here and they don’t think there will be any repercussions,” James said of people dumping garbage. “But that’s something we’ll be monitoring if the trails are put in place.”

Many Sag Harbor residents like the fact that Cilli Farm has remained one of the only undeveloped parcels of land in the village, albeit in a residential neighborhood. Because of that, they would like to keep any use as low-key as possible.

April Gornik, a member of the community advocate groups Save and Serve Sag Harbor, said she prefers very limited public access to the property because it is considered to be a valuable community resource. She said, however, that she does support James’s work and appreciates his analysis of the plant species at Cilli Farm, as she believes it will make people more aware of how they can better protect it.

“How better to do that than to understand what’s there?” she said. “I think that when people feel that they own something, they won’t litter in their own backyard.

“By and large, I’d like to see it left alone,” she continued. “We have so few spaces like that in Sag Harbor.”

Molly Dougenis, one of the residents who was against Cilli Farm becoming the site of a nursing facility nearly two decades ago, has spent many years making sure the parcel has not been developed. She said she has seen all different kinds of proposed uses, from tennis courts to even a meditation spot, but that a public trail is not something she isn’t entirely against. At most, Ms. Dougenis said she would support a trail that was a half-mile long.

“It was supposed to be preserved property,” she said.

But regardless of whether a trail system is implemented or not, James said he has enjoyed studying Cilli Farm this summer, as he is very familiar with all of Sag Harbor’s ecology from evaluating it so much over the 14 years he lived in the village with his family. When he wasn’t doing his work for Mr. Stein these last few weeks, he was working at the Sag Harbor Garden Center on Spring Street.

“I’ve always been involved in the environment here,” James said. “It just developed as my primary interest. I was overwhelmed by the exposure you get to nature out here.”

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