A private oasis on public property
Out of view of nearby shopping centers and car-clogged Hylan Boulevard, 41 families are spending another idyllic summer in waterfront bungalows with overflowing flower pots, nautical accents and American flags at Cedar Grove Beach in New Dorp.
It’s an oasis seemingly protected by tradition, a security gate and no trespassing sign — often giving the impression it’s privately-owned when it’s really city land.
The tourist season wraps when vacationers close up the tiny homes, many of which have been passed down from generation to generation, and cede a rare piece of Staten Island paradise to a harsh New York winter. Most retreat to houses with heating systems just a few miles away.
And while the families fully expect to return to Cedar Grove next May, 2010 could be different.
Their most recent four-year lease for the 78-acre bucolic piece of land near the foot of Ebbitts Street expires in December, and the landlord, the city Parks Department, could decide not to renew its agreement with the nearly century old Cedar Grove Beach Club Inc.
“We are aware that the Cedar Grove community wants the renewal, and we have not yet made a decision,” a Parks Department spokeswoman said in a statement.
That means the families of Cedar Grove could finally be forced to give up a long history of summering in New Dorp.
Residents interviewed recently said they’ve always been prepared for such a scenario, ever since the land was condemned and acquired by the city back in 1958. At the time, Robert Moses, the city’s master builder and, often, bulldozer, envisioned a shore parkway running along Staten Island’s coast and through the beachfront community
The parkway never came and many of the residents of Cedar Grove remained. The city agreed to lease back the land to residents with the understanding that it could take the land whenever it wanted.
That fact doesn’t make it any easier to envision life without Cedar Grove.
“It would be heartbreaking,” Bill Dugan said of the thought.
The 36-year-old Dugan, a school principal, decamps each summer with his wife, Heidi, and three young daughters from their home in West Brighton to a bungalow at Cedar Grove. He’s been doing much the same thing since he was a kid and his parents first bought a bungalow and membership there.
Today, members pay approximately $6,000 each year to the beach club, which in turns pays the city a fee. Last year, the beach club paid the city $134,000 to use the land from the middle of May to October. That money, according to the Parks Department, goes into a capital-improvement fund the city will use to develop the site after the expiration of the agreement.
But Joe Markowski, president of the New Dorp Civic Association, said the city should consider making some improvements to the beach that abuts Cedar Grove. That stretch of the New Dorp shore is littered with rocks, broken pipes and concrete and is not usable as a swimming destination, he said.
By contrast, Cedar Grove is a neatly raked, litter-free expanse maintained by the beach club.
“If they can afford to keep their beach clean, the city should be able to keep its clean as well,” he said.
While there are no complaints about Cedar Grove, Markowski said some people are curious about the arrangement with the city. He said a gate and small guard house (no guard is actually posted in the tiny house) lead many to think it’s privately-owned land.
“We are custodians of a relic. This thing has been around since 1911 … and we are trying very hard to make 100 years,” explained summer resident Kenneth L. Raisch, an attorney who also maintains a year-round home nearby.
He spends much of the summer in the same, original shingled waterfront house his parents bought back in 1947.
Raisch said the beach is open to the public, but residents try to protect the grassy areas around homes. One caretaker for the property lives there year-round and a few residents live in Florida in the winter and at Cedar Grove in the summer.
Barbara Kenney, a member of the Cedar Grove board of governors, said the club is within its legal rights to put up a fence to prevent unwanted cars from speeding into camp. Pedestrians, she and others have said, are always welcome.
Parks said it’s investigating the legality of the fence and no trespassing sign. Like all beaches in New York, dawn to dusk public access is a must, an agency spokeswoman added.
But steady stewardship of Cedar Grove has helped maintain a kind of lost-era feel. A tire swing sways in a center field and a clubhouse is located nearby. Filmmakers like to shoot at the beach cottages because they are not “buffed up” like other waterfront homes around the city, noted Raisch.
Rep. Michael McMahon, along with the Island’s three councilmen, have all written letters to Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe asking for the association’s lease to be renewed. McMahon said it makes sense because the city does not have the money now to take control of the property.
“To remove these families and have the property lie fallow and the houses destroyed by weather — then nobody is able to use it,” McMahon said recently.
“There’s no other place like it. That’s for sure,” added Edith Holtermann, who has spent all her 72 summers at Cedar Grove Beach.
Framed black-and-white pictures of days on the beach and nighttime shows in the clubhouse line the walls of her cottage.
John Schmidt, 63, has also spent summers at Cedar Grove since he was a kid. He can remember a time when all cottage owners kept rags and bottles of kerosene and turpentine for swimmers to clean off the tar that marred the water and beach and, by extension, exposed arms, legs and feet.
Today, he said, the water is remarkably clean but there are also a lot fewer people swimming and fishing.
He gets philosophical when he thinks about the storms that have wiped out cottages in the past at Cedar Grove, and the lease agreement that could someday do the entire community in.
“The Bible says don’t build your house on sand, and there is some significance to that,” he said.
by Karen O’Shea