Town of Smithtown

By Sara-Megan Walsh

More than 95 Smithtown-area teens rolled up their sleeves to help ready Hoyt Farm Nature Preserve for visitors.

The Town of Smithtown hosted a volunteer cleanup for high school and middle school students at the Commack park April 21 in honor of Global Youth Service Day, also a day ahead of Earth Day. The teens were put to work helping clean up the pollinator and butterfly garden, clearing fallen branches and debris from the apple orchard and sprucing up the animal pens.

Jeff Gurmin, director of Hoyt Farm Nature Preserve, and his staff provided educational lessons on the rescued animals while the students were performing the cleanup. One of these lessons involved learning the importance of Mason bees in the ecosystem and installing new nesting jars for the bees inside the pollinator gardens.

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Fire & Ice Hookah Lounge in Smithtown is a short distance away from Paul T. Given County Park. Photo from Google Maps

By Kyle Barr

As the popularity of vaping products grows, Smithtown officials are considering ways to keep the products out of children’s hands.

Smithtown Town Board has plans to consider changing town zoning laws to restrict any store whose primary purpose is the sale of any e-liquid, vape product or indoor smoking from opening up within 1,500 feet of schools, churches or public parks in an effort to dissuade teens from using these types of products.

“For this age group, it’s very unhealthy and easily accessible,” said Councilwoman Lisa Inzerillo (R), who helped sponsor the ordinance. “They kind of market it like candy, and they name the different flavors after candy names. So It’s very appealing to kids.”

If approved, the restriction would not be retroactive, so it won’t  affect any current  businesses near schools, parks or churches. Inzerillo said she hopes that the zoning change will effectively dissuade these shops from opening near commercial districts.

“Lucky for Smithtown, most of our parks, churches and schools all are close to our main streets,” the councilwoman said.

The town is still waiting on an environmental impact study to be completed by the state on the effect of the proposed ordinance. After that, Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) said that the town attorney may need to look at any adjustments, but he believes the ordinance will go through.

“I think it’s going to pass, yes,” Wehrheim said. “I believe having [vape and hookah shops] in a close proximity to church or a school is problematic.”

We’ve seen an increase in youth under the age of 21 who use these products, which is very concerning, because that is sometimes seen as a gateway into more serious substance use.”

— Matthew Neebe

Matthew Neebe, director at nonprofit Horizons Counseling and Education Center, said that while there have been limited long-term studies on whether or not vape products have negative health effects, he believes these products can harm children’s development.

“We’ve seen an increase in youth under the age of 21 who use these products, which is very concerning, because that is sometimes seen as a gateway into more serious substance use,” Neebe said. “I think this step a good place to start. Kids tend to participate in things that are convenient for them.”

Amar Patel, owner of Fire & Ice Hookah Lounge near Paul T. Given County Park in Smithtown, has had his own troubles with the town. His business is temporarily closed while they renovate the building to bring it into compliance with Smithtown fire codes, but he plans to reopen soon. Patel said that vape and hookah get an unfair reputation from the rest of the community.

“I don’t think [the Town of Smithtown] supports any tobacco product, smoking or anything” Patel said. “I mean my personal opinion, I would say when it comes to hookah lounges it’s more of a hang out, where you go after dinner. Almost like you are going to a cigar lounge, then go about your day.”

Patel said he believes that cigarette use should be a bigger concern than hookah lounges or vaping, stressing that he does not believe hookah use is addictive unlike
smoking cigarettes
.

The zoning ordinance is expected to be voted on at the April 26 town board meeting.

In November, state Sen. Ken LaValle gave his blessing to a feasibility study for the electrification of the Port Jefferson LIRR line east of Huntington. File photo

A Smithtown resident will take the lead in determining the future of the Long Island Rail Road.
Phillip Eng was appointed the next president of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s LIRR April 12 by MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota and MTA Managing Director Ronnie Hakim.

“Phil has shown exceptional leadership and dedication during his time at the MTA, and I know he will bring his enthusiasm for developing a world-class transportation system to the LIRR,” Lhota said.

“As a Smithtown resident and Suffolk County native, Phil Eng understands the importance of transportation on Long Island.”

— Steve Bellone

Eng will take over for Patrick Nowakowski, who served as LIRR president for nearly four years. He submitted his resignation less than a month after the LIRR had its worst on-time performance in the last 18 years, according to a March 15 report released by the Office of State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli in March. The report had found that nearly 21,400 trains were delayed, cancelled or terminated in 2017; a 20 percent increase from 2016.

“As millions of commuters can attest, the performance of the Long Island Rail Road has become unacceptable,” DiNapoli said in a March statement. “On-time performance has fallen to the lowest level in nearly two decades, hurting riders. While Amtrak was a big factor behind the deterioration in service last year, the LIRR was responsible for more than twice as many delays.”

Eng first joined the MTA in March 2017 when he was appointed its chief operating officer. His role as chief operating officer was leading major initiatives across all of the MTA’s agencies, particularly with a focus on using innovation and technology to modernize the transportation systems and improve customer reliability, according to the MTA. From October 2017 to January 2018, he held the position of acting president at New York City Transit.

“The LIRR couldn’t have a found a more qualified person for this role,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said in a statement. “As a Smithtown resident and Suffolk County native, Phil Eng understands the importance of transportation on Long Island.”

“My life’s work has centered on conceptualizing the best possible options to make transportation options more reliable.”

— Phil Eng

He is now expected to use his 35 years of experience in the New York State’s transportation sector to get the LIRR’s performance back on track. Prior to joining the MTA, Eng started his career with New York State Department of Transportation in 1983 as a junior engineer. He worked his way up, rising through the ranks to become the state DOT’s executive deputy commissioner. While there, Eng was responsible for delivering on the $2.5 billion annual capital construction program and was involved in the environmental impact study on the LIRR Mainline Expansion Project.

“My life’s work has centered on conceptualizing the best possible options to make transportation options more reliable, allowing commuters to get where they need to go safely and quickly,” Eng said in a statement. “I am honored to be chosen to lead the LIRR and its team of talented women and men as we work together to make the daily experience on the trains a better one.”

In his new position, Eng will be expected to manage several major infrastructural changes underway on the LIRR including the Double Track Project, which adds a second track to the Ronkonkoma branch between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma stations and is scheduled for completion later this year. He will also be expected to implement the Performance Improvement Plan, unveiled March 19, which aims to improve the LIRR’s service reliability, seasonal preparedness and communications with its customers. Public calls from elected officials to expand electrification on the Port Jefferson line east of the Huntington station, a long sought technological improvement, are also intensifying.

Nesconset Civic Association members protested outside the site of the proposed 7-Eleven March 31. Photo from Facebook

A proposed 7-Eleven on the southeast corner of Smithtown Boulevard and Nichols Road has a Nesconset civic group up in arms.

Nesconset Civic Association, a recently formed community organization, is fearful that construction of yet another 7-Eleven will negatively affect traffic safety in their neighborhood during rush hour, especially as there is already another one a short way down the road.

Civic members attended the Town of Smithtown board meeting April 10 to voice their opinions.

Bob Souto, a board member of the Nesconset Civic Association, said he and his group collected 400 signatures through an online petition from residents who opposed the proposed 2,500-square-foot convenience store. The site in question was formerly home to Capital One bank, across from Nesconset Christian Church.

“My neighbors don’t want this, are troubled by this, and say they didn’t vote for this,” Souto said. “Our roads are designed 50, 60 years ago. This new business doesn’t add more cars to road, but it does change traffic patterns. It causes safety, pollution and congestion issues.”

He also asked the board to call a moratorium on all new development in Nesconset.

It’s time to step back, moratorium’s a good word, and prepare a comprehensive master plan for all five hamlets.”
— Amy Fortunato

The project is being spearheaded by Bay Shore-based developer J. Nazarro Partnership. Nazarro could not be reached for comment before this publication’s press time.

“Historically, Smithtown’s town codes were written to protect the interests and investments of the Smithtown residents at the time of their codifications,” Nesconset resident Amy Fortunato said. “It’s time to step back, moratorium’s a good word, and prepare a comprehensive master plan for all five hamlets.”

Smithtown spokeswoman Nicole Garguilo said that in order for the town to declare a moratorium on development in Nesconset, it would have to institute a townwide building ban. However, the Town of Smithtown has several villages and hamlets, including Lake Grove, Nissequogue and Village of the Branch which would be free to make their own decisions.

Civic members also said they felt that the town board has too quickly allowed the development to go through the approval process.

You have tainted the process by prematurely coming to a conclusion and have left the town vulnerable to a legal challenge.”
— Marie Gruick

“You have tainted the process by prematurely coming to a conclusion and have left the town vulnerable to a legal challenge,“ said Marie Gruick, of Nesconset.

Garguilo said that the town’s hands are tied because the developers have the legal authority to build on the property. Town officials cannot deny a site plan solely based on its intended use. She said the town could be subject to an unwinnable lawsuit if they tried to halt it.

“If something is zoned where it requires no variance or exceptions or anything like that, by law the town has to approve it unless they are asking for a special exception or something it isn’t zoned for,” Garguilo said. “All that we would be left with is a big bill that comes out of taxpayers’ pockets.”

Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) said that the board will arrange for all of the traffic counts and accident studies to be made available to the residents who are concerned about traffic. He also said that the county still has to approve plans to create a new curb cut onto Smithtown Boulevard.

The Nesconset Civic Association, which is not associated with either the existing Nesconset-Sachem Civic Association or Nesconset Neighbors United, will be holding a meeting April 19 at 7 p.m. The location is the Nesconset branch of The Smithtown Library at 148 Smithtown Blvd.

Families pledge to continue to fight for stricter safety laws

Carol Belli, Paul Schulman, Suzanne Schulman and Mindy Grabina hold new street signs honoring their loved ones lost in a 2015 limo crash. Photo by Kyle Barr

Smithtown High School West students entering the south entrance this week may see a new street sign “LABS Ln,” dedicated as a lasting tribute to four young women killed in a 2015 limousine crash.

Paul Schulman, father of Brittney Schulman who died in a limo crash in 2015, speaks during an event to honor the victims of the fatal crash. Photo by Kyle Barr

More than 700 runners were joined by about 300 local residents, first responders and politicians for the first Running 4 Our Angels 5K Run/Walk April 8. The event aimed to bring awareness to safety issues with limousine safety and honor the lives of Lauren Baruch, Stephanie Belli, Amy Grabina and Brittney Schulman.

More than $10,000 raised through donations will go to scholarships given out by nonprofit organizations founded by the four families to honor their daughters’ lives. The proceeds will be equally split between the Lawzie Marigold Foundation, founded in honor of Lauren Baruch; the Stephanie Belli Whisperette Scholarship; The Amy Rose Grabina Foundation; and a scholarship given out by the Schulman family. The event organizers declined to
release the total amount raised.

“This was amazing, beyond my wildest imagination,” said Felicia Baruch, Lauren’s mother, who organized the event. “We have such an amazing community in Smithtown, without the community this could not have happened.”

On July 18, 2015, the four women had rented a limousine along with four others to go wine tasting at various North Fork vineyards. Peconic resident Steven Romeo was driving an SUV when he collided with the limousine as it attempted to make a U-turn near the intersection of Depot Lane and County Route 48 in Cutchogue. The four young women died in the crash while the other four were injured.

Felicia and Steven Baruch, and Carol Belli hold new street signs honoring their loved ones lost in a 2015 limo crash. Photo by Kyle Barr

“It’s coming up to three years years in July and there’s nothing,” said Brittney’s father, Paul Schulman. “There are no changes to anything, the people responsible are still walking around, and I have to keep fighting because if I don’t then it’s not going to happen.”

Romeo pled guilty to driving while impaired and receive a 90-day license suspension in April 2017. The limo driver, Carlos Pino, of Old Bethpage, was arrested and arraigned on four counts of criminally negligent homicide among multiple other traffic violations. However charges were dismissed by a Suffolk County judge in October 2017. The Suffolk County District Attorney’s office has a pending appeal to reinstate the charges against Pino.

The victim’s families said they feel there hasn’t been any made progress in the fight to improve limousine safety standards, according to Schulman. They have circulated an online petition that calls for politicians to increase regulations on the industry. Their requests include that limos not be allowed to make U-turns, drivers should have required training and that limousines should meet federal safety standards similar to other commercial vehicles.

“What we’re looking for more is changes in Albany,” he said. “Anybody here can be a limousine driver. We want them to go through the same standards that any truck driver or anybody who drives a bus has to go through.”

Local and state politicians offered their condolences to the families and promised to do what they could implement change.

The parents of Lauren Baruch walk to honor their daughter, who was among those killed in a 2015 limo crash. Photo by Kyle Barr

“We have brought with us letters from every elected official who is here advocating for a no U-turn sign, or signal, or both [at the road where the accident occured] and improved safety measures for stretch limousine vehicles.” Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) said.

State Sen. John Flanagan (R-Smithtown) said that he is optimistic about introducing a law that will restrict limousine’s ability to make u-turns on left turn signal.

“This should be an absolute no brainer,” Flanagan said. “It’s not like we’re building a bridge. We’re banning U-turns in a spot where four young women were killed. I want to roll my sleeves up and help these people.”

“The people want it, it’s the politicians who need to implement it,” said Howard Grabina, Amy’s father.

The families’ online petition and more information on legal changes they are requesting can be found at: www.labspetition.org.

Editor’s Note:  This post was updated April 11 5:58 p.m. There were four women in the limousine with the victims; not six as originally stated. 

Rows of cheering friends and family lined Longfellow Drive in Kings Park Wednesday afternoon to welcome home a National Guard airman returning home from Iraq. Nobody was more excited to see him than his children.

Both Ella, 3, and Gavin Brucculeri, 2, screamed with delight when they saw their father, Master Sgt. Jimmy Brucculeri, pull up in the family’s Dodge Ram. Ella bounded over to her dad who immediately picked her up into his arms. Gavin walked down the driveway with tears in his eyes, completely overcome with emotion.

Suffolk County  police department members looking on cheered loudly in welcoming Brucculeri home. It was a surprise.

“It’s a great feeling, all of this, it’s a great feeling to be home.”

— Jimmy Brucculeri

“It’s a great feeling, all of this, it’s a great feeling to be home,” he said. ‘It’s good to see everybody come together.”

Brucculeri works as a Suffolk County police officer in addition to serving as a member of the 106th Air Rescue Wing of New York’s National Guard. In January, his unit was deployed into Iraq to assist Operation Inherent Resolve, a U.S led mission to combat ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

The 106th Air Rescue Unit lost four of its members March 15 when a H-60 Pave Helicopter crashed in Iraq during a mission for Operation Inherent Resolve. The U.S. Department of Defense has said the cause of the crash is still under investigation, but it but did not appear to be the result of enemy activity.

“It’s kind of somber, but half of my unit is still in Iraq,” Brucculeri said. “So until they get home and everyone gets home, it’s just waiting.”

Thousands of mourners traveled to King’s Park to attend funeral services for Commack airman Master Sgt. Christopher Raguso, a member of Brucculeri’s unit, who was killed in the line of duty when the helicopter crashed.

“Gavin’s birthday was yesterday, so it’s a very good birthday present to have him home.”

— Cathyrn Brucculeri

Brucculeri’s family was able to keep in contact with him while he was overseas, but said it was much better to have him home.

“We spoke daily over Facetime or texting, which was good, but it was still obviously hard,” said Cathryn, Brucculeri’s wife. “ The kids definitely felt it. Gavin’s birthday was yesterday, so it’s a very good birthday present to have him home.”

Ernie Kabelka was also there to welcome Brucculeri home.

“He’s a great neighbor, he’s a great friend. He does everything around here,” Kabelka said.

He recalled how during a major snowstorm he and Brucculeri were driving around town together, when they spotted a man whose car was stuck in the snow. Brucculeri pulled over and spent more than a half hour helping dig the man out, according to Kabelka.

“He didn’t think nothing of it, it’s just what he does,” the neighbor said.

Concetta Van Winckel, a friend of the family, helped to organize the homecoming posting messages on Facebook and social media.

“Everyone from the community really came out for this,” Van Winckel said. “It was beautiful. People were really great to come out, even in the rain.”

Smithtown Town Hall. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

Smithtown Town officials plan to go blue next week to celebrate April as national autism awareness month.

The Town of Smithtown will hold a Light the Town Blue ceremony April 9 at 5:30 p.m. in front of town hall, located at 99 W. Main St. The event will feature Autism Speaks advocate Kathleen Lanese, along with her husband, Rick, and sons, Kevin and Brendan.

“I’m so proud that Smithtown will yet again, join with towns and cities across the globe in support of autism awareness this month,” said Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R). “We as a society must do more to bring attention and understanding to this increasingly more common neurological condition, affecting development in our children.”

Throughout April, giant blue puzzle pieces and blue lights will mark major landmarks throughout the town including: the statue of Whisper the Bull at the intersection of West Main Street/Route 25 and Route 25A, town hall, and the Town of Smithtown Parks and Highway Department grounds on East Main Street in Kings Park.

Councilman Tom Lohmann (R) and Joe Arico, Smithtown park maintenance director, helped to revive the tradition that started in April 2015. Lohmann will be distributing blue light bulbs to residents on a first-come, first-serve basis, out of his office this week and during the ceremony.

Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim has approached Gryodyne LLC about a shared sewer plant on Flowerfield property in St. James. Photo by Heidi Sutton

Smithtown’s Town supervisor has approached a developerabout creating a shared sewer plant to service downtown St. James.

Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) said he’s asked Gyrodyne LLC whether it would consider building a shared sewer treatment plant large enough to handle wastewater for the Lake Avenue business district on Flowerfield. The Flowerfield property off Route 25A in St. James is often used to host community festivals and contains freshwater wetlands that feed into Mill Pond in Stony Brook, Stony Brook Harbor and on into Long Island Sound.

“They said they would be amicable to having a conversation about it,” Wehrheim said.

“[Gyrodyne] said they would be amicable to having a conversation about it.”
— Ed Wehrheim

Gyrodyne has an application pending before Smithtown Planning Board to subdivide the 62 acres of Flowerfield property in St. James to construct a 150-room hotel with a restaurant and day spa, two medical office buildings and a 220-unit assisted living complex with its own sewage treatment facility. After substantial traffic concerns were raised at a Nov. 15, 2017, public hearing, the town has ordered Gyrodyne to complete a full environmental study of its proposal.

If the environmental study comes back clean, the supervisor said he believes this could pose a great opportunity for the town.

“They have ample property to build the sewage plant,” Wehrheim said. “Even after building the plant, their plans include keeping 30 acres of property undeveloped.”

He noted that the 4.5 acres set aside by Gyrodyne for a sewage treatment facility are not adjacent to any residential neighborhood. Wehrheim said he is also interested in seeing if the developer would be open to future discussions on providing sewers for Smithtown’s business district.

“Without sewering, we can’t do any kind of revitalization,” he said.

Paul Lamb, chairman of Gyrodyne’s board, confirmed that Wehrheim had reached out to the company, but declined any further comment until after his March 30 board meeting.

The town has approved $4.6 million in its 2018 capital budget program to fund St. James downtown business district improvements. This includes $2.4 million to tear open Lake Avenue to replace the town’s aging water mains.

Without sewering, we can’t do any kind of revitalization.”
— Ed Wehrheim

Wehrheim said the Lake Avenue construction originally slated to start this May could potentially be delayed until 2019. The supervisor said he anticipates the town board will vote at its next meeting on hiring H2M architects to complete a study to determine if installing dry sewer lines would be economically feasible at this time, given the town’s plans for a sewer treatment plant are not solidified. The study, if approved, would take several months to complete and cost about $24,000, according to Wehrheim.

“What we are trying to eliminate is the excavation of the road for water mains, then rebuilding the road, sidewalks, curbs — about $2.6 million in restoration work — to find out a year later we have to cut the brand new roads back up,” he said. “It’s wasteful.”

If negotiations fail, town officials would be forced to return to their original plans which have a starting price tag of $65 million to sewer and build a plant for the Smithtown business district, according to Wehrheim.

Town officials are currently waiting for the state to pass an action that would authorize the town’s use of land proposed for Kings Park’s sewer treatment plant, according to Wehrheim. He hopes to have state approval as early as June.

Dozens of people entered Napper Tandy’s Pub in Smithtown to boldly go bald at a St. Baldrick’s Day event March 10. The event raised more than $50,000 for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a nonprofit organization that funds childhood cancer research.

The top fundraising team was the fourth-grade boys Smithtown Bulls lacrosse team, coached by Rob Trites, which collected more than $12,000 for the charity.

“This is our third year doing it as a team,” Trites said. “It’s a great event to get the kids together at — a nonsporting event so they can bond and give back, shave their heads in solidarity with children fighting disease.”

Smithtown Town councilman Tom Lohmann (R) and Robert Murphy (R), the town’s superintendent of highways, shaved their heads this year. Lohmann and Murphy were part of a team that raised more than $11,000 in memory of Matthew Gonzalez, who died May 21, 2009 from non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Evidence of Long Island crimes found after Florida resident was arrested for pornographic material

Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini (D) announced a former Commack resident and babysitter has been extradited from Florida and charged with 27 counts of alleged sex crimes against three young children who were in his care in Suffolk County between 2009 and 2014.

Suffolk County Police Department has been working in cooperation with Florida’s state attorney’s office since 2014 to bring Benjamin Fielman, 27, back to Long Island to face criminal charges for his alleged actions. Fielman was arraigned in First District Court in Central Islip March 9. Fielman is currently serving a 10-year sentence in Florida, where he is registered as a sexual predator, after pleading guilty to felony sex crimes involving children in June 2017.

Benjamin Fielman mugshot. Photo from SCPD

“These crimes are atrocious,” Sini said. .“This individual used the trust that was given to him by families in Suffolk County to carry out these depraved acts against children, our most vulnerable population.”

Fielman worked as am assistant teacher at Suffolk Y Jewish Community Center in Commack for four years (2008-2011) and as a babysitter, not related to any service or agency. During this time, the district attorney said allegedly Fielman sexually abused three unrelated boys ranging in age from 7 to 11 and was allegedly taking sexually explicit photos and videos.

Florida state authorities executed a search warrant on the suspect’s home after he was arrested in 2014, according to Sini, where they found evidence of Fielman allegedly engaging in sexual contact with minors. He was also in possession of child pornography. Authorities determined  the materials originated in Suffolk County. Florida authorities contacted the Suffolk County Police Department’s computer crimes unit, which investigated the origin of the images and videos through the files’ metadata and was able to identify the victims.

“We have serious concern that there are more victims,” District Attorney Sini said. “It’s very important that we not only take this individual off the streets so he cannot pose a danger to children moving forward, but also that we send a clear message that law enforcement from all jurisdictions is working together to bring people like this to justice.”

The district attorney’ office said it has been in touch with the community recreation center and they have been cooperating with the active investigation.

Fielman was indicted by a Suffolk County Grand Jury on May 22, 2015 on two counts of first-degree course of sexual conduct against a child; two counts of second-degree course of sexual conduct against a child; 11 counts of promoting a sexual performance by a child; 11 counts of using a child in a sexual performance; and endangering the welfare of a child. He was remanded without bail to the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverhead. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison.

The district attorney said the case remains an ongoing investigation under Suffolk’s Child Abuse and Domestic Violence Bureau. Anyone with information about the defendant or potential victims are encouraged to contact law enforcement at 631-852-6279. Anonymous tips can be made through Crime Stoppers by calling 1-800-220-TIPS (8477).

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