The first thing Brian Gilbride told Jon Semlear when he convinced the young bayman to run for a seat on the Southampton Town Trustees 20 years ago was that he had to register as a Republican if he wanted to win.Mr. Semlear, at the time, wasn’t registered with any political party, and Mr. Gilbride, now the mayor of Mr. Semlear’s native Sag Harbor Village, personally drove the then-33-year-old bayman to the Suffolk County Board of Elections to get his registration changed.
In those days, Republicans outnumbered registered Democrats by more than two-to-one, and many a well-known and well-respected bayman had failed in his efforts to win a seat on the Trustees with Democratic endorsements.
“Peter Corwith had run unsuccessfully several times as a Democrat and had just switched to the Republicans,” Mr. Semlear recalled of his first of 10 successful election campaigns. “We were running to replace Moon Vahradian and Paul Parash. I was the number-five vote-getter, and he and I beat out Wayne Grothe, Howard Pickerell and Kenny Mades—a great slate of [Democratic] candidates. That’s just how it was back then.”
For those in the Democratic Party, those days were seen as a toxic time when the Republican Party simply squashed the opposition, creating ill feelings among some of those candidates that linger today. But when the elections were over, perhaps because of the homogeneity of the group, or possibly in spite of it, the politics and self-interest quickly went by the wayside, Mr. Semlear said this week.
“There was no politics in the Trustees business back then. It was everybody pulling for one common goal,” he recalled. “Recently, we’ve seen a little more personal agendas sneaking in there, so someone can look better instead of some project being a generic thing the board was doing.”
Mr. Semlear, now 53, attended his last meeting on Monday as the most veteran member of the Southampton Town Trustees, the ancient board that manages the town’s publicly held waterways and coastlines. The son and brother of local doctors who attended posh boarding schools but who shunned a professional career for a living gleaned from the natural resources of the East End, Ms. Semlear leaves behind a legacy of battling to expand stocks of shellfish and helping his fellow baymen improve their chances of earning a living on the water.
At Monday’s meeting, members of the Board of Trustees applauded Mr. Semlear for his dedication to the Trustees and to the baymen of the East End during his time on the board.
“It’s vitally important that someone like you has been on the board,” Trustee Fred Havemeyer, who is also retiring from the board after 10 years, said. “You brought a deep knowledge of bays and wetlands. I know you’ve been personally very helpful to me over the years.”
During his tenure, the Trustees, Mr. Semlear and the late Mr. Corwith in particular, shepherded the revival of Mecox Bay as a thriving estuary that he estimates has produced close to $3 million in shellfish in the last 10 years. Early on, he drove expansions in the Trustees’ efforts to reseed shellfish populations that had been devastated by brown tides with hatchery stock, flying to Fisher’s Island to pick up scallop larvae. He led an effort by the Trustees to take on water quality testing that state regulators didn’t have the staff to do so that productive shellfish beds in enclosed bays, off limits because of bacteria levels in summer, could be accessed in winter months.
“I was very aggressive when I first got here about growing shellfish for the baymen,” Mr. Semlear said. “We worked on a lot of things for the commercial baymen.”
The board also took steps to dial back the abuses of the local natural environment that had been prolific in the decades prior, many of them allowed by the Trustees. The board halted approvals of new bulkheads on local bays and ocean coastlines, banned the use of chemically treated wood for structures in contact with town waters and instituted new limits on the size and placements of docks.
For most of the last 20 years, Mr. Semlear has earned his living by fishing “pound” traps in Little Peconic Bay and Shelter Island Sound, near his home in Noyac. But this year, declining catches in his nets, particularly in the late summer and fall, when red tide algae blooms stain the bay he works, Mr. Semlear was forced to take additional work running a commercial fishing boat out of Hampton Bays. The necessary move, he says, played a role in his decision to give up time dedicated to the Trustees.
The departure, however, was a difficult decision for him, he said, precisely because the problems that have driven him from the bay are part of the mountain of issues that the Trustees, his successor and the town in general face. The various algae blooms that plague local bays for much of the year have been linked by scientists to residential development and septic discharges and addressing them will be a mind-numbingly complicated and tortuously slow process.
“I don’t see things getting better anytime real soon,” he said in another recent conversation. “It’s going to be hard to get everybody together or to do what really needs to be done to even make a dent in the next 10 or 20 years.”
During the this fall’s election to fill his and Mr. Havemeyer’s seat, much was made by the candidates of rumors that Town Board members wanted to do away with the ancient Trustees board, spurred largely by a comment from Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst at one debate about the Trustees not having the expertise necessary to tackle some of the complex issues they now face. Mr. Semlear says he thinks those concerns were overblown, and that Ms. Throne-Holst’s comment was taken out of context and distorted. He said he saw it more as a nod to the Trustees needing assistance from experts as they wade deeper into the complicated realm of water quality improvement and shoreline protection in the coming years—and he agrees.
“I think the way the Conservation Board operates, with [Town Chief Environmental Analyst] Marty Shea guiding them in their decisions, is a good way to work,” he said. “The guys on [the Trustees] they know a lot about the waters and the environment, but they need somebody with more knowledge, the scientific expertise, to help them.”
But aside from external help, Mr. Semlear said he would like to see some young residents with the educational and professional backgrounds in environmental science elected to the board. He himself earned a degree in environmental science from Southampton College before becoming a bayman.
He pointed to the East Hampton Town Trustee Stephanie Forsberg, a 30-year-old East Hampton native who holds a doctorate in marine science from Stony Brook University and has led research on acidification of oceans and the impacts of global warming on shellfish populations, as an example of the type of Trustee candidate he would like to see.
“There are people like her out there, and it would be nice if the [political] parties tried to search them out,” he said. “We need people like that to step up.”