Fond memories of a dynamic barrier beach
Christopher Soller retired in March as Fire Island National Seashore superintendent.
You’ll be able to see him, though, on April 27 as the keynote speaker of the Fire Island Biennial Science Conference hosted by FINS. Then he’s relocating to a family condo with his partner Jack Curry to Youngstown, Ohio, where he grew up.
“I have 41 years of service, so it’s a long time,” he said. “We all identify with what we’re doing, but my nephew is getting married and my niece is starting a business and I’ve been away from family for four years.”
Assistant superintendent Kelly Fellner will be acting supervisor for probably the next 60 days. “The job will be advertised. It would be a promotion for Kelly, so she has to compete,” Soller explained.
Soller talked with Suffolk County News for over an hour the day before the nor’easter about his time in the National Park Service. He wasn’t a nature nerd as a kid and had no inkling he would be making decisions about strengthening infrastructures, overseeing breaches, dealing with concerned beach communities or insects that devastate pine trees.
One of four children, “we were outside all the time and I went to camp,” he said. Enter graduate school at the University of Virginia, School of Architecture and Urban and Environmental Planning, where working on open space and environmental issues became an interest.
An American Studies class broadened his understanding on a variety of subjects including urban planning and the intricacies of what makes a community in America. When a national urban recreation study with the Department of the Interior opened up, he grabbed it, working on its final chapters as a summer intern. What followed was a job to complete the study and after that came his first position as outdoor recreation planner in Washington, D.C. in 1978, when the department was known as the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service, later the National Park Service.
Former FINS superintendent Jack Hauptman hired Soller for his initial Fire Island gig, facilitating the transfer of land to Kismet; he was then asked to be a management assistant at FINS in 1983.
“I knew it was important to be out in the field,” he said. “When I came to Fire Island, I had friends there but my exposure was limited, mostly going out to the lighthouse.”
It wasn’t an aha moment, or ‘oh I am enamored.’
“I was intrigued by the place,” he said. Anyone who knows Soller gets that he is low-key, doesn’t suffer fools, and is discerning. He cuts to the practical point.
“When Hauptman offered me the job, it fit in with planning and zoning,” he explained. “I also needed to get out in the field and it kept me where I wanted to be, on the East Coast. I had been sharing houses at the beach for five years and I wanted to be there.
“The parks service had a mindset of ‘we establish the rules and as long as you do as we say, we’re OK,’ Soller explained. “And residents thought our job was keeping Robert Moses off their back. (Moses wanted to pave over the barrier island.) So in the beginning, we didn’t have a common language. We were telling people how big your house could be. We condemned people’s property then used it for park housing and stopped development in its tracks. We took people’s access away. They couldn’t drive on the beach.”
At the same time, residents wanted FINS to preserve their communities.
Soller thought, ‘What makes the place so special? How do we work collaboratively together?’ If you want ambiance with nature, then driving on the beach won’t support that. And there were the other aspects.
In November 2008, when Soller became FINS superintendent, the General Management Plan that began with former superintendent Mike Reynolds became Soller’s main responsibility. “There were many meetings. Then in 2011, Hurricane Irene strikes and I’m engaged with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Fire Island to Montauk Point Reformulation Plan,” he recalled.
Conversations were ongoing regarding Fire Island’s future and also what it meant to live there. And there was Sandy and 10-to-12-hour days of trying to figure out how to renovate, improve and sustain fixes of monumental proportions.
“The goal is where do we find those balances and sustain them. If we want to preserve a way of life, what makes Fire Island magical?” he said. “It can’t be put back the way it was.”
He’s proudest of the people who work at FINS. “There’s a great team of people there,” he emphasized.
In his next era, Soller is leaning towards an involvement with future generations.
“It’s of great interest,” he said. “Either at a university or an advocacy group.”
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