Environment & Nature

Librarian slated to lead lecture including 17th-century tales of popular Caleb Smith State Park Preserve

Cathy Ball is a supervising librarian of the Long Island Room at the Smithtown Library. Photo from Carol Paquette

George Washington in the park? What is the history of the road? Caleb, a thorn in whose side? Did he run the gauntlet? Why was he robbed?

These are some of the anecdotes that will be part of an inside look at the history of Smithtown’s Caleb Smith State Park Preserve on Sunday, April 19, at 1 p.m. at the preserve on Jericho Turnpike. The free event will be presented by Friends of Caleb Smith Preserve. Preregistration is required by calling 265-1054.

Cathy Ball, supervising librarian of the Long Island Room at the Smithtown Library, will speak and illustrate, with artifacts, historical stories about the 543-acre preserve and the families of Caleb Smith.

The original house, which is located on the preserve, was built in 1753 by Smith — a great-grandson of Smithtown’s founder Richard Smythe — and his father Daniel Smith II.

“I have been thinking a lot about Caleb, his children and grandchildren, and the history of the park and the roads within the park and their purpose in earlier times,” said Ball, noting that she will discuss the effects of the Revolutionary War on Smith and his family. She will also delve into their lives, the mills, and the property’s subsequent history as the Wyandanch Club before becoming a state park and preserve.

Since 2004, Ball, a resident of Setauket, has worked in the Long Island Room, which contains 8,000 books and 200 boxes of documents, including original manuscripts from the 17th century. Working alongside local historian and archivist Caren Zatyk, Ball conducts programs and exhibits, supplemented with the archives.

Currently both of them are working with the New York State Department of Transportation on the development of pocket parks for cyclists along Route 347 in Smithtown, providing information and historical photo displays for each park that will depict the history of that particular area.

The Long Island Room brings in a “continual stream of researchers and authors from long distance researching family and local history,” Ball said.

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Above, a goldenrain tree in early summer with bright green-colored pods. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Have  you ever walked or driven past a plant you just loved — one you might even want to add to your garden, but you don’t know what it is? Maybe no one’s around to ask? Yes, identifying an unknown plant can be challenging.

For a number of years, I had seen a unique tree with yellow spring flowers followed by seed pods which start out green but then turn a brownish color, resembling paper lanterns. Each pod contains several seeds. I asked a number of gardening friends, yet no one was able to identify it. Finally I resorted to the web, and in just a few minutes, quickly found the answer.

The tree was a goldenrain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata), a native of Asia. It is also called Pride of India or China tree. The small- to medium-sized tree makes a nice specimen or ornamental tree and is grown in home gardens primarily for that purpose. The mature tree is about as wide as it is tall. In autumn, the leaves turn bright yellow. It even has winter interest as some of the “lanterns” will remain on the tree for a while.

While some consider the goldenrain tree invasive, particularly in Florida, it is not on Suffolk County’s banned or management lists. The management list consists of plants which, while currently legal to sell or propagate, are considered somewhat invasive and therefore it is recommended they not be planted. The low maintenance tree does well in hardiness zones 5 to 9, meaning that an unusually cold winter, like we’ve had the last two winters, should not be a problem. The moderate to quickly growing tree prefers full sun. It even tolerates a bit of a dry spell, meaning that Long Island’s occasional droughts will not affect the tree. It is somewhat salt tolerant, so should do well near roads where winter salt spray hits nearby plants, and tolerates some pollution. All in all, it’s a sturdy tree with few pests and year-round interest.

It does well in varying soil pH levels, from strongly acidic, 5.1 to 5.5, through mildly alkaline, 7.8. This means that you can plant it in areas where you have “rhodies” and azaleas, which require very acidic soil, or in a lawn where you find yourself liming the soil to make it more alkaline. As with all trees, keep the grass away from the trunk so that lawn mowers and “Weedwackers” don’t damage the bark.

Another identification needed was of a “really cool” hanging plant a gardening friend of mine saw at a recent home and garden show. I recognized it immediately as a variety of sedum, but which one? Another quick online search gave the name — Sedum morganianum. It’s a flowering perennial plant, a succulent, note the blue-green fleshy leaves, native to Mexico and Honduras.

This sedum can be grown outdoors in late spring, summer and early fall, but once it gets really cold, needs to be grown indoors as a houseplant. Don’t overwater — sedum can rot in soil that isn’t well drained. It propagates easily from broken pieces (the plant is somewhat fragile when touched), just like most cacti. If grown indoors, it likes a sunny location but not excessive heat. It’s also known as burro’s tail because of its unusual shape. Like most succulents, it needs good drainage.

As this plant can get very large, make sure to put it in a sturdy container. A hanging basket is best or a large pot on a pedestal, both of which show off its training nature. Dark red flowers appear April to July.

To track down an unidentified plant using the web, type the description into your search engine. I used “photo trees with seed pods” and up popped dozens of possibilities. I was then easily able to pick out the goldenrain tree. For the sedum, I typed in “photo sedum hanging basket.”

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

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Hydrangea macrophylla. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Many Long Islanders have noted the change in Long Island’s climate. Old photos of the Great South Bay, the Long Island Sound and Peconic Bay taken during winters past show the amount of ice around. I’ve even seen an old photo that shows a car being driven on Peconic Bay in the early 1900s.

That was a long time ago, and despite the last two winters’ unusual cold and snow, we haven’t seen that much ice in years. So, yes, our island is definitely in a period of warmer winters. Officially, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Hardiness Zone map puts us squarely in zone 7, where in the past we were sort of borderline.

How does the gardener deal with Long Island’s climate? And, what do microclimates mean?

First, microclimates refer to a small area, within a larger one, that has different temperature, rainfall or humidity than the rest of the area. A friend of mine planted some gladiolus in an area near to her house, with two side walls, facing south. These are not hardy glads, but the regular, old-fashioned kind that need to be lifted each fall and stored. Yet, year after year, her glads return, even through unusually cold winters. She has a microclimate, one that is substantially warmer than the rest of her garden.

In our area, Easter lillies, above, should be mulched or lifted in the fall. Photo by Ellen Barcel
In our area, Easter lillies, above, should be mulched or lifted in the fall. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Microclimates can be one-half to one zone either warmer or colder than the surroundings. Another gardener of my acquaintance had a flowering shrub that she moved and moved repeatedly, until she found a location that was ideal for it. There’s a fruit orchard out east that can grow one type of tender tree in a small hollow but nowhere else. And we all know that the pine barrens tend to be colder than the rest of the island.

So, as a gardener, you may need to:

* Move certain plants more than once until you find the ideal location. I had to move a hydrangea several times until I found the perfect, shady and moist spot in my garden for it to thrive.

* Put plants only rated for zone 7 and warmer in a protected area. This could be behind a fence or in a little nook near the house, in a warmer microclimate. Remember that the past two winters we’ve had unusually cold weather.

* Make sure to mulch any plants in fall that are iffy, since they might not make it through a cold winter. Easter lilies, for example, are rated for zone 7 and warmer, yet frequently do not make it through Long Island winters. Lift them in fall or mulch them to make sure they survive.

* Grow iffy plants in containers that can be moved into a shed or garage over winter for a bit of added protection.

* Replace plants that bloom on old wood with rebloomers or everbloomers. For example, Hydrangea macrophylla, the old-fashioned kind, booms on old wood. Most of us saw few flowers last growing season and can expect very few this season as a result of the cold. So replace the older ones with Endless Summer or another rebloomer so that even if old wood dies back to the ground, new wood will produce beautiful flowers later in the season.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

Miller Place property could be developed

The property is adjacent to Cordwood Landing County Park off of Landing Road in Miller Place. Photo by Erika Karp

A parcel of wooded land next to Cordwood Landing County Park in Miller Place is up for grabs, and the community isn’t letting the land be developed without a fight.

The 5.4-acre parcel, which backs up to the more than 64-acre county park off of Landing Road, has value to the residents of Miller Place, and according to Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), constituents have been making it clear that the land needs to be preserved.

A website and Facebook group, operating under the name Friends of Cordwood Landing, was launched a few months ago, and the group has been advocating for the land’s preservation. A representative from the group could not be reached for comment.

Back in December 2014, Anker began the process of acquiring the land from its owner, Rocky Point developer Mark Baisch, of Landmark Properties. The legislature unanimously voted to start the acquisition process so that the county could protect the area, which Anker described in a phone interview on March 17 as “residential,” from possible commercialization or industrialization. The county has hired appraisers to determine the land’s worth. According to law, the county can’t pay any more than the appraised value.

Anker said she would like to see the land become a part of the waterfront property of Cordwood Landing.

“I am a true environmentalist,” Anker said. “I will do everything I can to advocate and move this parcel forward through the acquisition process.”

According to Town of Brookhaven planning documents, Baisch submitted a request for a subdivision back in January. In a recent phone interview, Baisch said he would like to build homes on the land. However, if the county’s offer is sufficient, he said he would sell the land.

Anker said the proposal to acquire the land is currently in its early stages and is awaiting approval from the Environmental Trust Fund Review Board. If approved, the proposal will head to the Environmental, Planning, and Agriculture Committee, of which Anker is a member. She expects the proposal to get there by April.

In 2013, the county tried to purchase the land from its original owner, but the owner refused to sell.

Town takes lead on latest Suffolk County initiative saving money by reducing fossil fuel consumption

Smithtown has already shown its commitment to environmentally friendly projects since expanding its solar initiative over the last several years. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

Smithtown has flipped the switch on energy savings.

The town board voted unanimously last Thursday to make Smithtown the first town in Suffolk County to adopt a new county-developed alternative energy geothermal code for residential and commercial properties, paving the way for more energy-efficient construction practices. The motion was brought before a public hearing at last week’s town board meeting and met with praise from those close to the model code.

“There is an energy crisis on Long Island. We have some of the highest electric rates in the entire nation,” said Smithtown resident Mike Kaufman of the Suffolk County Planning Commission, who helped draft the model code. “Fossil fuel energy has high costs and we have severe environmental costs when fossil fuels are used. Town of Smithtown residents need to think globally and act locally by going green as much as possible.”

Smithtown Building Director William White said the code was drafted with help from several state and local agencies with hopes of capitalizing on geothermal technology, which draws energy from the earth to provide heating, cooling and hot water for homes. The benefits, he said, include a reduction in the use of fossil fuels, the lowering of heat consumption and costs, and nearly quadrupling the efficiency of fossil fuel systems.

“The installation of geothermal systems has been increasing statewide,” he said. “And best of all, there are no changes in building permit fees necessary.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) stood beside the Planning Commission as well as PSEG Long Island and the Long Island Geothermal Energy Organization back in November to unveil the new energy code and urged for all towns to consider its adoption. When the code was made public PSEG also announced it would provide implementation assistance of $10,000 to each township and $5,000 to the first 10 villages with a population greater than 5,000 residents across Long Island that adopted the code by March 31.

Smithtown was also one of the first of 10 towns to sign onto another model code crafted at the county Planning Commission for solar energy, which helps municipalities evaluate proposed solar energy systems for residential and commercial properties. Since its adoption, an estimated 6,000 solar installations have been finished throughout Long Island.

Kaufman praised the board for taking the lead as the first Suffolk town to sign onto the code after it was introduced back in November, with his help. Under the new code, he said the town will reduce greenhouse gases and use less electricity while expanding clean technology and making sure it is installed correctly.

“We wrote a model code, and a number of towns have begun the efforts to adopt them. But Smithtown is the first to actually get up to the plate and adopt it,” he said. “This town is one of the leaders in Suffolk with going green efforts and it is a pleasure to see my hometown leading the way and stepping up.”

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If your soil has a low pH level, you need to add plants that are heavy feeders, like tomatoes, to your garden. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Mild weather will be here — soon, we hope — and, with it, gardening season. You’ve read up on various plants, made your plans, observed what worked and what didn’t in your and other gardens. You’re ready to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty.

But, wait. Before you plant that first seed, give some consideration to the soil itself. Unless you’re planting only native plants or plants that are not heavy feeders, such as periwinkle or pachysandra or for trees, oak or pine, you need to add some things to the soil if your plans include a bountiful crop of say, tomatoes or roses.

Here’s a rundown of some possible additions to your soil and why you might need them.

• Compost is decomposed organic matter. It is the ideal soil addition for almost any plant. It’s rich in all kinds of nutrients that plants need. Compost also aerates the soil (particularly useful in clay soil) and holds moisture (particularly useful in very sandy soil). Besides, it keeps a lot of organic material out of the landfills. You take all those green clippings, shredded leaves, kitchen peels, etc., put them in your compost pile, and a number of months later, take out rich, organic matter to use on your plants. You can dig it into the soil or use as a top dressing.

• Peat moss is also organic matter that can be added to the soil. It does many of the same things that compost does, such as loosen compacted soil, aerate the soil, hold moisture and add nutrients. Pete moss is in the pH range of 3.4 to 4.8, that is, it’s very acidic. If you already have very acidic soil, then this is probably not what you need. If, on the other hand, you need to lower the pH, say you have lots of rhodies or other plants that really need acidic soil and you don’t have it, then definitely consider adding peat moss. Another way of lowering the pH of the soil is by adding fertilizers such as Miracid or Holly-tone.

• Since Long Island soil is extremely acidic (with minor exceptions), plants that do well in acidic soil will grow well here naturally. These include oak and pine, rhododendron, azaleas, blueberries, etc. But many plants that are a gardener’s favorite need a sweeter, that is more alkaline, soil. Most veggies, showy flowers and lawn grass are in this category. Check out each one you plan to grow for specifics and then test your soil, but chances are you’ll need to add lime to your soil to raise the pH. Follow the manufacturer’s directions and remember, some varieties of lime can take more than one growing season to decompose enough to be able to be taken up by the plants, so read each package carefully. An added note — lime also works if you are trying to turn your hydrangeas pink.

• Since so much of Long Island’s soil is basically sand, you definitely need to put nutrients into the soil. One benefit of using compost is that you are adding these much needed nutrients with the compost. However, for heavy feeders, you might want to add additional fertilizer. This could be in the form of compost tea, some organic commercial fertilizer or some chemical fertilizer — your choice.

• Mulch helps virtually all plants. I personally prefer an organic mulch such as pine bark because as it decomposes it amends the soil. But there are any number of acceptable mulches. Mulch keeps down weeds and helps to hold moisture in the soil. Remember to keep mulch away from the trunk of trees.

• For lawns, pre-emergent weed killer may be needed. It should be applied before the weeds have actually started growing. Remember that combination products, those that contain both weed killer and fertilizer, can’t legally be used in Suffolk County until April 1 since fertilizer can’t be applied before that date. Of course with all the snow we’ve had, that may not be a problem if we still have snow on our lawns.

A final note: many new homes have property that has virtually no topsoil at all. If this is your situation, you may want to have some delivered to help start your garden. If you are growing plants in containers, get a good quality potting soil rather than just digging up garden soil.

So, as you begin the gardening season, make your list and stock up on what you need.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

Following public outcry against a plan to eliminate wild mute swan populations over the next decade, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has released a new draft of its plan that focuses on “nonlethal” methods to control the birds.

Thousands of people, including animal rights advocates and environmentalists, had sent in comments last year on the previous draft of the plan, whose stated long-term goal was “to eliminate free-ranging mute swans from New York State by 2025.” Many took issue with the DEC’s plans to euthanize the adult birds and questioned the validity of the department’s research on mute swans’ impact on the environment.

In addition, state legislators approved a two-year moratorium on any plan to euthanize the swans and required the DEC to “give priority to nonlethal management techniques.”

The first draft of the plan also called for using some swans for zoological purposes and transferring others to people licensed to hold them in captivity.

According to the DEC, mute swans, which have orange beaks and make less noise than other types of swans, can contribute to high fecal coliform bacteria counts on bodies of water used for drinking or swimming. They can also attack humans, which can make them “a serious nuisance and render some land or water areas inaccessible for outdoor recreation during the nesting season.”

There are about 2,200 free-ranging mute swans in New York, the DEC has estimated, and they can be found on Long Island, in New York City and in the lower Hudson Valley and Lake Ontario regions. The population has jumped from where it was in the 1970s, when mute swans numbered fewer than 700.

New York has other species of swan, but mute swans are considered invasive and non-native — they were brought here in the late 1800s and used for ornamental purposes — and thus were targeted for management. The DEC’s goal, as stated in the plan’s most recent draft, is to reduce the mute swan population to its 1980 numbers: fewer than 800 birds.

The DEC has been operating under the same species management plan since 1993, and the new mute swan plan would replace the older one. In preparation for the plan, the DEC conducted research between 2004 and 2008 “to document abundance, survival, reproduction, movements, ecological impacts and management of mute swans in New York.”

Following public backlash of the first draft, the department this month released its new draft of the management plan, which focuses on alternatives to euthanization, and a document responding to public comments it received.

“Because many people object to the use of lethal control methods, especially killing adult birds, DEC will use ‘nonlethal’ methods … where practical and timely, to achieve the management objectives,” the new plan stated. Those methods could include terminating embryos in the swans’ eggs or placing the birds in licensed facilities.

“However, this will require some commitment of funding and assistance from organizations and individuals who wish to see nonlethal options used to the extent possible. Placement and proper care of swans in public parks or other controlled settings can be costly to local governments or communities.”

Despite the emphasis on nonlethal methods, the DEC said in its response to public comments, officials would still resort to lethal methods “wherever immediate removal of birds is necessary to alleviate a site-specific conflict … and live-capture is not practical or no facility is readily available to accept the birds.”

The new DEC plan’s agenda for minimizing the impacts of mute swans on other wildlife and habitats includes increasing public support and awareness; preventing new swans from entering wild populations “through intentional releases, escapes or natural reproduction”; and controlling the number of mute swans on downstate tidal waters.

Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), one of the legislators who worked to place a moratorium on the swan euthanization, said in a statement last week that the DEC “has heard our concerns and has begun to move in the right direction.”

But the new plan still allows for swans to be eliminated under certain circumstances, and he cautioned that the birds “should only be destroyed as the absolute last resort, and only when they are posing public danger.”

The public can comment on the plan until April 24. Comments can be submitted to FW.wildlf@dec.ny.gov or to NYSDEC Bureau of Wildlife, Swan Management Plan, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233-4754.

The property is adjacent to Cordwood Landing County Park off of Landing Road in Miller Place. Photo by Erika Karp

By Jenni Culkin

A parcel of wooded land next to Cordwood Landing County Park in Miller Place is up for grabs, and the community isn’t letting the land be developed without a fight.

The 5.4-acre parcel, which backs up to the more than 64-acre county park off of Landing Road, has value to the residents of Miller Place, and according to Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), constituents have been making it clear that the land needs to be preserved.

A website and Facebook group, operating under the name Friends of Cordwood Landing, was launched a few months ago, and the group has been advocating for the land’s preservation. A representative from the group could not be reached for comment.

Back in December 2014, Anker began the process of acquiring the land from its owner, Rocky Point developer Mark Baisch, of Landmark Properties. The legislature unanimously voted to start the acquisition process so that the county could protect the area, which Anker described in a phone interview on March 17 as “residential,” from possible commercialization or industrialization.  The county has hired appraisers to determine the land’s worth. According to law, the county can’t pay any more than the appraised value.

Anker said she would like to see the land become a part of the waterfront property of Cordwood Landing.

“I am a true environmentalist,” Anker said. “I will do everything I can to advocate and move this parcel forward through the acquisition process.”

According to Town of Brookhaven planning documents, Baisch submitted a request for a subdivision back in January. In a recent phone interview, Baisch said he would like to build homes on the land. However, if the county’s offer is sufficient, he said he would sell the land.

Anker said the proposal to acquire the land is currently in its early stages and is awaiting approval from the Environmental Trust Fund Review Board. If approved, the proposal will head to the Environmental, Planning, and Agriculture Committee, of which Anker is a member. She expects the proposal to get there by April.

In 2013, the county tried to purchase the land from its original owner, but the owner refused to sell.

Stony Brook University runs a lab on the waterfront at Flax Pond and researchers there say they worry about the deteriorating water quality there and its impact on the wildlife. Photo by Phil Corso

The Village of Old Field is looking to do some ecological spring cleaning.

Flax Pond, a 146-acre tidal wetland on the North Shore, is in dire need of dredging before it deteriorates into an environmental disaster, nearby residents and advocates have contested. The pond’s last dredge was in 1947.

Residents’ names have been flooding a petition touting more than 210 signatures to date calling for action at the inlet there.

John Robinson, who lives near the water with his wife Fredelle and is at the mercy of the declining water quality there, has been helping circulate that petition and said the buildup of sand within the inlet has prevented the pond from properly emptying at low tide. He said he fears the region is just one major storm away from forcing the inlet to close off completely, which would have devastating effects on the ecosystem there, as the inlet acts as a marine nursery for the Long Island Sound.

“We have been watching the pond deteriorate over the last quarter of a century,” he said. “I’ve seen really major changes in the vegetation, the depth and the sea life. There are a lot of things going on, but one key aspect of this is the loss of adequate outflow.”

Fredelle Robinson, an avid fisher and nature lover, said the negative impacts were both aesthetic and environmental. Not only is the wildlife changing, but her waterfront home could be at risk if the water does not drain, she said.

“I used to stand in the inlet at night and fish. We could hear the striped bass and their tails flopping in the water,” she said. “You just don’t hear that anymore. Saltwater marshes all over are under stress and this is just another example.”

Old Field Mayor Michael Levine and the board of trustees also called on legislators from the county, state and town levels to join with Stony Brook University and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to see the pond dredged and protect the fin and shellfish populations known to once thrive there.

A throng of concerned citizens, elected officials and Stony Brook University researchers gathered at the Childs Mansion near the inlet Sunday for a lecture sponsored by the Friends of Flax Pond to explore ways to address the clogging.

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) has been at the forefront of the Friends of Flax Pond’s efforts to address the deterioration on the water and spoke at the group’s Sunday panel. He said there were many factors that went into the best course of action for both the inlet and the surrounding community, all of which needed to be ironed out before taxpayer dollars get thrown into the mix.

“While we’re searching for money to do something to make sure the inlet doesn’t close, we’re also searching for answers to the questions of how to actually write a description of what we’d like to have done,” Englebright said. “We don’t have a scope of work yet that is well defined.”

Nancy Grant, program director with the 12-year-old grassroots Friends of Flax Pond group, said the large mound of sand in the middle of the inlet has gotten worse with each passing year. And if not addressed, the saltwater pond could potentially revert back to a freshwater body, which it has not been for nearly 200 years, she said.

“Flax Pond serves as a buffer to that whole area as far as flooding is concerned. It has also been supporting a lot of the health of the Long Island Sound,” Grant said. “It absorbs the crashing of the waves. There are homes at risk. There are species at risk.”

Grant’s group hosts a lecture series each winter and also sponsors various environmental workshops in conjunction with Stony Brook University, which works out of a lab directly on the inlet. Steve Abrams, manager of the lab, described Flax Pond as one of the most pristine marshes on all of Long Island. He said a dredging was necessary in order to sustain marine life at the inlet.

“It has been really important for studying plants and animals in a relatively natural state. But over the last number of years, serious storms have changed things,” he said. “Tides don’t drain the way they should. It would be unfortunate if species there lost their place to live and it would be less than desirable for research.”

Shawn Nuzzo, president of the Civic Association of the Setaukets and Stony Brook, said Flax Pond was an example of what the Long Island Sound faces as a whole and includes factors beyond the small Village of Old Field. He said old-fashioned power plants, like one in nearby Port Jefferson, dump warm water into the sound, which translates directly into the Flax inlet. He cited recent legislation out of the Town of Brookhaven requiring improved wastewater standards in the Carmans River on the South Shore and said similar action was needed on the north end.

“We must take a hard look at how we are going to stop this loop if we intend on preserving our waterways for future generations,” Nuzzo said.

Harbormaster Peter Koutrakos observes the water from his patrol boat. File photo by Elana Glowatz

The Port Jefferson Harbor Complex is just that — a complex cluster of waterways that needs diligent eyes watching over it.

Those eyes belong to Brookhaven Town Harbormaster Peter Koutrakos and the others in his department, who are all working to keep the water safe this boating season.

The harbor complex includes Port Jefferson Harbor at its center, where Koutrakos is based, as well as Setauket Harbor and the adjacent Little Bay; Pirate’s Cove; Conscience Bay and the Narrows that lead into it; and a small section of water immediately outside Port Jefferson Harbor on the Long Island Sound that is bookended by Old Field Point to the west and Belle Terre’s Mount Misery to the east. Between these sections, the complex has more than 2,000 acres of surface water, and that area sees thousands of boats every season.

Peter O’Leary, the town’s commissioner of public safety, said between moorings and slips in the area, there are more than 1,200 spaces for boats, and that doesn’t include the ones just passing through.

On any given summer weekend, “the place is bedlam,” O’Leary said. “It creates quite a bit of traffic.”

With heavy traffic comes risk.

For Koutrakos, who has been harbormaster for 14 years and has jurisdiction in all town waters, it was the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 — an al-Qaida suicide attack in Yemen in which a small vessel next to the U.S. Navy ship was blown up, killing 17 Americans — that made him realize boats could be used as weapons.

Things also changed after the 9/11 terrorist attack. Officials became aware of the harbor’s vulnerability, as possible targets for terrorists include power plants, oil terminals and ferries — and Port Jefferson Harbor has all of them. Long Island has also been a concern in national security discussions because it is close to New York City and at the same time is remote: Ferries would be the only way off the island if an emergency event were to shut down transportation into the city.

The view of Port Jefferson Harbor from the harbormaster's patrol boat. File photo by Elana Glowatz
The view of Port Jefferson Harbor from the harbormaster’s patrol boat. File photo by Elana Glowatz

To keep the complex safe, the harbormaster works on a number of security exercises. One program, Operation Shield, involves coordinating with other agencies to randomly check foreign vessels for travel documents.

Though Operation Shield only runs on certain days, Koutrakos said he regularly does checks on his own. If the vessels do not have the proper documentation, he calls in customs officers to board and search them.

Another exercise he occasionally works on is search and rescue training with the U.S. Coast Guard, which helps prepare for an emergency situation, for instance if the ferry were to sink due to a mechanical problem or a bomb.

Koutrakos explained that the exercise group determines how to respond to an incident and who would take command of the scene. In the case of the ferry, officers also talk to the captain to learn how he would respond under certain circumstances and discuss a strategy for saving as many lives as possible, “before something really happens.”

The harbormaster also meets every few months with a Long Island security committee whose members range from the local to the federal level.

To boost security all over, O’Leary said, the town is working to install security cameras on its properties, and Port Jefferson is slated to receive some of that surveillance.

However, one of O’Leary’s concerns in protecting town waters is linked to the economy. He said budget cuts have meant cutbacks on seasonal employees, so there are fewer bay constables on both shores and they are working a shorter season. There are also fewer workers to pump out waste from the boats so it is not discharged into the water.

On Koutrakos’ end, he has an assistant harbormaster year-round and two seasonal harbormasters during the summer.

Most summer days, Koutrakos spends his time patrolling the waters and helping people who call him for assistance.

‘The place is bedlam. … It creates quite a bit of traffic.’
— Peter O’Leary

Born and raised in Port Jefferson, Koutrakos has a name people might recognize — his family owned the Elk Hotel and Restaurant on Main Street before it went out of business. He wife, Carol, works for the Port Jefferson ferry.

He has been around long enough to see security at the harbor change over the years. Before 9/11, if someone were to leave a bag at the ferry terminal, an employee would grab it and ask if anyone had left it behind. Now there are security protocols in place to handle such a situation. Before, there weren’t any restrictions on taking photos or video of the harbor. Now officials keep an eye out for people capturing the ferry terminal or other sensitive areas.

One thing that hasn’t changed is Koutrakos’ “only gripe with the job” — he isn’t permitted to carry a sidearm while he is on duty, though he is licensed to carry.

Other marine law enforcement agents carry a sidearm, including those from the Coast Guard, the Suffolk County Police Department’s Marine Bureau and the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The harbormaster said he never knows what situation he will find himself in and “should we get put into a lethal force situation, the fact of the matter is we have no way of defending ourselves or the public.”

Despite this sticking point, another thing that hasn’t changed is Koutrakos’ playful personality and his passion for all things marine.

He has said he enjoys his job because he gets to be on the water and he gets to help people: “At the end of the day, tired or not, it makes you feel better.”

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