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Mark Baisch

The Rocky Point site slated for a residential community for seniors. Photo by Kyle Barr

As drivers hurtle down Route 25A from either direction into the hamlet of Rocky Point they are met by a crossroads. If they keep straight, they will link up with North Country Road and head into the Rocky Point business district lined with shops, restaurants and services. If drivers take a right and continue along Route 25A, they circle around North Country Road, bypassing all those businesses.

It’s been the story since the bypass was constructed in the late 1990s, but it’s just one of the challenges facing business owners in Rocky Point’s commercial district as they wait to see much discussed revitalization.

“The bypass really put downtown on life support,” Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) said. “You can’t just put a bubble around Rocky Point — you can’t just freeze it in time — but I say you have to have a healthy respect for the history of it and plan your development sensitively.”

Councilwoman Jane Bonner and developer Mark Baisch stand near a Rocky Point site slated for a residential community for seniors. Photo by Kyle Barr

Revitalization has been planned for years and small steps taken, but much is left to be desired by those yearning for a vibrant downtown along North Country Road and Broadway, hoping to return back to the prosperity of the mid-20th century, when Rocky Point’s population experienced a boom and new businesses flourished. While new restaurants like the Broadway Market have created a sensation, the memory of stores that have closed down also looms, such as when in April 2017 McCarrick’s Dairy, an utter staple in the community that had been open for 71 years, closed its doors.

While Rocky Point is the only hamlet between Riverhead and Port Jefferson that has a semblance of a real downtown, its small size and limited space have led to unique revitalization issues. As also arises whenever the term revitalization gets thrown around, retaining the historical aspect of the downtown while growing it with a mind toward the future is a delicate balance.

In 2007 the Town of Brookhaven paid Vision Long Island, a nonprofit that advocates for transportation-oriented development, for a charrette about Rocky Point revitalization that was released in 2008. The plan called for a combination of retail, business and residential all in one place, much like what has been attempted in Patchogue, Farmingdale and dozens of other pockets of Long Island. That plan was rejected by the community, which felt it would destroy the small town feel of the area.

“[The Vision plan] was much too aggressive in pro-business and development,” president of the Rocky Point Civic Association Charles Bevington said. “I’m in favor of slow-growth opportunities for small businesses and restaurants. You know you can’t come in and dictate development. We have too many problems with water. We have too many problems with nitrogen in our systems.”

Eric Alexander, the director of Vision Long Island, said his organization’s plans hinged upon sewers, which the community rejected.

“They wanted goods, services and restaurants, something walkable and quaint but that was as far as they wanted it,” Alexander said. “That’s fine, but the numbers didn’t work without the sewers. Revitalization has gone in a few different directions since we left them.”

Some residents said sewers would only be a hindrance to the community’s growth.

“You can’t get the density on Broadway to support the cost of sewers,” said Linda Albo, the owner of Albo Real Estate on North Country Road. “Downtown is just not the right place for sewers.”

In 2012 and 2013 Bonner and Brookhaven secured a $1.2 million grant for road and traffic light improvements along North Country Road. It included setting up new light fixtures and fixing the curb cut along the main road’s intersection with Broadway. Yet real revitalization that would bring business flooding downtown is still a dream, even as some think its advent is just on the horizon.

Mark Baisch, the owner of development company Landmark Properties Ltd., is the latest to attempt to reinvigorate downtown Rocky Point. Its On the Common project promises 40 one-bedroom apartments for seniors inside 10 buildings located along Prince Road and King Road, just north of North Country Road. Also included are plans for a large green space along Prince Road set up for community activities such as the Sunday Rocky Point Farmers Market and a new VFW Memorial Museum right in front of the Brookhaven municipal parking lot. A quarter of the apartments will be reserved for veterans, Baisch said.

The apartments hold a distinction from other residential projects meant to stimulate downtowns. While projects in Patchogue and Ronkonkoma have tried to get young people living in space that is part residential and retail, Baisch said he hopes to do the same with the 55-and-older community.

“There is a huge need for it,” Baisch said. “There’s so many 90- to 100-year-old people living up in the hills of Rocky Point, and nobody even knows they exist. They sit in their house with the rooms closed up not knowing if they’re going to have a way to get out of the next snowstorm. It’s not a great way to live out your twilight years.”

Businesses on North Country Road have pointed to the construction of the Route 25A bypass as a detriment to growth. Image from Google Maps

Some residents are looking forward to the On the Common project with the possibility of leaving home ownership behind.

“I think it is a great idea,” Rocky Point resident Claire Manno said. “I am a senior citizen and have lived in Rocky Point for 20 years. I will have to sell my house eventually because we can’t afford it for much longer. I’d like to stay in the area if possible.”

Other community members questioned why there will only be one-bedroom apartments available.

“I became disabled two years ago,” Rocky Point resident Christine Cohn Balint said. “I have a three-story home and I cannot manage stairs. So we will be selling. But this ‘community’ will not be built for me — they won’t be ready. One bedroom only? They should offer two bedrooms also, if so I’d consider it.”

Baisch said he hopes to start construction around October.

There is hope in the community that good things are coming. The Broadway Market, which opened in March, has made a big splash. Some also looking point to plans in 2019 to start construction on the Rails to Trails project, which will create a biking and hiking path along the old rights-of-way and train rails that run parallel to the North Shore. That path will run north of North Country Road and give people walking and bike access directly into the heart of the commercial district.

“The Rails to Trails is going to have the biggest positive impact,” Bevington said. “It’s going to be along the line of walking and bicycling, and we have two bicycle shops in town that can be aided by the project. That’s really something.”

Alexander said he believes while there wasn’t community support for his organization’s plans, these upcoming projects could result in something good for the area.

“The community has to trust the change, any change that occurs,” Alexander said. “There are a lot of good people over there working in good faith — people who care deeply about the community — that’s what’s most important.”

Blueprints would mirror design for similar housing in Rocky Point

Mark Baisch discusses his proposal for senior homes in Miller Place at the July 10 Sound Beach Civic Association meeting. Photo by Ginny Drews

Low-cost, community-based apartments for seniors may be heading to Miller Place.

During a July 10 Sound Beach Civic Association meeting, Mark Baisch, owner of the Rocky Point-based development company Landmark Properties Ltd., proposed 44 600-square-feet, one bedroom apartment units be built as a cul-de-sac on the northwest corner of Sylvan Avenue and Echo Avenue.

The plan is for the senior-exclusive apartment complex, temporarily named Echo Run, to be developed on half of the heavily wooded 3.7-acre site, while the other half would remain in its natural state.

According to Baisch’s proposal, all four units in each of the 11 buildings would have a high Energy Star rating with geothermal heating and cooling systems. Rent is expected to be between $1,000 and $1,400 per month.

It’s kind of lifting a weight off their shoulders because now, this whole homeownership responsibility at 75 years old goes away.”

— Mark Baisch

He said the project aims to provide older residents a new, much-needed living option.

“There’s a huge demand for reasonably priced apartments for seniors who have lived here for a significant portion of their life because for them, there is no place to go,” Baisch said of his plan, which targets senior citizens burdened with paying high taxes to live in homes or basement apartments they might not need anymore. “It’s kind of lifting a weight off their shoulders because now, this whole homeownership responsibility at 75 years old goes away and you end up living the rest of your life without that worry.”

He said senior citizens would not have to worry about upkeep and maintenance around their yard and home while in the complex.

“Here’s what would be a bunch of accessory apartments all in an area where everybody’s in the same boat — they can all support one another and that’s the way it really should be,” Baisch said. “The psychological benefit alone probably exceeds the housing benefit.”

Sound Beach Civic Association President Bea Ruberto, 70, said she’s ready to sign up.

“I can envision myself living there,” Ruberto said. “As baby boomers, we’re getting to the age where we want to live somewhere like that and we have very few rental apartments in the area. More senior rental is definitely needed.”

Ruberto said the proposal was well-received by other civic board members, especially Baisch’s idea to give each building in the complex a different color and design so it better fits the look of the community.

“I can envision myself living there. … More senior rental is definitely needed.”

— Bea Ruberto

The Miller Place proposal mirrors Baisch’s On the Commons apartment complex in development in Rocky Point on the site of the old Thurber Lumber Co. Inc. He said Miller Place and Sound Beach residents requested to be placed on the Rocky Point housing list, prompting him to add a second location.

Like On the Commons, Echo Run plans to reserve a significant percentage of its homes for United States military veterans. The minimum percentage for veterans in Miller Place would be 10 percent, Baisch said, but that number may be adjusted pending an upcoming meeting with Joe Cognitore, commander of Rocky Point Veteran of Foreign Wars Post 6249.

Mary McDonald, 66, who has lived in Miller Place for 32 years, is pleased the proposal is pushing for residential development as opposed to commercial.

“Affordable housing for seniors is something that’s going to be needed all through Suffolk County, because taxes are so high seniors have to leave,” she said. “I’m getting to that point myself.”

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) said she has already received positive feedback from seniors.

“Several residents have reached out to me and are very excited for it,” Bonner said.

Baisch has discussed the estimated two-year plan with the president of the Miller Place Civic Association and members of Brookhaven Town, and will be meeting with the Mount Sinai Civic Association in the near future.

“I know this will be a homerun in Miller Place,” he said, “just like it’s a homerun in Rocky Point.”

Cordwood Landing County Park is located on Landing Avenue in Miller Place. File photo by Erika Karp

It’s a purchase that’s been six years in the making, but now, Miller Place can make room for more open space.

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) announced last week that the owner of a 5.4-acre parcel adjacent to the 64.4-acre Cordwood Landing County Park has accepted Suffolk County’s most recent offer to acquire the property for open space preservation.

Previously, the wooded piece of land was slated for residential development. Anker had submitted three separate resolutions in 2011, 2014 and 2016 for the county to appraise the parcel with hopes of expanding the adjacent county parkland. While there are still several steps in the approval process, the legislator will continue to push the acquisition forward.

“I will continue to do everything in my power to preserve this environmentally sensitive parcel,” she said. “Residential development on this property would negatively affect the character of the Miller Place historic district and infringe on the beauty of Cordwood Landing County Park.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said acquiring the land is a remarkable achievement for the county and its residents.

“Residential development on this property would negatively affect the character of the Miller Place historic district and infringe on the beauty of Cordwood Landing County Park.”

— Sarah Anker

“Legislator Anker has been an incredible advocate for the preservation of the open space around Cordwood Landing County Park, and this acquisition speaks volumes to the quality of leadership we strive for in our region,” he said. “Land preservation allows us to protect our environment, and most of all, improve the water quality in the region. I look forward to continue working with our local leaders to make Suffolk County a great place for all our residents.”

The county is currently in the process of obtaining an environmental site assessment survey. The Suffolk County Planning Department and the Council on Environmental Quality will then review the assessment to ensure the site is environmentally sound, in order to move forward with the acquisition. Following review and pending approval by the council, Anker will put forth a resolution to purchase the property. The purchasing resolution will be reviewed by the Environment, Planning and Agriculture Committee, and if approved by the committee, the resolution will be voted on by the legislature.

Cordwood Landing County Park is in the heart of the Miller Place historic district and is an important parcel of open space for the local community. It offers extensive hiking trails and access to the Long Island Sound, and the local community, including the Miller Place Civic Association, has been vocal in support for the acquisition.

“The Miller Place Civic Association is very pleased to see the preservation efforts of this property located between our historic district and the nature preserve is moving forward,” Miller Place Civic Association president Woody Brown said.

He added he’s grateful that the owner, developer Mark Baisch, who owns Landmark Properties in Rocky Point, was willing to let the county purchase and preserve the parcel. He also thanked local officials for their involvement.

“We owe a big thank you to Legislator Sarah Anker, who stood with the community throughout the entire process and continued to work diligently to save this precious parcel in its natural state,” he said. “Also, we wish to thank the Town of Brookhaven, Councilwoman Jane Bonner and Supervisor Ed Romaine for all their support and willingness to partner with the county to purchase the property.”

Anker said she is really just happy to have the community behind her.

“I would like to thank the local community for their support,” she said. “I am confident that I will be able to work with my peers to bring this acquisition to fruition.”

Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore and developer and owner of Landmark Properties in Rocky Point Mark Baisch team up to build the homes for returning veterans. File photos

By Desirée Keegan

Receiving keys can be a magical moment for anyone, but for Joe Cognitore and Mark Baisch, they’re more excited about handing them over.

The Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 commander and the developer and owner of Landmark Properties, respectively, have been building and giving homes to veterans for the last four years. They’ve created 11 homes so far, and this year, the duo amped up the intensity to build three homes, with a fourth in the works.

For their work in the community and for dedicating their time and efforts to honoring and helping those who served our country, Cognitore and Baisch are Times Beacon Record News Media’s People of the Year for 2016.

“It’s bittersweet,” Cognitore said. “There’s many candidates that we come across and every one of them deserves the home. Just to hear their stories is amazing.”

Veteran Deborah Bonacasa receives keys from Mark Baisch, developer and owner of Landmark Properties in Rocky Point, to her new home in Sound Beach. File photo by Desirée Keegan

Cognitore first met Baisch at a fundraiser Brookhaven Town Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro (R) was hosting. Not knowing anyone at the event, the two found themselves sitting at the same table, and Cognitore began talking about the possibility of building a home for a disabled veteran.

“I thought it’d be one and done,” Baisch said, laughing, while thinking about the first home. “I never thought it would get to this level, but what we’re able to do for these families is so good that it would be hard for me to think about not doing this.”

The two recently unveiled the 11th home for returning veterans to the Cote family, who now own a home in Miller Place. The Bonacasas and Johnsons also received homes this year.

“I’m at a loss with words for everything they did for me and my family,” Deborah Bonacasa said. She is an Air Force veteran whose husband, Staff Sgt. Louis Bonacasa from Coram, died after a suicide bomber detonated himself outside Bagram Airfield in northwest Afghanistan. “They’re professional and thoughtful. I think it’s great what they’re doing for veterans and recognizing and advocating and stepping up to do things for those who do so much for our country. This house is, and they are, a constant reminder that there are great people still out there willing to help people.”

Rocky Point social studies teacher Rich Acritelli said no one cares more about veterans — and the entire hamlet — than Cognitore.

“He’s always got the community at his heart,” he said. “He personifies everything that a citizen should be, in terms of national and local service, between being in the military and always working for the betterment of his community.”

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) was proud to see how the two stepped up for the Cote family, who were kicked out of their home when the landlord let the Sound Beach property fall into foreclosure. The family has also struggled with illness. Mother Renée Cote has acute intermittent porphyria, a rare and painful metabolic disorder that requires expensive biweekly treatments, which she has undergone for 14 years at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson. Her 7-year-old son, Zachary, was diagnosed with Grade 4 medulloblastoma, brain cancer, in June 2014, and endured 42 rounds of radiation and nine months of intense chemotherapy, until he was also diagnosed with acute intermittent porphyria.

Mark Baisch, at left sitting at table, has new homeowner Deborah Bonacasa, right, sign papers for her new home made possible by himself and VFW Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore, standing on right. File photo from VFW Post 6249

“They are literally warriors to those that need help,” Anker said. “They get out there, they understand the struggles and they’re there to help, and that’s what’s so important. When Mark heard about Zachary Cote’s situation, he came to the rescue. Talk about superheroes, they are our local superheroes.”

Cote’s husband Glen was a U.S. Army combat medic in the Gulf War, before coming home and suffering an on-the-job injury that disabled him.

“Anyone that met them couldn’t believe what a great family,” Cognitore said. “Especially Zachary, what a little gentleman.”

But Renée Cote said she can’t believe what a great group Cognitore, Baisch and the rest of the developers and donators are.

“I could sit there and write a million thank you cards, and to me, it would not be enough for what they’re doing,” she said. “And I don’t even think they realize what they’re doing. To first serve our country, and then to give back — and I mean give back in a huge way — it’s good to be surrounded by people like that. They’re angels walking the Earth.”

Baisch said his contractors and the community showed more support for the Cotes’ new home in Miller Place than on any other house. There were over 30 volunteers, some of whom have been helping Baisch since the first home. Many of them donate windows, garage doors, bathtubs and furniture. Local supermarkets and civic associations also give gift cards to help the new family acclimate to the area.

“They just continue to give and give and give every time we do one of these homes, and they never let me down,” Baisch said of his contractors. “It’s really the only way these homes could come together. We’re not a charity; we consider these homes a hand up, not a hand out. They do the best they can and it’s amazing how much they keep giving. It shocks me after 11 houses that they’re like ‘Mark, let’s do more.’”

Cognitore said he enjoys creating a community of veterans.

“Once they get into these homes, they’re a great neighbor, a great citizen, they keep up their homes, they pay their taxes, so everything works out,” he said. “It’s a win for everybody.”

The veterans appreciate that as well.

The Cote family’s new home in Miller Place as part of the local homes for returning veterans program. File photo by Kevin Redding

“It makes me feel at home knowing there are veterans out there like me,” Bonacasa said. “If we ever needed each other, we’re right there.”

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) said she’s thankful that most of the homes have been built in her district.

“It’s very heartwarming,” she said of the welcome-home ceremonies. “It’s impossible to not get choked up. Especially the most recent one with the Cote family — they’ve had some significant challenges. They were struggling, and Joe and Mark saved them.”

Baisch said that the real tragedy of it all is the fact that without his help, the families wouldn’t be able to remain on Long Island.

“They had no real chance of having a family here and living here if it weren’t for these homes, so that’s the all-encompassing enjoyment out of it,” he said. “These people would have been long gone, and they’re not the types of people we’d like to see leave Long Island. They served their country and they’re Long Islanders, each and every one of them. For them to have to leave because they can’t afford to live here, there’s something wrong with that.”

Bonner said what the “dynamic duo” does shows their true character.

“Mark is very altruistic, and he’s never looking for a pat on the back about it, he just feels passionately about it and does it because he thinks it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “And Joe is a tremendous advocate for veterans and a true Patriot. Their hearts are bigger than their wallets. It’s more about doing the right thing than it is about making money.”

Baisch said as long as Landmark Properties is around, he’ll continue to do something like this.

“It’s one of the best feelings of my life,” Baisch said. “I can’t explain it. I can’t come up with words enough to tell how wonderful it feels. The thought of not continuing doing this doesn’t even enter my mind.”

Renée, Zachary and Glen Cote are the 11th family to receive a home from Joe Cognitore and Mark Baisch through their veteran program. Photo by Kevin Redding

The Cotes are home for the holidays.

On Dec. 14, the owners of the 11th home for returning veterans, Glen and Renée Cote, received the keys to their new home, just in time for 7-year-old Zachary Cote to enjoy his first Christmas in Miller Place.

The house would not have been made possible if it wasn’t for Rocky Point VFW Post 6429 Commander Joe Cognitore and developer and owner of Landmark Properties Mark Baisch.

The Cote family moved into their new home in Miller Place last week. Photo by Kevin Redding

The Cote family was chosen after Baisch heard Zachary was diagnosed with Grade 4 medulloblastoma, brain cancer, in June 2014, and endured 42 rounds of radiation and nine months of intense chemotherapy, until he was diagnosed with acute intermittent porphyria. His mother suffers from the same rare and painful metabolic disorder that requires expensive biweekly treatments, which she has undergone for 14 years at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital.

If that wasn’t enough, Zachary’s father, who was a U.S. Army combat medic from 1988 to 1992 and specialized in deployment training and immunization for a bulk of army medics in the Gulf War, suffered an on-the-job injury that disabled him.

The family had lived in a home in Sound Beach, until March, when the Cotes were told they were being evicted because the landlord had let the home fall into foreclosure.

The goal was to get the Cotes into the home on Helme Avenue before Christmas.

“To make this happen in the four months that we had is pretty monumental,” Baisch said before handing over the keys. “This house is complete. It isn’t like we have to come back and still do some stuff. The flooring is finished, everything’s done, it’s painted. This house is ready for them to move in. In fact, I intend for the Cotes to sleep here tonight.”

The family did sleep there that night and have been enjoying their new home. Especially Zachary, who was already making use of the small crawl space under the stairway in the basement. He said he’ll turn it into a play room for his new friends.

“It seems so surreal. Until the movers got there this morning, it was just like ‘they’re actually here and they’re putting our stuff in the truck.’ It’s such a blessing [and] I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
—Glen Cote

“It’s an incredible feeling; it’s overwhelming to know that this day is here upon us,” Glen Cote said during move-in day. “It seems so surreal. Until the movers got there this morning, it was just like ‘they’re actually here and they’re putting our stuff in the truck.’ It’s such a blessing [and] I couldn’t ask for anything better.”

The family is excited to celebrate its first holidays in the new home, but Zachary’s parents are even more thankful for the fact that their son will be able to remain in the school district that they said has taken such great care of him.

To be able to do that for the Cotes warms Baisch’s heart.

“What we’re able to do for these families is so good that it would be hard for me to think about not doing this,” he said. “Nobody feels happier than me right now. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

At the end of the celebration, Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) just had one final thing to tell the family as it walked through its new front door: Welcome home.

Kevin Redding contributed reporting

Renée, Glen and Zachary Cote at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Rockt Point Post 6249 ninth annual gold outing on Sept. 26. Photo by Desirée Keegan

By Desirée Keegan

The Cote family is overwhelmed.

After Glen, a Gulf War veteran, and Renée found out that they would be receiving a new home for veterans in Miller Place, they got a phone call that some of the proceeds from Joe Cognitore’s VFW Fischer/Hewins Post 6249 ninth annual Veterans of Foreign Wars Rocky Point Post 6249 annual golf outing at Willow Creek Golf & Country Club in Mount Sinai, on Sept. 26, will go toward their new home.

“People keep asking us about the process with the house,” Renée Cote said. “I’m still trying to absorb everything — and then we get a call about this — there’s so much love here and to be on the receiving end of that, it’s a blessing.”

The Cote family will be receiving a home built for returning veterans and their families, on Helme Avenue in Miller Place. Photo by Glen Cote
The Cote family will be receiving a home built for returning veterans and their families, on Helme Avenue in Miller Place. Photo by Glen Cote

The Cotes have been through several hardships, from Renée Cote being diagnosed with a rare and painful metabolic disorder called acute intermittent porphyria, which requires expensive biweekly treatments that she has undergone for 14 years at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital, to her 7-year-old son Zachary being diagnosed with Grade 4 medulloblastoma, brain cancer, in 2014.

Most recently, the family was told they were being kicked out of their home because the landlord had let the rental fall into foreclosure.

“It’s awesome to see this much love for somebody from out of town like myself, that they don’t know, it’s incredible,” Glen Cote, who’s from Texas, said. “Everyone is so supportive and friendly.”

The family recently met with Cognitore, Rocky Point’s post commander, for the first time when Landmark Property owner and developer Mark Baisch chose the family to receive the 11th home for returning veterans. The two are still looking for a family for the 12th home.

“It’s a good feeling, especially given their circumstances,” Cognitore said of helping the family. “We’ve been doing things over the phone, and it helped me in the hospital. I felt very good. It was a big relief to know that we’re helping this family out.”

The Cotes said they’ve begun meeting their new neighbors and community members and they’re excited to make the move. Their previous rental home was in Sound Beach,

“They are the nicest people,” Renée Cote said. “I like the fact that — because, we kind of stalked the house — they came out and they were saying hello to us, they’ve been in the community for 30 to 40 years, they were very welcoming and we’re excited. I’m excited to have little BBQs with them and stuff like that.”

“When Mark [Baisch] heard about Zachary Cote’s situation, he came to the rescue, and talk about superheroes, [Mark Baisch and Joe Cognitore] are our local superheroes.”

— Sarah Anker

At the golf outing, where more than 160 golfers hit the course to help support veterans, Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) came out to meet the family and commend Cognitore and Baisch for all of their work helping local veterans.

“They are literally warriors to those that need help,” Anker said. “They get out there, they understand the struggles and they’re there to help, and that’s what’s so important. When Mark heard about Zachary Cote’s situation, he came to the rescue, and talk about superheroes, they are our local superheroes.”

LaValle was glad to seewho have helped him remain in the Miller Place school district, which was most important to his family.

“It all comes together very, very nicely,” he said. “We can’t do enough for our veterans to say thank you, and this is one of many ways that we can appreciate their service that they have made to our country.”

Renée Cote said she is also teaching her son to give back, and said she feels thank you will never be enough.

“I could sit there and write a million thank you cards, and to me, it would not be enough for what they’re doing,” she said. “And I don’t even think they realize what they’re doing. To first serve our country, and then to give back — and I mean give back in a huge way — it’s good to be surrounded by people like that. They’re angels walking the Earth.”

The Bonacasa family and members of the North Shore Jewish Center get together after the ceremony. Photo by Donna Newman

When Rabbi Aaron Benson of the North Shore Jewish Center in Port Jefferson Station learned of the passing of a North Shore resident in Afghanistan, he knew he wanted to help, he just wasn’t sure how at the time.

“Some events bring the news home to you in a personal and direct way,” Benson said. “This one struck me personally.”

Benson recalled learning of the death of Staff Sgt. Louis Bonacasa while attending Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s (D) inauguration Dec. 30. Bonacasa was a local hero from Coram who left behind a widow and 5-year-old daughter when he was killed by a suicide bomber four days before Christmas last year. Benson wanted to do something to help the family.

He called upon congregant Doris Weisman, chairperson of military support services at the synagogue, to form a plan of action. Weisman, is a member of a military family and became widowed young.

“Having had so much military around me all my life, it was natural for me to reach out to Deb,” she said of contacting Bonacasa’s wife Deborah. “I will do everything I can to help her and [their daughter] Lilianna find their way, which they are doing. They have a lot of good support.”

A fundraising effort began thanks to the efforts of Benson and Weisman.

At a ceremony held Aug. 19 at the Jewish Center, Benson welcomed Bonacasa family members, and led a prayer for Louis Bonacasa, lit a memorial candle for him and presented a check to his widow.

Benson gave Lilianna a hamsa, which is a palm-shaped amulet popular in the Middle East and North Africa.

“[It] is meant to represent the hand of God as a source of protection and blessings as a reminder of our love for your family and respect for your father, whom we all admire very much,” he said to the child.

“It’s a way to show concern, to bring something good to the lives of others, to increase the love in the world.”

—Aaron Benson

Members of the congregation had little trouble getting behind such a worthy cause.

“I have never been so proud of our North Shore Jewish Center congregation for reaching out to someone in the community who needs our support,” congregant Beverly Kasper said. She also brought a gift bag for Lilianna.

Benson echoed that sentiment in a telephone interview. He recalled his Jewish New Year sermon last fall in which he challenged members of the congregation to go above and beyond at tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase that refers to performing acts of kindness in an effort to perfect or repair the world. He asked people to make an effort on the 18th of each month to do something positive beyond what they’d normally do. The 18th was symbolic because in Hebrew, 18 spells “chai,” which means “life.”

He named this effort Team Malachim, the Hebrew word for angels, with the intent to encourage people to reach out to someone they didn’t know, someone who might not be looking for help but could use some.

Helping the Bonacasa family clearly fit his outreach plan to go beyond the synagogue and into the greater Long Island community, and he was proud of the response he got.

“It’s a way to show concern, to bring something good to the lives of others, to increase the love in the world,” he said of the fundraising effort and the desire to help.

Other North Shore communities also reached out to the Bonacasas.

The Sound Beach community welcomed the family into their new neighborhood in June, after Rocky Point VFW Fischer/Hewins Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore and Landmark Properties owner Mark Baisch helped build a home for the family, which came with a reduced, more affordable mortgage.

There was a local outpour from neighboring hamlets, which came bearing welcome home gifts for the Bonacasas, such as gift cards, toys and a new bike for Lilianna, when they received  keys to the home.

North Shore Jewish Center president Andy Polan agreed that Jewish values need to extend beyond the walls of synagogues and homes.

“It’s very important for all [religious] denominations to encourage members to do things for our country as a whole,” he said. “We learn tolerance, to embrace others and to be sensitive to other people’s tragedies. It really shows what the United States is all about.”

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Glen, Zachary and Renée Cote are receiving a new home on Helme Avenue in Miller Place as part of the homes for returning veterans. Photo from Renée Cote

By Desirée Keegan

After a series of unfortunate events, a string of fortunate ones led the Cote family to their soon-to-be new home in Miller Place.

Glen and Renée Cote, and their 7-year-old son Zachary, were chosen to be the receivers of the 11th home for returning veterans, a program put in place by Rocky Point VFW Fischer/Hewins Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore and developer and owner of Landmark Properties in Rocky Point Mark Baisch.

Renée Cote said to be chosen for the home on Helme Avenue is a dream come true.

“It’s extremely overwhelming — we feel extremely blessed,” she said. “I’m just happy that my son is going to have a home and that my husband and I are going to be able to live in a community that’s done nothing but support us.”

The framing is up for the new home on Helme Avenue in Miller Place, which the Cote family will receive as part of the homes for returning veterans. Photo by Desirée Keegan
The framing is up for the new home on Helme Avenue in Miller Place, which the Cote family will receive as part of the homes for returning veterans. Photo by Desirée Keegan

The family has, until recently, lived in a rental home in Sound Beach, but found out in March that it was being evicted because the landlord had let the home fall into foreclosure. But that’s not where the hardships began.

Glen Cote, who was a U.S. Army combat medic from 1988 to 1992 and specialized in deployment training and immunization for a bulk of army medics in the Gulf War, met and married his wife following his service. In 2002, Renée Cote was diagnosed with a rare and painful metabolic disorder called acute intermittent porphyria, which requires expensive biweekly treatments that she has undergone for 14 years at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital. As a result of her illness, which there is no known cure for, she has suffered three strokes.

In 2009, the couple welcomed Zachary into their lives, who in June 2014 was diagnosed with Grade 4 medulloblastoma, brain cancer, and has since endured 42 rounds of radiation and nine months of intense chemotherapy. His treatment had to be halted when he was also diagnosed with acute intermittent porphyria.

“We’ve had the most horrific circumstances happen to us, but in every event there’s been such a huge blessing that’s come out of it,” Renée Cote said. Two years ago, the family was chosen to be recipients of a fundraising effort during Shoreham-Wading River’s Lax Out Cancer fundraiser, which supports local children with cancer. The family was chosen again as the beneficiaries of this year’s event.

“This isn’t a free movie ticket or a handbag. This is a home that we otherwise would not have been able to afford. We’re still trying to process it.”

—Renée Cote

“We’ve mad a lot of friends, a lot of contacts,” Zachary’s mother said. “There are so many people in this area that genuinely want to help people, and it’s so amazing to be on the receiving end of it. It’s awkward, but it’s very humbling. My husband and I just look at each other and feel extremely blessed.”

Due to his illness, Zachary had to start kindergarten a year late, and his parents were worried about how he would manage school, but Miller Place school district has also been supportive of the family, and their fears melted into appreciation.

“The way that the teachers and faculty have personally taken to Zachary on a whole different level, it’s just incredible to see the love, and it’s a very humbling feeling to know that strangers are so willing to help,” his father said. “It was tremendously important that we stay in the district, and for this to become available, so we can set roots here and Zachary can be stable and make friends in the neighborhood. I couldn’t ask for much more at this point in time.”

Glen Cote also suffered a serious incapacitating injury on the job, to the point where he qualified for Social Security disability. Testing showed that his injuries led to a diagnosis of degenerative disk disease and shoulder and knee arthritis.

Following the eviction notice, the Landmark Properties owner was connected with the family when a friend of the Cote family contacted the vice president of Bridgehampton National Bank, who sent out an email to the chain. The manager of the Rocky Point branch knew what Baisch does for veterans, and immediately contacted him on their behalf.

That’s when Baisch asked to meet them.

Zachary Cote enjoys a day at the beach. Photo from Renée Cote
Zachary Cote enjoys a day at the beach. Photo from Renée Cote

“When they came in her, I didn’t know them from Adam, but they were very forthcoming and told me their story. It was a little overwhelming to take in,” he said.

He told them he’d contact Cognitore and get back to them, but the family wasn’t going to get their hopes up.

“We left thinking that there was just no way that we’ll be able to get this to go in our favor,” Renée Cote said, but the following week they were asked to come back to his office and were told the good news. “I honestly never thought something like this would happen to us. This isn’t a free movie ticket or a handbag. This is a home that we otherwise would not have been able to afford. We’re still trying to process it.”

The family will be moved in by Christmas, which Baisch is thrilled about, after he found out that the Make-A-Wish Foundation couldn’t send Zachary to LEGOLAND until next year.

“The happenstance of this is incredible,” he said. “Can you think of anyone else more deserving? I feel privileged to do what I do. It’s been a very good year for me. I’m on cloud nine.”

Knowing that they’ll never have to move again is what excites the family most.

“My son will make marks on the walls and I’ll tell him you did that when you were 8, you did that when you were 9,” the mother said. “Now knowing that no one is going to come knocking on my door telling me ‘you need to get out’ because of somebody else is mind blowing.”

What apartments would look like at the proposed On the Common site, where Thurber Lumber Co. previously resided, on Broadway in Rocky Point. Photo from Mark Baisch

Senior citizens in Rocky Point may soon have a new living option. The Rocky Point-based development company Landmark Properties Ltd. presented plans to the Rocky Point Civic Association, Historical Society and about 100 members of the community at a meeting on the grounds of the would-be homes.

Mark Baisch, owner of Landmark Properties, constructed a plan called On the Common at Rocky Point, which calls for 40 600-square-foot, one-bedroom senior citizen apartments that would be constructed on the site of the old Thurber Lumber Co. Inc., which closed its doors in February. The plan for the 1.8-acre space near Broadway was met with hesitancy in March from some community members, though reactions from the recent meeting were overwhelmingly positive.

“I’m favorably impressed,” said Rocky Point Civic Association President Charles Bevington, who attended the presentation. “I liked everything, essentially. It’s forward thinking.”

Bevington said he was also pleased with the importance Baisch placed on environmental concerns associated with new development. The buildings would have solar energy, storm-water runoff irrigation systems, energy efficient appliances and safeguards against nitrogen pollution.

“It’s right for a lot of reasons,” said Baisch, a developer. “It brings a residential component to the Broadway-Rocky Point area.”

Baisch made the case for why the project would be an appealing option for senior citizens in the Rocky Point community in March.

“They have to pay taxes, they have to pay their oil bill, they have to pay for repairs [for their home],” he said. In the On the Common homes, senior citizens would not have to worry about upkeep and maintenance around their yard and home. Also, they would be living within a community of their peers and would have more freedom in their daily lives, according to Baisch.

He was encouraged by the positive response he received. He said he had a handful of people sign up to reserve apartments in the event that the plan becomes a reality.

“I think they realize it’s a major step in the redevelopment of Rocky Point,” Baisch said, adding that he’s noticed more commercial development in the Rocky Point area.

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said in March she would prefer to see a community center on the centrally located property in downtown Rocky Point, because it is a high-density area already, but recently said she is coming around on Landmark Property’s plan.

“It’s a drastic change from the original rendering,” Anker said. “It looks very much improved from the original conception. I’m listening to the community. If the community supports it, I will support it. … Community input is always incredibly important when significant change is happening in the community.”

Town of Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) said there’s a large number of seniors who live in North Shore Beach who are interested.

“Many have reached out to me excited about this,” she said.

Baisch’s plan also guarantees 25 percent of the 40 homes will be reserved for senior citizens who are veterans of the United States military, a point which was appealing to Bevington.

The plan still needs to be approved by the Town of Brookhaven though, before ground is broken and development can begin.

For one of two veteran families, receiving a new home is bittersweet.

Deborah “Dee” Bonacasa and her daughter Lilianna entered their new home on Tyler Avenue in Sound Beach Monday morning as part of a new chapter, but it wasn’t without great grief because husband and father Staff Sgt. Louis Bonacasa wasn’t there to join them.

Following what was his fourth deployment to Afghanistan, Bonacasa, a Coram native, wanted to settle down, have a second child and buy the family’s first house with a Veterans Affairs home loan that the couple had been approved for.

But that was taken from them on Dec. 21 when a suicide bomber detonated himself outside Bagram Airfield in northwest Afghanistan, killing Bonacasa and five others in his New York Air National Guard Unit.

“My husband is not here to share this wonderful gift we’ve been given, but at the same time they fulfilled a dream that he’s always wanted to be able to do for our family,” said Bonacasa, who is also an Air Force veteran.

The widow said she was thankful for Landmark Properties owner Mark Baisch, Rocky Point’s VFW Post Commander Joe Cognitore and all of the other locals who have made the new home possible.

“Everybody has been supporting us since the beginning. I just want to thank everybody.”

The house, which would normally go for $350,000, was sold to Bonacasa for $200,000, Baisch said. He and his employees at Landmark Properties donated $50,000 to Bonacasa. The families got to pick out the flooring, fixtures and décor to help personalize the home, and Baisch even had a surprise for 5-year-old Lily, painting her room blue, her and her father’s favorite color.

“My husband is not here to share this wonderful gift we’ve been given, but at the same time they fulfilled a dream that he’s always wanted to be able to do for our family.” —Dee Bonacasa

The second house, just next door, was sold for $250,000 to Joshua and Megan Johnson. Joshua Johnson will have 14 years of military service this July. He too deployed four times, serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait and is currently in the Air National Guard. Megan Johnson’s father and older brother are also in the Air National Guard, with her brother being in the Marine Core. Her husband, who the Sound Beach native met three years ago, works in the same base as them, and the two met during her friend’s going away part for deployment.

“We were awestruck,” Megan Johnson said of finding out they were chosen to receive the second house. “Then, when we found out we were going to be neighbors with an amazing family. We just felt so honored.”

Because of the lot’s size, existing town laws only permitted one house to built there, but county and Brookhaven officials agreed to allow two houses to go up for this cause. The neighbors did not object, but actually supported the idea, which Baisch said would not have been possible without the help of county and town governments, private industry and neighbors.

More than 30 subcontractors worked with Baisch, donating material and services to help construct the houses, furnish them and even gave contributions like store gift certificates and a new bicycle for Lily.

The community outpour of welcoming and support was also felt by the families, as over 100 people packed down the small street to say hello to their new neighbors, bring flowers and gifts and show their gratitude for all the families have sacrificed.

“I felt a little worried actually, because to see something happen like this, I couldn’t imagine it, so when it actually did happen to us I felt blessed and just amazed to have this opportunity,” Joshua Johnson said. “I couldn’t imagine it being this huge.”

Megan Johnson said there aren’t words that could adequately express her family’s gratitude and say thank you in the appropriate way, but said it’s been a humbling experience. And they hope to be able to pay it forward.

“To see the outpouring of love, support and generosity from such a small community, it hits it home,” Megan Johnson said. “This is where we’re meant to be and this is why. We still can’t believe that we’re getting our dream home in our dream place, and it feels so great to have all of these people supporting us.”

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