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Alex Petroski

President Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of education Betsy DeVos has been met with opposition from North Shore educators. Photo from Senate committee website

Many North Shore superintendents and educators are concerned with President Donald Trump’s (R) nominee for secretary of education: Betsy DeVos, chairman of The Windquest Group, a privately-held investment and management firm based in Michigan, to serve as secretary of education. According to her website, the Michigan resident has a history in politics spanning more than 35 years. She was elected as chairman of the Michigan Republican Party four times, and worked in a leadership capacity for campaigns, party organizations and political action committees, her website states.

DeVos went before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions for a confirmation hearing Jan. 17.

“Any programs and initiatives that attempt to weaken public education by diverting funds away from it … do not have my support.”

—Paul Casciano

“I share President-elect Trump’s view that it’s time to shift the debate from what the system thinks is best for kids to what moms and dads want, expect and deserve,” DeVos said during her opening remarks at the hearing. “Why, in 2017, are we still questioning parents’ ability to exercise educational choice for their children? I am a firm believer that parents should be empowered to choose the learning environment that’s best for their individual children. The vast majority of students in this country will continue to attend public schools. If confirmed, I will be a strong advocate for great public schools. But, if a school is troubled, or unsafe, or not a good fit for a child — perhaps they have a special need that is going unmet — we should support a parent’s right to enroll their child in a high-quality alternative.”

DeVos’ views on public education created a stir around the country, and superintendents from the North Shore and county as a whole joined the chorus of those skeptical about the direction she might take the country’s education system.

“I have devoted my entire adult life to public education and believe it is the bedrock of our democracy,” Port Jefferson school district Superintendent Paul Casciano said in an email. “Any programs and initiatives that attempt to weaken public education by diverting funds away from it or that offer alternatives that are not subjected to the same strict standards and scrutiny that public schools must live by, do not have my support.”

Kings Park Superintendent Tim Eagen echoed many of Casciano’s concerns.

“I find President Trump’s nomination for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, to be unacceptable,” he said in an email. “Education in this country is at an important crossroads. As an educational leader and parent of two public school students, it is my goal to provide our children with a globally competitive, rigorous, relevant and challenging education that will prepare them to be active, contributing members of society.”

“As an educational leader and parent of two public school students, it is my goal to provide our children with a globally competitive, rigorous, relevant and challenging education.”

—Tim Eagan

Eagen also has concerns about DeVos’ qualifications.

“I believe that Betsy DeVos is unqualified to run the U.S. Department of Education,” he said. “She is a businesswoman and politician without any experience in public service or public education. She does not have an education degree, has no teaching experience, has no experience working in a school environment, never attended public school or a state university, and did not send her own four children to public school.”

Middle Country Central School District  Superintendent Roberta Gerold stressed that she does not support the appointment of DeVos, stating that she believes all of DeVos’ actions to date evidence a lack of support for, and understanding of public education.

“I was disappointed with her answers during the hearing – she didn’t appear to do much, if any, homework,” Gerold said. “She couldn’t seem to, for example, understand or explain the difference between growth and proficiency — very basic concepts. And her answer to whether guns should be allowed in schools — please.”

The superintendent said, though, that she is most disappointed that DeVos would even be considered for the position.

“It seems clear to me that this is purely a political appointment, not an appointment that recognizes merit or values authentic education,” Gerold said. “John King — who I don’t believe was a great champion of public education, at least had credentials that deserved respect. The new nominee does not. It’s worrisome and disconcerting….and insulting to the public education system, K–12 and beyond.”

She said her teachers, several who are community residents, are preparing a petition that requests the board of education adopt of resolution in opposition to the appointment.

“I was disappointed with her answers during the hearing – she didn’t appear to do much, if any, homework.”

—Roberta Georld

“I believe that our board will be supportive of that request,” she said. “I know that our board president is in agreement with opposing the nomination.”

The Miller Place school district’s administration and board of education drafted and passed a resolution opposing DeVos’ appointment. Superintendent Marianne Cartisano addressed the appointment in an open letter on the district’s website.

“Our concerns are twofold,” she said. “The first reservation we have is regarding the candidate’s lack of first-hand experience as an educator or administrator within the public school system. Since the majority of the children in the United States are currently being educated within the public school system, we feel that this experience is very important for an effective Secretary of Education.”

Cartisano elaborated on her other issues with DeVos.

“Her record also shows a clear bias towards private, parochial and charter schools and the use of vouchers to attend these schools,” Cartisano said. “This bias leads us to our second overarching concern with Betsy DeVos as a candidate for Secretary of Education. The concern is that Betsy DeVos has been a strong advocate for the use of public funds to attend private schools through vouchers, and this would have a direct negative impact on our public school system’s fiscal stability if it is put into effect on a national level.”

The committee will vote to either approve or deny DeVos’ nomination Jan. 31.

Victoria Espinoza and Desirée Keegan contributed reporting.

The Port Jefferson Frigate became the center of a controversy over a pro-Donald Trump sign last weekend that read “In Trump we trust.” Photo by Courtney Biondo

A decades-old Port Jefferson Village candy and ice cream store became the subject of a heated political debate over the weekend, after the business owner hung a large sign reading “In Trump we trust” from the building’s façade in anticipation of President Donald Trump’s (R) inauguration Jan. 20.

The Port Jefferson Frigate, also called Roger’s Frigate, is owned by George Wallis and has been a staple in the Port Jeff community for generations. Wallis authorized for the banner to be hung at his business Jan. 20 as a sign of support for the incoming president on Inauguration Day, according to Roger Rutherford, the general manager of the business who also maintains the property. Rutherford, who has worked at the Frigate for 20 years, said in a phone interview that Wallis declined to comment on the banner, but authorized Rutherford to comment on his behalf.

After a weekend of expressions of support and opposition from the community by phone and in the store, according to Rutherford, the banner was no longer visible as of the morning of Jan. 23. Rutherford said Wallis had planned all along to remove the banner after the weekend, despite a statement by email from Barbara Sakovich, a representative from Village Mayor Margot Garant’s office, which said an “order to remedy” was sent to the business Jan. 20 because the banner was in violation of section 250-31D(2)(iv) of the village code. Rutherford also called responses to the banner from the community “overwhelmingly positive.”

Rutherford said he and Wallis didn’t believe the code prohibited the banner, and opposition to its positioning could be attributed to an effort to target Wallis based on his political beliefs.

“Throughout the election I can drive around this entire village and see signs for presidential candidates, senators, local government — and that’s completely okay,” he said. “I think it’s targeting Mr. Wallis for his political views. I think we have a little bit of a double standard here.”

Garant, who said the phone was “ringing off the hook,” with complaints at village hall over the course of the weekend, addressed the claim the violation was issued because of the political message of the sign.

“We wrote the violation based on our code,” she said in an interview. “We try and get anybody — resident, commercial business owner, commercial property owner — to comply with the code. Putting up a sign like that knowing that it’s not going to comply with the code, the village did its job. I stand behind the village for writing the violation based on the material, the size and the way the sign was hung.”

Garant said the sign was removed in a timely manner and no further action would be required.

Rutherford added he and Wallis hope Trump “could successfully move the country forward,” and that the Inauguration Day should have been a time for the country to come together towards reaching common goals.

“It was up there in a congratulatory way,” Rutherford said of the banner.

A Facebook page was set up over the weekend calling for the community to boycott the establishment, and as of Monday morning the page had been liked by 88 people. After reaching out to the creator of the page for a comment, the page was deleted. It is not clear who was responsible for creating it. Rutherford said he and Wallis had a busy weekend business-wise, so they didn’t have a chance to see any social media response to the banner, nor did he feel the business felt any effects from the calls for a boycott. Garant said she encouraged the creator of the page to take it down.

“We’re really not concerned about it at all,” Rutherford said of the possible impact the political statement might have on business.

Another page was created Jan. 22 in support of the business.

“This page is solely intended to support the PJ Frigate and their right to political freedom without fear of repercussions, which is an American right and freedom,” a post on the page said.

A sign in support of Trump also hung from the building in the days leading up to the election, and Rutherford said the response was similarly mixed at that time.

This version was updated with comments from Margot Garant Jan. 25.

While millions across the globe took part in the Women’s March on Washington and other sister marches Jan. 21, hundreds met on the corner of Route 347 and Route 112 in Port Jefferson Station to make their voices heard.

“The rhetoric of the past election cycle has insulted, demonized and threatened many of us — immigrants of all statuses, Muslims and those of diverse religious faiths, people who identify as LGBTQIA, Native people, Black and Brown people, people with disabilities, survivors of sexual assault — and our communities are hurting and scared,” a website established to organize the marches states in its mission.

Community members who attended the event from across the North Shore reiterated many of those concerns during the march in Port Jeff Station, which according to the site was the only affiliated sister march on Long Island.

“I wanted to say something today to make all of the anxiety, the anger and fear go away, but that’s not going to happen. It shouldn’t happen because times are rough and the current circumstances call for anxiety, anger and fear.”

—Kathy Lahey

“Getting out here in unity and letting our voices be heard is crucial,” Port Jefferson resident Kathy Lahey said over a megaphone to those in attendance. Lahey said she was responsible for organizing the sister march, getting the word out and getting it officially recognized as an affiliate on the website. “We are all in this together. Together we will fight for equality, for fairness and for justice. I wanted to say something today to make all of the anxiety, the anger and fear go away, but that’s not going to happen. It shouldn’t happen because times are rough and the current circumstances call for anxiety, anger and fear.”

Women, men and children of all ages, races and backgrounds were represented at the march. The March on Washington and all of those affiliated were set up intentionally to coincide with President Donald Trump’s (R) inauguration Jan. 20 as a means to combat what they view as his alienating rhetoric during the campaign, and since his election victory, as well as to voice opposition for several policies on his agenda and nominations for his cabinet positions. Health care, equal rights, demanding the release of the President’s tax returns and immigration policy were among the topics most frequently referenced by signs and chants by attendees.

President Trump addressed the worldwide marches through his personal Twitter account.

“Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy. Even if I don’t always agree, I recognize the rights of people to express their views,” he said Jan. 22, though he later added if all present had gone out and vote they may have been heard sooner.

Many in attendance said they weren’t sure what to expect when they decided to attend, but were blown away by the unity and solidarity they felt upon arriving.

“My initial reaction when I pulled up was I burst into tears because I’m sad that we have to be here, but in the end I’m left feeling very empowered because even though the road to progress is a jagged road, in the end love will always win,” Daniela McKee of Setauket said. McKee said she is a teacher, and brought her own kids with her to experience the event. “I think it’s important that they learn from a very early age that they have to fight for what they believe in and for their rights and equality.”

Joyce Edward of Jefferson Ferry, who is in her 90s, shared her reasons for marching.

“We’re going so far back, it’s sad,” she said. “I think it is important and I hope that maybe our congress people will pay attention. I don’t think Mr. Trump will. He pays attention to one person: himself.”

“My initial reaction when I pulled up was I burst into tears because I’m sad that we have to be here, but in the end I’m left feeling very empowered because even though the road to progress is a jagged road.”

—Daniela McKee

Edward added that her deep concern for where the country is headed for her children and grandchildren inspired her to get out and participate.

She questioned if 1st Congressional District U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who has been a vocal Trump supporter since he emerged as the likely Republican Presidential candidate, would be an advocate for those unhappy with the President’s beliefs and proposed policies.

“If he’s behind Trump then I’m not behind him,” Jeff Schroeder of Greenport also said of Zeldin. “It scares me that someone so far off from the ideologies of people I know is running our district.”

Zeldin addressed the march in an emailed statement through a spokeswoman.

“2017 presents new opportunities to improve our community, state and nation,” he said. “To move our country forward, unity amongst the American people is the most critical necessity. Ideological differences will always exist, but the pursuit of common ground must be the highest priority. In Congress, I have always been and remain willing to work with absolutely anyone to find common ground on anything wherever and whenever possible.”

New York State Sen. and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D) was among those marching in New York City.

“Thank you to all the New Yorkers, Americans and people in NY, Washington, and all over the world who laced up your shoes today,” he said in an email. “It was only the beginning.”

Several marchers said they were encouraged by the overwhelming support the large crowd provided for them.

“We just need to be heard — the frustration about what’s going on. I have a daughter. I have a wife … it can’t get worse in my mind.”

—Mitchell Riggs

“It’s so heartening that people realize that they can actually be involved in changing things in government,” Sherry Eckstein of Huntington said.

Allyson Matwey of Wading River expressed a similar sentiment.

“I did not know what to expect coming here today, and I’m just in awe that there’s men, women, children — all ages, all everything here today, and it’s amazing,” she said.

Mitchell Riggs of Middle Island attended the march with two of his children, while his wife attended the New York City march.

“We just need to be heard — the frustration about what’s going on,” he said. “I have a daughter. I have a wife … it can’t get worse in my mind.”

While addressing the crowd, Lahey stressed the importance of seeing the march as the beginning of a movement, and not a solitary event.

“President Obama also said at his farewell speech that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged and come together to demand it,” she said. “And here we are — hundreds, maybe thousands — standing together on a street corner in solidarity, a group of ordinary people getting involved, getting engaged, demanding that our servants do what we hired them to do. … Contact your representatives on a regular basis. … Let them know we are here, we are involved, we are engaged and we are not going away.”

An original cartoon by Comsewogue High School graduate and Port Jefferson Station native Christina Lettich.

United States citizens owe a debt of gratitude to first responders who put themselves in danger in the name of public safety on a daily basis. A national foundation took a small step toward repaying that debt for a 2016 Comsewogue High School graduate whose father and grandfather were first responders.

Christina Lettich of Port Jefferson Station is a recipient of a scholarship for family members of first responders. Photo from NLEAFCF

Christina Lettich is currently a freshman at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She grew up in Port Jefferson Station, where her family still lives. Her dad Michael Lettich was a member of the Suffolk County Police Department stationed in the 5th Precinct. In 2003, he was disabled in the line of duty. This month also marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Michael’s dad Thomas Lettich, and Christina’s grandfather. In 1992 he died in the line of duty while working as a New York City firefighter when Michael was just 20 years old. To honor her father’s and grandfather’s service, Lettich was one of 28 high school graduates in the nation to be awarded a scholarship from the National Law Enforcement and Firefighters Children’s Foundation in 2016. The scholarships are given out based on academic merit, financial need, community service and exceptional leadership.

“First responders have given so much to defend and protect us,” Al Kahn, NLEAFCF president and founder said in a statement. “How better to honor their commitment to all of us than to ensure that their children achieve their full potential. Helping to better pay for their college and complete their higher education is the least we can do to honor these law enforcement and firefighters’ families.”

Lettich expressed her gratitude for receiving the assistance to pay for her college education, and for the work people like her dad and grandfather do so selflessly.

“I have a great respect for civil servants,” Lettich said in an email. “It is not for everyone and not a job I think I could do. I like to make people laugh and smile.”

Lettich is an aspiring cartoonist and storyboard artist. She is studying fine arts at school and has had 60 of her own characters copyrighted to this point. Her dad recalled what it was like to hear she would receive the prestigious scholarship.

“I had known about the scholarship and asked Christina to apply for it,” he said in an email. “As she was preparing the application and asking me questions and found out more about my dad she realized how important it was to me. I was honored that she received the scholarship and made me very proud.”

“I have a great respect for civil servants. It is not for everyone and not a job I think I could do. I like to make people laugh and smile.”

— Christina Lettich

Michael Lettich said he and his wife Lisa knew from a young age Christina had talent as an artist. Lettich described herself as shy both growing up and presently, but the ability to express herself through her art, along with her time living in Manhattan and attending the School of Visual Arts has helped her break out of her shell.

“SVA is a very expensive school,” she said. “My parents never questioned if I would be able to go there. They would do anything to make it happen. I worked for Home Depot in my senior year and saved money. I am helping pay back some of my student loans and receiving this scholarship was another way that I could help my parents.”

Lettich was a member of the National Art Honor Society and drama club during high school. In her spare time she also volunteered for the Special Education Parent Teacher Association and at Studio E art school in Miller Place.

“We are proud to be a part of helping Christina achieve her academic goals,” Kahn said.

John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson is set to join Northwell Health. File photo from Mather Hospital

No one wants to be sick enough to require a hospital visit, but North Shore residents learned last month they live near three of the best facilities in the Long Island/New York City area if that day should come.

Data compiled by Medicare based on patient surveys conducted from April 2015 through March 2016 and released in December ranked John T. Mather Memorial Hospital and St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson, as well as Stony Brook University Hospital, among the top seven in overall rating, and the top nine in likelihood patients would recommend the hospital to a friend or family member.

A patient receives care at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson, one of the top hospitals in the Long Island/New York City area based on patient survey data. File photo from Mather Hospital

Overall patient satisfaction ratings were based on recently discharged patient responses to survey questions in 10 categories, including effectiveness of communication by both doctors and nurses, timeliness of receiving help, pain management, cleanliness and noise level at night, among others.

Mather finished behind just St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn of the 27 hospitals considered in the New York/Long Island area in their overall rating. St. Charles ranked sixth and Stony Brook seventh. Mather was also the second most likely hospital for a patient to recommend to a family member or friend, with St. Charles and Stony Brook coming in eighth and ninth places, respectively. St. Francis also topped that category.

Stu Vincent, a spokesperson for Mather, said administration is proud to be recognized for its quality.

“The driving force behind everything we do at Mather is our commitment to our patients, their families and the communities we serve,” he said. “We know people have many choices in health care and we continually strive to ensure that our hospital exceeds their expectations through our employees’ commitment to continuous quality and patient satisfaction improvement.”

A spokesman from St. Charles expressed a similar sentiment.

“At St. Charles, the quality of care that we provide to our patients is first and at the center of everything we do,” Jim O’Connor, executive vice president and chief administrative officer at St. Charles said in a statement. “That commitment to quality is evidenced by these wonderful patient satisfaction scores and the successful number of high level accreditations St. Charles received recently.”

Stony Brook hospital spokeswoman Melissa Weir emailed a statement on behalf of hospital administration regarding its rank among other area facilities.

“We are constantly looking for ways to improve, and are continuously developing new approaches to ensure that our patients have the best experience while they are in our care,” she said. “One of our goals is to achieve top decile performance with a focus on matters such as improving communication, reducing noise, addressing pain management and implementing nurse leader hourly rounding and hourly comfort checks.”

Mather’s ratings were at or above average for New York and nationwide in nearly every category as well as the likelihood to be recommended by a patient. St. Charles beat New York averages in nearly every category and was above the national average in likelihood to be recommended. Stony Brook was also above average compared to the rest of the area in most categories.

All three hospitals received their highest scores in communication by doctors and nurses, along with their ability to provide information to patients for effective recovery at home. All three hospitals were given their lowest ratings in noise levels at night and in patient’s understanding of care after leaving the hospital.

For a complete look at the ratings visit www.medicare.gov/hospitalcompare.

Port Jeff’s green roof at the high school provides environmental and educational benefits. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

A facilities administrator in the Port Jefferson School District is doing his part to reduce the district’s impact on the quality of the Long Island Sound’s water.

Finding innovative ways to improve and protect Long Island’s water is a priority for state and county governments, environmental groups, businesses dependent on marine life and concerned residents. Last year, Fred Koelbel, Port Jeff’s facilities administrator, was able to secure a grant funded through the state’s Environmental Protection Fund as a part of the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Water Quality Improvement Projects program.

The grant paid for the district to install a bed of vegetation on a 3,400 square foot portion of the high school’s roof to serve as a basin to catch and treat stormwater prior to discharging it into the village’s stormwater system, according to Aphrodite Montalvo, a spokeswoman for the DEC.

“It rains on this, the water filters through and is held in the growing medium,” Koelbel explained while looking over the dual-purposed roof, which will be used for middle school science lessons beginning in the spring in addition to its environmental benefits. “It’s a drop in a bucket, but it’s meant to be a demonstration project. It demonstrates to the kids what the potential is; it demonstrates to the community what the potential is if you did this on a larger scale.”

Koelbel said he frequently monitors grants made available by New York State, and after being denied for this particular project once, the district was approved to receive the funding in 2016. The total cost of the project was about $275,000, though the grant covered all but about $68,000. Koelbel added that the area of the building was in need of a new roof anyway, and it would have cost the district more than $68,000 to install a conventional roof.

“It’s a really great thing. This is the kind of stuff I like to do.”

— Fred Koelbel

“It was a win-win because it gave us all of the benefits of the green roof, plus saved us money on the installation,” he said. The previous roof was made of a material that reflected sunlight and caused a glare and higher temperatures in a wing of classrooms in the building’s middle school, which is adjoined to the high school. Koelbel said the district first installed air conditioners to alleviate the problem, and then put a reflective film over the windows, but the green roof provides much greater benefits in addition to fixing an existing problem.

“The Earl L. Vandermeulen High School green roof is an excellent example of New York State’s statewide investments in green infrastructure,” Montalvo said in an email. “The green roof will reduce the overall pollutant loading entering Port Jefferson Harbor, as well as educate students and the public on the benefits of green infrastructure.”

Port Jefferson is the only district on Long Island to install a green roof. Koelbel said some districts have reached out to him with questions about the project, though none have visited yet. He added he has plans to host a workshop in the near future for Port Jefferson Village roofing contractors and commercial property owners who might be in need of a new roof to advocate for the installation of more green roofs.

“For the next generation, this is something we do now,” Koelbel said. The district also has solar panels installed on some buildings, which are used to teach lessons about energy use. They also replaced many lighting fixtures with LED lighting in the past. Koelbel said he was proud of the example the district is setting for students about reducing environmental impact.

“When you’re doing public works type stuff, getting innovative sometimes is difficult, so the fact that we could set it up this way where it was a savings to the district over what we would have done if we just did what we had always done, and now we get to demonstrate the benefits to the students — it’s a real plus,” he said. “It’s a really great thing. This is the kind of stuff I like to do.”

Jill Gallant of the engineering company VHB explains Port Jefferson’s urban renewal project at a public hearing at Village Hall Jan. 3. Photo by Alex Petroski

Plans to bring new life to upper Port Jefferson are in effect, as residents and village officials weighed in on the proposed renewal project this week.

Revitalization of businesses and infrastructure in upper Port, the area of Main Street south of North Country Road and north of the Long Island Rail Road train tracks, has been on the mind of the village board of trustees for more than a year. The community had the chance to voice its opinion on the proposed urban renewal project at a public hearing Jan. 3, when a representative from VHB, an engineering and planning firm, presented the findings of a blight study and laid out the plan.

Port Jefferson Mayor Margot Garant shows attendees at a public hearing Sept. 26 plans for the revitalization of Port Jefferson Station. File photo by Alex Petroski

A blight study was ordered by the village in May 2016 in order to qualify for an urban renewal plan, which is required by New York State general municipal law. Based on the findings of the study, the board determined the area was appropriate for an urban renewal project. The village hopes to eliminate substandard conditions identified in the blight study, redevelop vacant and deteriorating properties, create new housing opportunities, improve public safety, and generate economic activity and support for retail and service establishments through development of new housing in the area. VHB recommends a mix of ground-floor retail and commercial uses and upper-floor living spaces as a way to address several concerns in the blight study.

The study found the upper Port area has a number of poor building and lot conditions, a cluster of vacant lots and storefronts, lots that don’t conform to zoning regulations, building code violations and public safety issues.

As a result of the blight study, if necessary the village can now impose eminent domain on property owners in an effort to promote growth and development, meaning the village government now has the right to take land from a property owner in exchange for compensation. Village Mayor Margot Garant has repeatedly said the board has no plans to use eminent domain currently, but called it “another tool in the toolbox,” adding she hopes to have full cooperation from owners in the area.

Several community members voiced concerns about a lack of affordable housing in the area as a result of the plan.

Barbara Sabatino, who owns Port Jeff Army Navy, a retail store in the blighted area and lives in Port Jefferson, said she is in favor of revitalizing the area, but acknowledged that redevelopment could push out hardworking families who can’t afford an increase in rent.

“Other than the people who rent a room out of their house — and there’s an awful lot of those in Port Jeff Station — I don’t see any safety net for those people,” she said. “If you want to clean up the area and make it more attractive, we need to change the mixture of tenants.”

“Just getting people interested in redeveloping uptown is no easy task.”

— Margot Garant

Garant responded to Sabatino’s concerns.

“I think it’s a careful balance between wanting to keep young families and senior citizens and people who want to afford to live in the village as a family unit or individually, and other situations where you have people who bring other people in to help them pay the rent and it’s an uncontrollable rental situation,” she said. Garant reiterated the village’s preference would be to have a private developer revitalize the area in partnership with property owners without requiring the use of eminent domain.

Village resident John Koehnlein also expressed concerns about the project and the affordability of living in Port Jefferson upon its completion.

“To make it work you have to have families in there and it has to be affordable,” he said. “You’re also going to displace a lot of the families that are there right now.”

Garant explained the difficult position the village is in with trying to revitalize the area while maintaining a level of affordability.

“We’re trying to partner with Stony Brook University, we’re trying to partner with a lot of different entities to get more interest in redeveloping uptown,” she said. “Just getting people interested in redeveloping uptown is no easy task.”

The plan will still require official board approval in the coming weeks to proceed.

Rob Gitto and his son Ryan ride The Gitto Group’s float during Port Jefferson Village’s 2016 Santa Parade. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

A prominent Port Jefferson-based real estate development company opened a 38-unit apartment building in upper Port Jefferson earlier in 2016, but the father-son team behind the project is about much more than turning a profit.

Port Jefferson native Tony Gitto, who now lives in Belle Terre, and his son Rob have been in the business of developing communities together since 2002, when Rob joined the family business.

Their apartment building on Texaco Avenue, which opened in July in upper Port, is not only a business venture for Rail Realty LLC, a division of The Gitto Group, but also a major step in a villagewide effort to revitalize uptown and turn it into a suitable gateway for Port Jefferson’s downtown, waterfront community.

For their impact on the Port Jefferson community and dedication to making it a great place in which to live, Times Beacon Record News Media names The Gitto Group as People of the Year for 2016.

Rob Gitto of The Gitto Group. Photo from Gitto

When the company decided to build The Hills at Port Jefferson on Texaco Avenue, the plan was to develop in two stages because they weren’t sure if there would be enough demand to fill the units. A month ahead of the designated opening of the first phase, which housed 38 units, a waiting list already existed for phase two. Thirty-six more apartments will be filled in the summer of 2017 when the building is estimated to be ready.

“I think they took a lot of risk to put the shovel in the ground,” Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant said in an interview. “It’s a huge undertaking to do a project like that.” Garant actually grew up across the street from the Gittos.

Rob Gitto said the group saw an opportunity to try to improve a part of the community that needed attention. Garant said the village is actively seeking state and county grants to aid in the development of Port Jeff, and 74 housing units could have a massive impact in achieving that mission.

“Our whole goal with re-branding upper Port was making sure when you came to the [train] tracks, you have that same sort of gateway that you get down the hill,” Garant said. “You can’t do it by yourself. You need that private sector person to be willing to make the investment and then you as a municipal government, you need to be there to support them if it’s the right project. I think a lot of times ‘developer’ just gets such a negative connotation. We’re building our future.”

Garant said she hopes the influx of residents will have a large impact on businesses in the village.

“Tonight is going to be a cold and quiet night in the village — these merchants still have rents to pay,” she said.

Rob Gitto, who has since moved to Poquott, acknowledged that lifting up a community where he and his family grew up is an added bonus to business success.

“We’re a business and we’re looking to make a profit, but at the same time we’re hoping it jump-starts revitalization up there,” he said. “A lot of our tenants go to [PJ Lobster House] and use the dry cleaner. Hopefully [the businesses] are feeling the effect of people living up there.”

The Hills at Port Jefferson opened in upper Port in July. Photo from Rob Gitto

The elder Gitto, who remains involved with the business, reiterated his son’s sentiments regarding the balance between business success and community service that the group has achieved.

“I believe that the village has the potential to be one of the finest communities on Long Island with all that it has to offer residents, visitors and businesses,” he said in an email. “The Hills development was an appealing option for The Gitto Group as it provided an opportunity to improve the uptown area, and provide facilities for young people to stay in the community and be the future of the community. In addition, the development was a great economic opportunity for our company.”

Barbara Ransome, the Greater Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce director of operations, said she appreciates the Gittos for their impact on the village’s business world, but their love of landscaping and dedication to beautifying their properties and other village properties is part of what makes them so special to the community. Rob Gitto said they also contribute donations throughout the year to the village and local charities.

“The family is just first class,” Ransome said in an interview. “It’s not just a flash. It’s consistent. They’ve been very generous to this community and they’re a nice family.”

Ransome said their properties, like the CVS on Main Street near Barnum Avenue, are stunning in the springtime after thousands of flowers are planted.

Garant called the father-and-son team “perfect gentlemen,” and recognized them for embracing Port Jeff’s slogan and their efforts to make it come true. It encourages visitors to stop by the destination village “for a day, or for a lifetime.”

“The only way it’s going to work [in upper Port] is if everybody does their part,” Rob Gitto said. “Hopefully we can make it a better location for people to come visit and live. We don’t want people to just drive through uptown anymore.”

Keith Buehler is hoisted in the air by a Port Jefferson football player after a game in 2014. FIle photo by Bill Landon

By Alex Petroski

In a day and age when heading down the wrong path can happen easily, Port Jefferson students have a counselor, coach, role model and friend who makes drifting much tougher.

Keith Buehler is in the midst of his 20th year in the Port Jefferson School District, where he has served as a varsity coach, an assistant coach and Middle School guidance counselor. He has children of his own but refers to the countless students he has interacted with during his time in the district as part of his family, too.

The feeling is mutual.

For his selfless service to the Port Jefferson School District and relentless dedication to improving the lives of students, Times Beacon Record News Media names Buehler a Person of the Year for 2016.

The Rocky Point resident said his secret to earning the trust of so many kids has been to be there for them at a young age, and that approach has allowed him to keep a close relationship with them beyond middle school years. The counselor said he spends time trying to learn a little something about every student as a way to establish a bond. Buehler said after students move on to Port Jefferson high school, they often come back to visit and seek additional guidance.

Keith Buehler is hoisted in the air by a Port Jefferson football player after a game in 2014. FIle photo by Bill Landon

“I think that Keith has kind of established himself in Port Jeff as a go-to person for the kids,” said Jesse Rosen, Buehler’s colleague and friend. Rosen, who coaches varsity baseball in addition to teaching global history at the high school, needed some help coaching the team last season. Buehler stepped up despite previously retiring from coaching to be able to spend more time with his own kids.

He has become famous for stepping up to the plate and filling multiple roles when called upon for the district.

“I’m ready to give it up, but it’s hard when the kids keep telling you to come back,” Buehler said, referring to the numerous times he’s thought it was time to step away from coaching, only to be pulled back for one reason or another. For the time being, he’s still at the helm for the varsity boys’ basketball team and is an assistant on the varsity football team. In his two decades at Port Jefferson, he coached middle school football and baseball and middle school track and field.

Success in the world of athletics is measured in wins and losses in most cases, but Buehler isn’t like most coaches. He said one year the varsity basketball team was 0-18, and it was one of the most enjoyable seasons he’d ever had. That’s not to say Buehler hasn’t been successful on the scoreboard as well. He has been a part of four Suffolk County championship-winning basketball teams.

The district’s former athletic director Deb Ferry, who was with the district for nine years, remembered her time alongside Buehler fondly.

“Keith is one of the finest assets to the Port Jefferson School District,” Ferry said in an email. “Keith has time and time again been there for all of the students and athletes. During my tenure there at Port Jefferson we always referred to Keith as the assistant athletic director. He truly did know the ins and outs of the athletic program there.”

Buehler has another unofficial title that he picked out for himself. He said he feels like the “mini mayor of Port Jefferson.”

Being the go-to guy for most problems, Buehler found himself helping others cope with some pretty substantial problems and tragedies.

Max Golub, who graduated from the district in 2012, lost his brother in 2001, when he was just 8 years old. His brother had played football for Buehler.

Keith Buehler rides a Jet Ski during a family vacation. Photo from Keith Buehler

“He was pretty vital in my healing process,” Golub said, adding that on certain occasions Buehler would take him out of classes when he wasn’t feeling great and helped him stay out of trouble.

Golub called Buehler his “protector.” He added that although Buehler wasn’t biologically a member of the family, he became like a second father.

It would seem Buehler’s plate is full enough with his own children. His son Hunter is a freshman at Stony Brook University, daughter Asha is a junior at Port Jefferson high school and his 8-year-old son Kougar and 9-year-old daughter Cessarina, from a second marriage, are currently in the Rocky Point school district. Still, Port Jefferson students who know Buehler said he’s always available in times of need.

Buehler recalled a story that has stuck with him during his tenure in the district. One of his students had asked to take him to a baseball game, when that student’s father said he could bring a friend. Confused by his son asking to bring along his guidance counselor, the father asked if he would prefer to bring one of his peers. The boy told his father that Buehler was his best friend and was who he wanted to take. So he did. Buehler said he remains close with the father and son.

“I try to be a true role model for the kids,” Buehler said. “I try to do the best I can to show them how to do the right thing.”

The spelling of Max Golub’s name was corrected in this version Jan. 3.

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