By Susan Risoli

What could have been a highway nobody wanted became a nature trail everyone loves. The nearly-3.5-mile Setauket to Port Jefferson Station Greenway Trail is maintained by hometown people, with a little help from members of local and state governments.

Charles McAteer of Friends of the Greenway helps with a clean up. File photo by Alex Petroski

The volunteer organization Friends of the Greenway, and civic groups that support its work, are Times Beacon Record News Media’s People of the Year for the attention paid to a place enjoyed by many.

Community activism for the trail started in the 1980s, with a task force formed by state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket). The group wanted to stop the proposed construction of a four-lane Route 25A bypass highway, on New York State Department of Transportation land stretching from East Setauket to Port Jefferson Station. Englebright secured $2.1 million in state funds for design and construction of a greenway. The first section of the trail opened in 2009, and the project was completed with $5 million in federal transportation funds obtained by U.S. Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton).

Friends of the Greenway, a group affiliated with the Three Village Community Trust, grew out of the concern of those who wanted to watch over and improve the trail. Chairman Charlie McAteer said that through the friends’ trail stewardship program, people can “adopt” a section of the greenway. By taking ownership, volunteers agree to walk the path, removing litter and debris.

Stewards prune and mow vegetation, and supervise cleanups in their section. Any problems the trail stewards can’t resolve on their own — a fallen tree or broken lights — are referred to the community trust, to the Town of Brookhaven or to the DOT.

“Ultimately, government can only do so much,” McAteer said. “You always need people looking after things and helping maintain. You need those eyes and ears.”

Englebright said that just as the Setauket-Port Jefferson Station greenway connects communities, the Friends of the Greenway is the group that works to bring people together and engages them.

“Through scheduled cleanups and community programing, the Friends of the Greenway work step-by-step to encourage a culture of caring and connection that results in making the greenway a better place,” he said. “The friends should also be applauded for bringing local Scout troops into the mix, through volunteer days and being a prime location for Eagle Scout community service projects.”

Herb Mones, a member of the Three Village Community Trust’s board, said at first, some didn’t understand what a greenway could bring to their lives.

“There are many greenways around the country, but not many in Suffolk County,” he said, adding he feels that once the trail became a reality people embraced it. “A lot of people use it every single day because now they can see, feel and touch it.”

Trail steward Susan Colatosti keeps a close eye on the trail from her own property bordering the greenway. If she sees a sign knocked down or garbage cans overflowing, she reports the issue. When she sees litter clutter on the landscape while walking, she picks it up. Colatosti and other volunteers planted daffodils along the trail.

Eagle Scout Nick Brigantino (in uniform), from Boy Scout Troop 229 in Selden, leads an effort to install a bat house. Photo by Nick Koridis

“The trail has preserved this open space for posterity,” Colatosti said. “It’s a wonderful way for people to walk safely and see their neighbors.”

Boy Scout unit commissioner Nick Koridis spreads the word to local Cub Scout and Boy Scout troops, who have held car washes to raise funds to buy recycled plastic lumber for benches along the trail, and have donated labor to install the benches. Other projects have included installing mile markers, birdhouses, bat houses and street crossing signs. Younger kids clean up the trail with their parents.

“It’s all for the community,” Koridis said. “For the Scouts themselves, taking care of the greenway lets them have fun outdoors while learning the skills of working together.”

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) also has been involved with the trail since its beginning.

The greenway is “sustained by the labor of devoted volunteers, and because of their care the trail binds the hearts of two communities,” Hahn said. “The partnership of government and community has become the foundation of a recreational space that not only unites these hamlets to one another, but also to all people from across Long Island.”

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