Town of Brookhaven

Pax Christi Hospitality Center in Port Jefferson has been around for almost 30 years, though its founder said homelessness was an issue in Port Jeff long before that. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

An Aug. 28 post by a user in a private Facebook group of about 1,300 Port Jefferson Village residents featured a photo of two men sleeping at the Port Jefferson Long Island Rail Road station. Amidst a longer message attached to the image was the phrase: “I’ve had it.”

The post inspired comments from more than a dozen users who began a lengthy discussion about homeowners’ concerns over property values as a result of activity related to homeless people in the area. Some responses included efforts to tackle the issue of homelessness after the main poster asked: “Does anyone know what is being done about this?”

Elected officials, local leaders and data from nonprofit organizations serving the state, Long Island and Suffolk County seem to agree: Efforts exist to reduce the number of undomiciled residents, but the problem is not going away and more needs to be done.

Volunteers at Welcome Friends Soup Kitchen in Port Jefferson prepare a meal for guests. Photo by Alex Petroski

Homelessness has been a topic of conversation in Port Jeff for decades, and Father Frank Pizzarelli, a Port Jeff resident and founder of the nonprofit Hope House Ministries, began addressing the issue in 1980. With 10 facilities, he helps serve groups and people in need. His first endeavor was The Community House in Port Jefferson.

A 30-bed long-term facility, the home on Main Street is still in operation today for at-risk 16- to 21-year-old males in need of a place to live. Almost 28 years ago, Pizzarelli said he opened Pax Christi Hospitality Center on Oakland Avenue after a Vietnam veteran froze to death in winter while living in what he described as a cardboard box village in Port Jefferson.

At least seven people listed as undomiciled by the county police department were arrested on the morning of Oct. 4 for sleeping in tents in the woods behind the Comsewogue Public Library on Terryville Road, according to police.

According to the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit organization established in 1985 that works with government agencies to secure funding and services for homeless people in Suffolk and Nassau counties, 3,937 people on Long Island were classified as homeless as of January 2017. The number includes people in emergency or transitional housing, as well as those who are completely unsheltered, of which there were 64, according to the group’s annual report for 2017.

In context, the number of homeless people living on Long Island hasn’t changed much over the last three LICH yearly tallies. In 2016, New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli (D) conducted an audit to examine the issue of homelessness in the state, which reached some discouraging conclusions.

Homelessness is on the decline nationwide, according to the report, though New York was one of 18 states to see an increase in the number of people without a permanent residence between 2007 and 2015. The number rose by 41 percent to more than 88,000 statewide during that span, which was the largest increase of any state in the country. Much of the increase was attributable to New York City, though DiNapoli’s audit stressed homelessness as a state problem and not simply a city problem, saying homelessness is affecting “communities in virtually every corner of the state … on a daily basis.”

‘Hope House Ministry lives and has lived for 38 years because of this community. I find this one of the most extraordinary communities when it comes to compassion and generosity.’

— Frank Pizzarelli

“The homeless problem pre-existed Pax Christi,” Pizzarelli said. The licensed social worker said the idea that his facilities attract the homeless to Port Jeff is a common refrain he’s heard cyclically over the years from people like the Facebook poster, though he said he has found those voices are few and far between and don’t represent the majority of the community.

“Hope House Ministry lives and has lived for 38 years because of this community,” he said. “I find this one of the most extraordinary communities when it comes to compassion and generosity. Yes, there are always people that are super critical and, because of the socioeconomic nature of our community, would prefer certain things not be here. They’re a very small minority from my experience.”

He said he receives no financial support from the government other than reimbursements from the county’s Department of Social Services to barely cover his costs for sheltering people overnight at Pax Christi. His entire budget, which he estimated to be in the ballpark of $5 million annually, is covered by donations and grants. He also said he believes homeless people who commit crimes or contribute to tensions in the Port Jeff community tend not to be the same people who are interested in getting help.

“Uptown is a complicated place,” he said. “The homeless have no fixed address and they also have no voice, so it’s easy to blame them. They’re a part of the issue, but it’s not that simplistic. I don’t think the larger community really realizes that.”

Pizzarelli pointed to insufficient funds from the county and state governments as his and other organization’s biggest obstacle in providing services for those in need. He said mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction, especially to opioids, are at the root of Suffolk County’s homelessness problem. Once people are in treatment for substance addiction or any mental health affliction, he said more transitional housing needs to be made available to get people on the road to recovery.

Pizzarelli said Pax Christi does not admit any persons under the influence of drugs or alcohol, so they occasionally have to turn people away.

“We probably all need to take a firmer stand so [homeless people being aided by services] understand if they’re not going to take care of business — hanging out at the train station is not the answer,” he said. “I agree, people don’t need to be harassed when they’re getting off the train.”

A breakdown by race of Long Island’s nearly 4,000 homeless people, according to the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless. Graphic by TBR News Media

DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature, in conjunction with the Welfare to Work Commission of the Legislature, arranged a public hearing Oct. 10 to discuss the impact that massive cuts in President Donald Trump’s (R) early budget proposals to funding for human services would have on local residents.

Michael Stoltz, the executive director of Ronkonkoma-based Association for Mental Health and Wellness said before the hearing he thinks the county fails to adequately invest in mental health services.

“We see a proportionate rise and increase in the number of people in our jails who have mental health conditions — untreated and under treated — and among our homeless populations,” he said.

Stoltz was representing one of the 13 agencies slated to speak during the hearing.

“The county and these agencies are facing a crisis of what could be unparalleled and unprecedented proportions,” commission chairman Richard Koubek said before the hearing. “We have watched with dismay and frustration the chronic underfunding of contract agencies that serve Suffolk County’s poor people.”

Suffolk and Nassau counties collectively are considered a Continuum of Care community, which is defined as a community with a unified plan to organize and deliver housing services to meet the needs of people who are homeless. Grants from the CoC are funded through the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is a federal department responsible for more than $10 million in CoC grants obtained each year to aid locals, according to its website. DiNapoli’s report found of the smaller communities with CoC programs, Long Island’s counties had the third largest homeless population in the United States.

Long Island’s relative lack of affordable housing can further complicate the issue, as housing units are priced to rent or own in Brookhaven Town according to HUD guidelines, which are dependent on the area median income of a region. In 2017, Suffolk County’s average household income was $110,800. To qualify to rent an affordable living space, household income must be less than 50 percent of this number, meaning in Suffolk, any family earning less than $55,400 annually has a right to reduced rent. Monthly rent for a three-person home for a family earning less than that, for example, by law cannot exceed $1,200.

Pax Christi Hospitality Center in Port Jefferson has been around for almost 30 years, though its founder said homelessness was an issue in Port Jeff long before that. Photo by Alex Petroski

Because of the relatively high average income in Suffolk, “affordable” rent is a term that most likely wouldn’t apply to someone sleeping on the street or residing in a homeless shelter. According to Pizzarelli and Brookhaven Housing and Human Services Commissioner Alison Karppi, there’s far less affordable housing available in the town and the county as a whole than demand would dictate.

“It is estimated that 42,500 renters spend half or more of their income on household costs,” Gregory said prior to the Oct. 10 hearing. “That startling figure emphasizes the need for cheaper housing our working families and young people can afford. We are here today to send a message that we simply can’t afford this budget.”

Last week Brookhaven Town announced a new initiative to acquire vacant “zombie” homes and make them available for veterans and first-time homebuyers at reduced costs as a way to expand the availability of affordable housing in the town. Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) estimated there are as many as 2,000 vacant homes in the town with many in a salvageable state.

Port Jeff has another resource in its backyard to help those in need, which reiterates Pizzarelli’s sentiment that on the whole, it is a compassionate community.

Welcome Friends Soup Kitchen in Port Jeff Village has been serving people in need, homeless or otherwise, in the area for 28 years. The group also has two locations in Port Jefferson Station comprised of about 200 volunteers and functions entirely on donations of money and food, oftentimes from a local Trader Joe’s. Five days a week, the soup kitchen opens its doors to serve as many as 100 guests free of charge each night. Unlike Pax Christi, Welcome Friends never turns away guests due to intoxication. The volunteers prevent entry to those who could be a danger to other guests, but even in those instances the person is sent away with a to-go meal, always well balanced and fresh. Multiple courses are available but served once a day Sunday to Wednesday and also on Friday.

Lorraine Kutzing, a longtime coordinator at the soup kitchen, said the organization’s sole focus is having as many meals as possible prepared each day, and hopes that she and others like Pizzarelli can continue to try to fix the problem highlighted by community members like those in the Facebook group.

“I think the need has always been there,” she said. “I don’t think that has changed that much.”

Map shows the conceptual plans of developing the Gyrodyne /Flowerfield property in St. James. Image from Suffolk County

Some Brookhaven residents and Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) are concerned about the potential negative impact development of a St. James property might have on Stony Brook Road.

On Aug. 2, the Suffolk County Planning Committee approved the conceptual subdivision of a 62-acre parcel of land in St. James owned by Gyrodyne, LLC. The property, known locally as Flowerfield, borders Route 25A and Stony Brook Road, and the plan includes approval for a 150-room hotel, two medical office buildings and two assisted living facilities.

One of the suggestions given at the August meeting to relieve possible traffic issues on Route 25A was to use a road that crosses over train tracks on the land parcel, passes through private property and utilizes a road owned by Stony Brook University where drivers would then be led to Stony Brook Road.

After Gyrodyne received approval from the county, resident Cindy Smith founded the Coalition of Greater Stony Brook Action Committee in the hopes of mobilizing local civic groups and providing a voice for the thousands of permanent residents in the village. Smith, along with local residents and Romaine, attended the planning committee’s Oct. 4 meeting to express their concerns to the members.

During an August meeting of the Suffolk County Planning Committee, it was suggested to use a currently closed street which leads to Stony Brook Road if development in St. James leads to increase traffic on Route 25A. Photo by Rita J. Egan

Smith said she took exception to the planning committee not seeking input from the surrounding communities. While a  developer has not been named and the Gyrodyne property is not yet on the Smithtown planning board’s agenda, she said she is concerned that no traffic studies or environmental assessments have been conducted and there has been no estimate of the impact on the local infrastructure. In regards to traffic, the commission in their resolution suggested the future applicant consider a bike share program to help reduce short distance motor traffic.

Romaine said he attended the Oct. 4 county planning committee meeting after receiving inadequate notification of the August meeting. He said the town only received 48 hours notice, and it lacked an environmental assessment form, a project description and usage of the property.

The supervisor said with Nicolls and Stony Brook roads being the only two ways to access Stony Brook University, quality of life has been impacted negatively in the area, especially on Stony Brook and Oxhead roads, due to traffic. He added the university also owns property that borders the Gyrodyne land on the east. On the grounds is the Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology where new buildings are being erected, which could cause even more traffic in the area from the center’s employees.

“We don’t need additional traffic from the Gyrodyne development pouring onto Stony Brook Road,” Romaine said. “We will strongly oppose that and we will explore all of our legal options to do exactly that.”

Smith, who is a member of Friends of Stony Brook Road, which works to address traffic and speeding issues on the street, said due to the university being state property, they do not need to follow local planning procedures or receive approval. She said she believes the lack of a master plan has created a problem and said she feels the Gyrodyne project lacks the same foresight.

“It’s really a quality of life issue — it’s safety,” she said. “It’s another town’s economic boom and Brookhaven’s financial demise because all the traffic will be on Brookhaven roads.”

Stony Brook Road residents deal with cars backed up on the street during rushed hour traffic and are concerned about the Gyrodyne project increasing the problem. Photo by Jonathan Kornreich

Smith, who lives on Stony Brook Road and works from home as a business consultant, said another issue is that the property borders 25A, which is a historic corridor, and she is concerned its value as such will be jeopardized. She said the goal of the coalition is not to impede development but to demand a better master plan when it comes to properties such as Gyrodyne’s and the areas that surround it.

“If we are going to develop it, and it’s certainly the right of that landowner to do that, let’s do it smartly,” she said. “Let’s do it with sustainability, and let’s do it with community input and let the other local officials from the Town of Brookhaven understand what’s going on and let them have a say in it, too. Because it’s going to affect the Town of Brookhaven, even though it’s in the township of Smithtown.”

Romaine said he is also concerned with added traffic on Route 25A, pointing to the intersection of the state thoroughfare with Stony Brook Road where bends in the road cause limited sight issues. He said both are beyond their capacity.

“In my view we have too much traffic and congestion now, and I want to make sure we don’t have any additional,” Romaine said.

George Hoffman, co-chair of the Citizens Advisory Committee for Route 25A, which conducted visioning meetings for residents in the Three Village area earlier this year, was also in attendance at the Oct. 4 meeting. He echoed Smith’s sentiments that there should have been more input from the community. He said he hopes Smith is successful in getting others involved in the coalition.

“Maybe this is the issue that gets us all at the same table to start working in a uniformed way where we start to talk,” Hoffman said. “I really think we need that.”

Romaine also sent a letter Sept. 20 to Smithtown Planning Board Chairman Conrad Chayes expressing his concerns and recommendations. He said while the county did not require a traffic study and only recommended one, he has faith that Smithtown will mandate it. When it comes to developments such as Gyrodyne, the supervisor said he is willing to work with the state, county and other towns.

“To think that people can blindly put traffic out on Stony Brook Road without us putting up a fight, they are going to be sadly mistaken,” he said. “Brookhaven is definitely going to fight this.”

Requests for comments from representatives of Gyrodyne were not returned by press time.

Nico's Way serves as reminder of child's character

Vincent Sr. and Kim Signore embrace one another while their son Vincent Jr. speaks during the street-renaming ceremony. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

After her son was fatally struck by an SUV earlier this year, Kim Signore of Miller Place feared 14-year-old Nico would be forgotten. But a new street sign on the block where the budding lacrosse star grew up will help preserve his memory forever.

The Signores huddled together alongside family, friends and elected officials Oct. 6 during an unveiling of the sign labeled Nico’s Way. The dedication was done on the corner of Miller Place Road and Islander Court in Miller Place for the boy who died riding his bike on a busy intersection on Route 25A in February. The street sign, which stands only a few houses down from the Signore residence, was installed by the Town of Brookhaven at the request of members of the family.

“This block is where it all began for Nico,” the boy’s older brother, Vincent Jr., said before the unveiling. “Nico left us too soon, but in the little time he was here on this Earth he taught us how to live life to the fullest. He will never be forgotten. We hope that this street serves as a compass when you are lost and can’t find your way.”

Nico Signore’s Miller Place lacrosse teammates attend the ceremony to pay their respects and remember their fallen friend. Photo by Kevin Redding

Kathleen Perry, a longtime friend of the Signore family, agrees the dedication is a wonderful way to help Nico live on.

“Nico just lit up this block,” Perry said, remembering the 14-year-old as the most kindhearted boy she’d met. “I think this is a great thing for the town to do.”

Nico’s aunt, Mary Alipo, said although the family will never be the same after the tragedy, townwide support is helping with the healing process.

“He was such an amazing individual and to see this many people who cared about him coming forward and serving as a support group is just incredible,” Alipo said.

Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) commended the Miller Place community for rallying around the Signores in their time of need.

“Thank you for opening your hearts and your arms to the Signores — I know you will forever keep Nico’s memory in your embrace,” Bonner said to the large crowd, including Miller Place school district faculty, members of Nico’s lacrosse team and neighbors, as well as Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) and Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro (R). “You have all been there to prop them up, hug them when they needed it and dry their tears. This is a wonderful community.”

Kim and Vincent Sr. Signore unveil the new Nico’s Way sign in memory of their son. Photo by Kevin Redding

An emotional Kim Signore held back tears as she thanked everyone in attendance.

“You guys are amazing,” she said.

Upon losing Nico, the mother’s greatest fear was that, over time, her son’s legacy would disappear.

“This is a way to always remember him because he was such a good kid — a beautiful boy inside and out,” she said. She laughed recalling the impromptu dance sessions to Frank Sinatra songs that Nico often initiated. “He would come downstairs in his lacrosse shorts, and no shirt and say, ‘Let’s dance, ma.’ He was a good boy. He loved this community. He loved everybody.”

The idea for a street sign initially came from Kim and Vincent, Nico’s father, and was carried through by Nico’s aunt and uncle, Kelly and Charles Butruch, who were in contact with Romaine and Bonner for most of the year. As Brookhaven policy requires a six-month window between a person’s death and public memorialization, a resolution for Nico’s Way was approved at the end of August.

Vincent Signore hopes that the sign will serve as not only a memorialization of his son but as a reminder to drivers to be more careful.

“I would like for people to be more aware of their surroundings when they’re driving and not be distracted,” he said.

Since Nico’s death at the intersection of Miller Place Road and Route 25A, there have been significant changes to the location to ensure better safety for pedestrians and drivers alike.

Sophia, Vincent Jr., Vincent Sr. and Kim Signore are overwhelmed with emotion recalling memories of their brother and son Nico Signore during a street-renaming ceremony in Miller Place. Photo by Kevin Redding

Around what would have been Nico’s 15th birthday in April, the road saw the implementation of a red left-turn signal to stop cars from entering the crosswalk when pedestrians and bicyclists are given the go-ahead to get to the other side. No turn on red signs were also added.

“It’s bittersweet,” Kelly Butruch said. “A year ago, did I think we would be here today? No, and I wish we didn’t have to be, but it’s the best way to memorialize him.”

Michael Lombardi, a Miller Place 10th grader
and lacrosse player, remembers his friend as an amazing person on and off the field.

A scholarship fund for Miller Place seniors who show exemplary spirit, courage and love of community was given out to two students this past May. The family intends to continue the fund throughout the future.

As the Signores and community members gathered under the sign, they shared stories of the highly regarded student-athlete.

“Nico was astounding,” Lombardi said. “He had a great personality — he was funny. He was always nice to everybody and a great player. Whenever we needed a goalie, he stepped up. He’s greatly missed.”

Another of Nico’s former teammates, Kevin Thompson, said his friend will never be forgotten.

“Whenever you pass the sign here and look at it, we’ll think of him,” he said.

Participants in the Handcuffs to Healing program at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility show off their progress during a press conference Oct. 4. Photo by Kevin Redding

In a new program at Yaphank Correctional Facility, Suffolk County inmates and homeless dogs are helping each other get a second chance.

Six men in orange jumpsuits lined up on the grounds of the jail Oct. 4, each with a shelter dog at their side, and took turns walking their four-legged companions around in a large circle, demonstrating the dog’s new socialization skills along the way. With a quick command, the dogs either sat, stayed or laid down. One of the dogs, named Bain, an 11-month-old Rottweiler, even showed off how he can help someone get back on their feet — literally.

Participants in the Handcuffs to Healing program at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility show off their progress during a press conference Oct. 4. Photo by Kevin Redding

The demonstration was all part of a presentation of Handcuffs to Healing, a pilot program that teaches low-risk, nonviolent offenders to train abandoned dogs — Rottweilers, pit bulls and German Shepherds plucked from the Brookhaven Town animal shelter.

The aim of the program, which started in mid-September, is to socialize the dogs well enough so they can be put up for adoption. But it’s also doing plenty of good for their trainers too. The inmates train the dogs three nights a week for two hours each day.

“We’re rehabilitating humans through animals,” said Michael Gould, the president and founder of Hounds Town Charities, who pitched the idea of the dog training program to Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco in the spring. “When I see inmates, I see humans. When I see these big, powerful dogs, I see animals that shouldn’t be in a shelter.”

Gould, a former commanding officer of the Nassau County Police Canine Unit, admitted these breeds of dogs are difficult to adopt out because they carry reputations of being dangerous. But they are caring, loving and now well-trained, thanks to the inmates, Gould added.

“These are among the best dogs you can come across,” he said. With a quick snap of his fingers, the dog at Gould’s side stopped and sat at attention. “Everything is low-key. There’s no crazy energy. It’s all about structure and love. Firm hand. Kind heart.”

Undersheriff Steven Kuehhas said he believes the program will reduce recidivism among the inmates, all of whom are serving a local sentence.

“This program gives the inmates the opportunity to learn responsibility,” Kuehhas said. He also added the program may help the inmate’s’ chances of employment, in an animal shelter or as a dog handler, after they leave. He called the program a win-win situation.

Jackie Bondanza, a Hounds Town representative and one of the program’s coordinators, said she’s noticed significant changes among the inmates and dogs since the program started.

“It’s been a very inspiring transformation,” she said. “When the inmates first came, they were all composed and didn’t want to be here. They’ve since really opened up and I think it’s helped build their confidence. Same with the dogs. These dogs would be sitting in cages in a shelter a majority of the day otherwise. This is incredible for them.”

Participants in the Handcuffs to Healing program at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility show off their progress during a press conference Oct. 4. Photo by Kevin Redding

The inmates turned dog trainers were chosen by the sheriff’s department under the criteria of being nonviolent offenders and being physically capable of handling their canine.

One of the inmates — Joseph Dima, 36, from Bohemia — said he was thinking of his own dog back home when he signed up for the program.

“To help these dogs find a home and owners that will handle them well — that was a big thing for me,” Dima said, referring to the pit bull he was assigned to, Carl, as a loving mush. “He’s such a great dog. People get the wrong misconceptions about pit bulls. He just wants affection. All the dogs do.”

When the dogs weren’t demonstrating their new skills, they were perched next to their trainers, being petted and rubbed. During the course of the program, the dogs live at Hounds Town Charities, which is housed in Ronkonkoma. Plans are in place to continue Handcuffs to Healing after the expiration of the current six-week program as those behind it seek corporate sponsors and residents interested in adopting the dogs.

“There’s nothing like a dog to help an inmate heal,” said Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), who spoke during the event. “These are six dogs and six inmates needing a fresh start. It’s a tremendous program and one we’re going to continue.”

If passed, homeowners would see minimal increase in property taxes

Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine. File photo by Alex Petroski

Brookhaven Town plans to spend $294.1 million in the 2018 fiscal year, about a $12 million increase compared to 2017’s budget, though the town won’t need much help from the public to do so.

Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) presented his tentative operating budget for 2018 to the public during a meeting Sept. 28. Romaine referred to the plan as a “taxpayers’ budget.”

“My job is to bring in the most cost effective budget, and that’s what we think we’ve done here,” Romaine said, thanking the town’s finance department Commissioner Tamara Wright and Chief of Operations Matt Miner for their work in presenting a balanced budget. He also lauded the town’s AAA bond rating as a valuable asset in putting together a spending plan.

“We have a structurally balanced budget for the last few years and we have wound up each of the last few years with a surplus, which kind of distinguishes us in terms of our fiscal soundness,” Romaine said.

The increase compared to the 2017 fiscal year can be attributed in large part to the disbanding of the formerly incorporated Mastic Beach Village, which means some services provided to residents of the village will again become Brookhaven’s responsibility. In addition, health insurance costs for town employees are expected to increase by 10 percent in 2018, and contractually mandated raises will go up by about $1.7 million. The town’s debt requirements will be about 5 percent higher in 2018. Despite the increases, if passed, the spending plan would maintain all services provided to residents during 2017, though no new programs would be funded, according to Romaine. Less than $2 million in reserve funds were needed to balance the budget, compared to about $3.5 million in 2017.

A typical Brookhaven Town resident living outside of an incorporated village should expect to see an increase of about $11 in their town property taxes in 2018 from the town’s general funds, excluding special districts such as sewer and highway districts, which will still see minimal increases. The budget falls within the state-mandated 1.84 percent tax levy increase cap, meaning it won’t need to be pierced, which requires approval via a public vote.

The town benefitted from an additional $7 million in revenue than was budgeted for ahead of the 2017 fiscal year thanks primarily to the town’s mortgage tax and other building fees and fines. Romaine said the unexpected revenue allowed the town to anticipate higher revenues in crafting the 2018 budget.

Part of the tentative budget also includes a $40.2 million list of new capital projects to be funded by bonds and reserves over a four-year period beginning in 2018, including $18 million for road repairs, drainage, traffic safety and street lighting projects; $8 million to cap the town landfill; and $6 million for park and recreation facility upgrades and equipment, among others.

The town board will host a public hearing to allow the community to weigh in on the budget Nov. 9 at Town Hall. The full tentative budget is also available to the public on the town’s website www.brokhavenny.gov.

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine will seek re-election in November. File photo by Alex Petroski

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) got into politics to get things done. After two terms as the town’s leader, which came after a lengthy career working for the county, the 70-year-old Center Moriches resident says he still has a job to do.

“What gets me up every single morning is that I want to build a better Brookhaven,” Romaine said. “This town can look a lot better than it does. I have a sense of purpose and it drives me every day. While I don’t think my job will ever be complete, I hope to leave more good than bad whenever I leave this office — and I work every day to accomplish that.”

The incumbent supervisor will run for a third full term in Brookhaven in an election this November against challenger Jack Harrington (D), a Stony Brook attorney and political newcomer.

Romaine, the former high school history teacher-turned-county legislator, grew up in Bayport and Central Islip, graduated with history and political science degrees from Adelphi and Long Island universities. He said he devotes any time outside town hall to his two grandchildren. If re-elected, Romaine said he will build on his long list of initiatives to move Brookhaven forward.

“What gets me up every single morning is that I want to build a better Brookhaven.”

— Ed Romaine

Since taking over the position from former Supervisor Mark Lesko (D) after a special election in 2012, Romaine has helped pull the township out of its fiscal crisis to become the only municipality on Long Island to pay off all of its pension debt. For the last two years, Brookhaven has secured a AAA bond rating, the highest designation issued by Standard & Poor’s Financial Services of New York City.

A lifelong advocate for environmental preservation, Romaine consistently pushes for greener, cleaner living across Brookhaven and has been endorsed by the Sierra Club and Long Island Environmental Voters Forum during past campaigns. He also pledged a commitment to the Paris agreement in the wake of the June decision of President Donald Trump (R) to withdraw from the climate change agreement.

“I intend to defend the environment,” Romaine said. “I’m a big open-space guy. I believe in preservation because I do not want to see the wave of development that has swept east to west across this Island continue.”

Under Romaine’s supervision, the town created nitrogen protection zones to preserve local waterways, kick-started a multiyear project to convert all of Brookhaven’s streetlights to LED bulbs, opposed dumping of dredge spoils into the Long Island Sound and opposed plans to clear 800 acres of woodlands near the former Shoreham power plant.

In July, the town launched a food scrap composting program at town hall to reduce food waste and use the materials for garden beds around town buildings. Also, more than 100 abandoned homes have been demolished across the hamlets, the supervisor said, in an effort to stamp out eyesores and criminal activity in quaint neighborhoods.

“The thing I like most about this job is you can actually make a difference,” Romaine said, adding that successes are made possible because of a mixed-party town board — four Republicans, one Democrat and one Conservative — that he said votes together 99.9 percent of the time.

He made it clear he works with people of all parties and values common ground.

“It’s less about party affiliations and more about common sense and practicality, and doing what works,” Romaine said. “You’re not coming to put boxing gloves on. You’re coming here to do some heavy lifting and that requires teamwork. I am blessed with six good people who vote together, don’t look to create party differences or personality disputes, which you do see in other towns.”

“His breadth of knowledge is incredibly impressive, and I always learn something when I’m with him.”

— Jane Bonner

High among his Democratic allies is state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), who was elected into public office on the same day as Romaine nearly 40 years ago. The two have since worked together on countless issues, oftentimes pertaining to preserving the waterways and natural environment of Brookhaven Town and Long Island as a whole.

During a recent interview, Englebright called Romaine “a peacemaker” who can draw people to their commonalities and pays attention to the things that bring people together.

The assemblyman also credited Romaine with serving as a conduit to Republican state Sens. John Flanagan and Ken LaValle, who have taken up the mantle of inviting local leaders from both parties “into the photo,” so to speak.

Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) said all levels of government could learn a lesson from how Romaine leads Brookhaven.

“He eats and sleeps this job,” Bonner said, adding how effective she believes Romaine is. “A board that works as well as we do together benefits the taxpayer. His breadth of knowledge is incredibly impressive, and I always learn something when I’m with him.”

But for all its strength, Romaine said he’s not blind to Brookhaven’s shortcomings and, on a daily basis, asks himself, “What can we do to make this town better?”

He said he wants to dissolve many special districts in the town in order to cut costs and streamline services, push for better treatment and vocational training facilities for struggling drug addicts, and build better public transportation systems.

At the start of Romaine’s career, he taught history in the Hauppauge school district for 10 years and a parochial school in Cedarhurst for two, all the while writing grants for the school district. In 1980, he entered public service and became Brookhaven’s first commissioner of housing and community development before being appointed director of economic development.

Romaine was elected to the Suffolk County Legislature for two terms, in 1985 and 1987, and became Suffolk County clerk in 1989, a post he served for 16 years.

On the side, he took a job at Dowling College teaching managerial economics for seven years, then moved over to teaching history courses at Suffolk County Community College for another seven before landing at Stony Brook University teaching administrative law at the graduate level in 2005 — the same year he was elected again as county legislator of the 1st Legislative District.

“He will, arguably, go down as one of the most effective, approachable and innovative supervisors in the history of this great town.”

— Jesse Garcia

When he was eventually approached by Jesse Garcia, chairman of the Brookhaven Town Republican Committee, to throw his hat into the ring for supervisor, Romaine hesitated. He said he loved his job as legislator too much.

“I didn’t want to do it,” Romaine recalled. But it was the memory of his late son, former Brookhaven Councilman Keith Romaine, who died in 2009 from pneumonia-related conditions at age 36, that finally convinced him to pursue the position. “I knew if he had lived, he would have been supervisor. Unfortunately, while it’s usually sons that follow fathers, I did it in reverse.”

He said such personal lows in his life have helped inform how he approaches the position.

“The bottom line is, it’s a very short life,” he said. “I didn’t get into politics to call people names. I got into politics to get something done. This job has a lot of frustrations and I’ll be happy when I leave it, but I’m doing my time here because I still have a sense of purpose.”

Garcia said he’s glad Romaine accepted the job when he did.

“What separates Ed Romaine from the rest is just his ability to not look at challenges but look at solutions that benefit the people of this town,” Garcia said, commending the supervisor on his record of tax control, job growth and bipartisanship. “He will, arguably, go down as one of the most effective, approachable and innovative supervisors in the history of this great town.”

Task force inspires local governments to join forces

Suffolk County Leg. Kara Hahn, Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright, Assemblyman Steve Englebright, Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine and Laurie Vetere and George Hoffman of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, sign a memorandum of understanding to protect Setauket Harbor Sept. 23. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

Cooperation between members of government, especially from differing political parties, is a scarce natural resource these days, but don’t tell that to leaders from Brookhaven Town, Suffolk County and New York State. Setauket Harbor and the surrounding area is set to be the beneficiary of that cooperation, as leaders from each of the three municipalities formed an agreement Sept. 23 aiming to protect the historic and natural resources of the harbor.

“The Parties are committed to conserving, improving, protecting and interpreting Setauket Harbor’s historic and natural resources and environment through preservation of historic sties, wildlife areas and viewsheds to enable appropriate uses of harbor resources,” the agreement read in part. It also stated that preventing, abating and controlling water, land and air pollution will be a part of enhancing the health and safety of the people who live within or visit the Setauket Harbor Watershed.

The agreement is a Memorandum of Understanding, meaning it is not law, but rather a set of guiding principles or a moral commitment to follow in the years ahead.

On Sept. 23, North Shore residents enjoyed Setauket Harbor Day. Photo by Alex Petroski

The cosigners of the document, Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) and Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station); Suffolk County Leg. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket); state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket); and representatives from the Department of Environmental Conservation and Setauket Harbor Task Force left the agreement open-ended in the hopes that other branches of government and organizations will follow suit. The Setauket Harbor Task Force, a three-year-old community organization dedicated to improving water quality and the marine habitat in the harbor, spearheaded the agreement after finding local levels of government share a common interest in protecting and improving the harbor, though they were working concurrently rather than coordinately in some ways.

The memorandum was signed on a town dock off Shore Road in Setauket as part of the third Setauket Harbor Day, an annual event established by the task force in 2015.

The first mission laid out by the document is to develop a natural and cultural resource inventory of the harbor, which will be a springboard toward creating a management plan designed to achieve the preservation goals of Setauket Harbor and the roughly three-square miles surrounding it, known as the watershed, by acquiring lands within it, preserving historic sites, sharing ideas, engaging in open, ongoing discussions and contributing funds.

“You need to have a starting point and a vision for how all these pieces come together, and I think that’s what’s so great about this designation,” said George Hoffman, co-founder of the Setauket Harbor Task Force.

Englebright credited the task force with getting everyone involved and focused on the problems associated with Setauket Harbor, which among others include nitrogen pollution and the presence of coliform bacteria, mostly due to storm water runoff into waterways. The harbor falls within the larger Port Jefferson Harbor Complex, which lets out into the Long Island Sound.

In Sept. 2016, state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) announced he had secured a $1 million grant from the state to be used on enhancing the quality of the harbor’s waters, and the town dock on Shore Road. Englebright thanked Flanagan for his leadership in bringing issues regarding the harbor to light, but a recent annual study completed by Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences still shows the body of water is an area of concern.

“Some of the parcels we’re trying to protect are very vulnerable,” Englebright said. He added although the agreement is only an understanding and not law, he hopes that will change in the future. “What I’m hoping we can do within the context of a completed plan is that we can revisit that question at the state legislative level and write something that may have broad applicability. I think this whole plan has the potential to be a model.”

Romaine said he was excited for the possible benefits to the environment the agreement could bring, but also for the potential economic benefit of a healthier harbor.

On Sept. 23, North Shore residents enjoyed Setauket Harbor Day. Photo by Alex Petroski

“The Harbor has been closed to shell fishing for more than 10 years,” he said. “We’d like to see it open up. We’d like to see some of the contaminants eliminated from this harbor so that it can restore itself. It’s very important to the town. I want to thank Steve because he’s done tremendous work, and we’ve worked together as colleagues for more than 35 years.”

Hahn suggested homes in the watershed could be prime candidates for Suffolk County’s Septic Improvement Program, an initiative that offers funds to homeowners within the county to replace outdated cesspools and septic system, which are major contributors to nitrogen pollution in waterways.

The federal government is not currently on board as part of the agreement, though DEC Regional Director Carrie Meek Gallagher said she expects that to change once a plan is in motion. The significance of the collaboration across party lines and municipality lines in lockstep with a community group like the task force was not lost on Cartright.

“This should be a prime example of how government on all levels should work together with the community,” she said.

Kevin McAllister, the founder of the nonprofit Defend H20, said while the agreement is a positive step, it will be largely symbolic if it is not followed up with action, and more importantly, funding.

“Providing greater funding for a host of projects, land acquisition, more protective zoning, denying shoreline hardening permits — these type actions, individually and collectively will define the resolve as put forth in the MOU,” he said in an email.

Englebright implored members of the public and community groups to not only get on board, but to take the additional step of holding elected officials to the terms of the agreement, including those who come after the incumbent lawmakers.

Dog owners like Kevin Harrigan and Taylor Gittin who are watching their dogs Cassie and Ruby play can look forward to using fresh water stations at Selden Dog Park thanks to a grant secured by Town of Brookhaven Councilman Kevin LaValle. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Kyle Barr

Dog owners in Brookhaven have something new to bark about, as the Town of Brookhaven received a grant to make improvements to the Selden Dog Park.

Last week, Councilman Kevin LaValle (R-Selden) announced the town was one of just 25 local municipalities out of 215 from across the country to receive pet supply manufacturer PetSafe’s annual Bark for Your Park grant — a $10,000 prize. Most of the funds will be used to install new water stations and water fountains inside the dog park, and the rest will go toward minor improvements.

Taylor Gittin and his dog Cassie play at Selden Dog Park. Photo by Kyle Barr

“We have a lot of dog owners that want a place where they can bring their dog who can run around with other dogs who live in the area,” LaValle said. “That’s where this all started — a lot of dog lovers out there who needed a place to go.”

Selden resident Taylor Gittin has already visited the park several times with his 1.5-year-old dog Cassie since recently moving to the area from Chicago.

“There were some parks in the neighborhood, but they were concrete, so its nice that there are trees and she can run on [the sand],” Gittin said of his old park compared to the one in Selden. “A few times coming here I forgot water bottles from home because I’m used to other dog parks having [fountains], so that’s the biggest thing for me [the town could improve on].”

Not including villages and private property, the town currently supports two off-leash dog parks — in Selden and Middle Island. The Selden Dog Park will receive sprinklers, and new plants will help beautify the entrance. Slats will be added to the entrance gate so excited dogs don’t crowd the entrance as new owners enter.

“We’re always looking to save taxpayers money, and going out and getting these grants, whether it’s for infrastructure or parks, is something we really focus in the town because it offsets our costs,” LaValle said. “It’s these little extras that the residents want and the residents need that helps keep the tax bills down. We beat out municipalities from all over the country, so this was a great thing.”

“A few times coming here I forgot water bottles from home because I’m used to other dog parks having [fountains], so that’s the biggest thing for me [the town could improve on].”

—Taylor Gittin

The Bark for Your Park grant began in 2011 as a social media contest that would earn just over 40 applicants PetSafe Brand Marketing Specialist Justin Young said in an email. In 2016, the contest was transformed into a grant-giving campaign. There are 25 grants available in different funding levels — communities building a new park can apply for a $25,000 grant, communities performing maintenance on existing parks can receive $10,000 and communities that desire new equipment can get $5,000 worth of park accessories through park furnishing company Ultrasite, a partner of PetSafe.

“The program is all about finding enthusiastic, pet-loving communities that support green spaces, with civic leaders and community organizations who want to improve their communities and encourage responsible pet ownership,” Young said in the email.

Centereach resident Kevin Harrigan is a regular to the park and takes his three dogs Ruby, Max and Jasper for a walk around Selden almost every day.

“This dog park is a God send,” Harrigan said. “From my perspective, there’s a lot of people like me — I’m in my 60s, I’ve been living in this community for 20 years and I pay my taxes every year. I have three dogs. I can’t bring them in the parks, can’t bring them in school areas. I pay the taxes to pay for all these things and I can’t enjoy any of them. [A good amount] of the population are out here without kids, so for a lot of us, dogs are our kids.”

The Aug. 17 suit opposes dumping in Long Island Sound

Councilwoman Valerie Cartright, Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine, Councilwoman Jane Bonner and Assemblyman Steve Englebright are joined by environmentalists to support a state lawsuit against the EPA's practice of dumping dredged materials in the Long Island Sound during an Aug. 28 press conference at Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) is picking a fight with the federal government, and as of Aug. 28, he officially has backup.

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), joined by town board members, environmentalists and State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), announced the town’s support of a lawsuit filed by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman Aug. 17 against the United States Environmental Protection Agency regarding the open dumping of dredged materials in the Long Island Sound. The lawsuit alleged the Long Island Sound Dredge Material Management Plan, which was approved by the EPA, violates the Ocean Dumping Act and Coastal Zone Management Act, and also cited a “failure to address environmental impacts on the Long Island Sound.”

“The state of New York and this governor, Andrew Cuomo, has done a great service to this state and to the residents of Long Island by working to enjoin, in the court, the EPA from allowing continued dumping in the Sound.”

—Ed Romaine

In 2016, the EPA increased the number of open water dumping sites in the Sound from two to three, despite a call from state government leaders of both New York and Connecticut in 2005 to reduce and eventually eliminate the practice of dumping in the Sound. According to the suit, the dumping is also inconsistent with several investments of taxpayer dollars and policies that have sought to clean up the vital Long Island waterway. Cuomo opposed the additional dumping site in late 2016, and Romaine and the town sent a letter to the governor in support of legal action against the federal agency.

“We’re here to send a very strong message — that we are opposed to dumping in the Sound,” Romaine said during a press conference Aug. 28 at Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai. “The state of New York and this governor, Andrew Cuomo, has done a great service to this state and to the residents of Long Island by working to enjoin, in the court, the EPA from allowing continued dumping in the Sound.”

Romaine accused the EPA of taking the expedient course of action rather than the most environmentally sound course with dredged materials, some of which are contaminated by pollutants.

Though a spokesperson for the EPA declined via email to comment on ongoing litigation, an April 2016 statement from the agency spelled out the motivation for continued dumping in the Sound.

“Dredging is needed to ensure safe navigation in the sound,” EPA spokesman John Martin said in an email to Times Beacon Record Newspapers. He added the agency felt the proposal struck “an appropriate balance between the need for dredging to maintain safe and efficient navigation and our desired outcome to restore and protect Long Island Sound.”

Kevin McAllister, the president of Defend H20, a nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and restoring the quality of Long Island’s waterways, spoke in support of the town and the governor during the press conference.

“We’re spending billions of dollars on water quality improvements and the open water dumping of contaminated silt flies in the face of these efforts.”

—Kevin McAllister

“As a federally designated Estuary of National Significance, Long Island Sound is in need of greater protection,” he said. “We’re spending billions of dollars on water quality improvements and the open water dumping of contaminated silt flies in the face of these efforts.”

Representatives from the nonprofits Sierra Club Long Island and the Setauket Harbor Task Force also pledged support in opposition of the dumping plan.

Englebright offered a suggestion for an alternative to the continued dumping in the Sound.

“It is ironic that at a time when we’re watching a terrible hurricane devastating the great state of Texas and reflecting on the reality that sea level is rising, that the federal government is proposing to take a vast amount of sediment that will be needed to bulwark our coastal investments, our coastal communities from a rising sea level to augment our beaches with that sediment, to take it instead and use it in the most harmful possible way,” Englebright said. He added the dumping is “radicalizing the ecology” of the waterway, saying the sediment could be needed and should be used to strengthen coastlines. Englebright cited a deadly 1953 storm in the Netherlands that inspired the same fortification he proposed, a practice that nation has continued since.

Brookhaven Town Council members Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) and Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) also voiced support of the lawsuit. Romaine said he had been in contact with 1st Congressional District U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) regarding the town’s support of the lawsuit, and Romaine said the congressman is strongly opposed to dumping in the Sound.

Zeldin has sponsored and supported bills designed to improve the health of the Sound in the past and has opposed long term dumping at the designated sites.

“The Long Island Sound shouldn’t be a dumping ground, especially when there are many viable alternatives to open water dumping, including recycling and safe disposal on land,” Zeldin said in an emailed statement through spokeswoman Jennifer DiSiena.

This post was updated to include comments by Lee Zeldin.

Bethel Hobbs Farm's Run the Farm 4-mile challenge kicks off. Photo from Councilman Kevin LaValle's office

By Kyle Barr

For Ann Pellegrino, the founder of Bethel Hobbs Community Farm in Centereach which donates 90 percent of its locally grown vegetables to area food pantries, the mission hits close to home.

“Years ago I was a single mother with three kids working two different jobs, and I’ve had to go to food pantries a couple times,” she said. “But when you go to the typical food pantry, you get boxed stuff, stuff that doesn’t have any nutrients, stuff that doesn’t have any vitamins in it, it’s just stuff to fill your belly.”

Bethel Hobbs Community Farm in Centereach holds an annual community race to raise money for the farm. Photo by Kyle Barr

Because the mission is so important to her, when government funds ran dry, she needed help.

Brookhaven Town Councilman Kevin LaValle (R-Selden) stepped in with an idea to host a local race to bring the community together while helping to raise funds for the farm.

LaValle called for help from Suffolk County Legislator Tom Muratore (R-Ronkonkoma) and Hobbs Farms volunteers and the annual Run the Farm Four-Mile Challenge was born.

Now in its third year, more than 200 runners of all strengths and abilities came out on a warm, humid day Aug. 19 to support the farm. In total, more than $7,500 was raised.

“This is the last remaining farm in Centereach — It’s not only a part of our history but an active part of our history,” LaValle said. “You have kids 5, 6 years old, you have college kids, high school kids, seniors that are out there volunteering. It brings so many people together in this community for a great cause.”

The runners lined up at the start in front of the Oxhead Road Elementary School and waited for the horn. Their route took them in a loop that ended on the west side of the farm where they were greeted by cheering family members, friend and volunteers. Tall yellow sunflowers and green vegetables could be seen growing beyond the archway to the farm and a sign saying “Love Grows Here.”

“I was remarried and I was able to step back a little bit because people were there for me,” Pellegrino said. “I wanted to give back to people stuff that wasn’t just packaged.”

The Bethel Hobbs Community Farm’s founder, Ann Pellegrino, donates most of the produce to local food pantries. File photo

The volunteers at Bethel Hobbs farm are often community members, with a handful of student volunteers from Suffolk County Community College and Stony Brook University.

“I live three houses down from here, so I’m always here helping out when I’m not in college, and when I’m not busy during the semester I stop by and do some help inside the community,” said SCCC student Bershell Hall. “I think it’s really great what they do here, because they have health standards, people in the community can come here and pull for their own usage.”

Kraig Rau placed first in the race with a time of 22 minutes, 52 seconds. He strode across the finish line with a body and face streaming with sweat, and he gladly took the water bottle from a volunteer’s outstretched hand. Rau grew up in the community and graduated from Centereach High School.

“It’s my second time here; I was here last year,” he said. “I think it’s a great event, it’s the local community here. I live a mile away so I run here and then I just run home.”

The run was sponsored by several groups, including a few large-scale food chains like Whole Foods and ShopRite. A group of 21 employees from the Selden ShopRite showed up to support the event.

“The farm is vital to the infrastructure of the island and Middle Country, and we’re very fortunate to have it,” said Charles Gallagher, the owner of the Selden ShopRite. “We need to make sure we continue to support it, it’d be a real shame if it went away.”

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