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Nancy Marr

By Nancy Marr

In 1978 Suffolk County Planner Lee Koppelman suggested a trail along Long Island’s North Shore for hikers and bikers. Forty years later, as a result of the efforts of elected officials, community groups and individual citizens, funding for a trail from Mount Sinai to Wading River was approved by the Suffolk County Legislature, with plans to start construction in 2019. How do such ideas become reality in our communities?  

By the time the Setauket to Port Jefferson Greenway Trail (on 3½ miles of New York state land) was completed in 2014, its supporters had been trained in advocacy. With the Three Village Community Trust as overseer, local residents and organizations supported the trail, raised funds to supplement the state and federal grants and contributed labor to complete the trail. As the trail was being built, the civic associations, the Long Island Mountain Bicyclists and other nonprofits played a role. When they needed Department of Environmental Conservation approval to pass through the Lawrence Aviation property, they pushed to get it. 

Thus when the new Rails to Trails group needed “persons of interest” to attend official government meetings, or informed residents to speak at community meetings, skilled home-grown activists were well-established and ready to work together on this ambitious goal. But advocates also knew that they needed an engaged local elected official who could help navigate the system and secure government support. When Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) became a Suffolk County legislator in 2011, this trail became a legislative goal.

Anker got past her first roadblock when County Executive Steve Bellone (D) enthusiastically endorsed the idea of creating the trail along Route 25A. The second roadblock, property owner LIPA’s concern about liability, was removed when the county executive worked out an agreement to lease and maintain the property, creating a “linear park” that would be cared for by the Parks Department and the county police. Community opposition, however, mounted at the idea of losing privacy with strangers passing near homes along the trail. With the experienced help of Friends of the Greenway Chair Charles McAteer, county legislators organized public meetings to discuss residents’ concerns.  

When the Legislature voted on the request to bond the federal money (that will be paid back in grants) on July 17, so many supporters spoke positively that it passed with only one abstention. The federal funding that had been obtained in prior years by congressmen Felix Grucci and Tim Bishop was delayed until 2016 when Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) secured final approval of almost $10 million.  

The groundswell of support from the community and Anker’s continuing commitment will make the trail’s future secure. Working together, the legislator and the community overcame many obstacles to the establishment and funding of the trail in the past 7 years. This project serves as a strong case study for Suffolk County citizens in advocating, building community support for a grand idea, finding a legislative champion and working together to make it a reality.

Nancy Marr is first vice president of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org, email league@lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

Stock photo

By Nancy Marr

Water is a basic need and should be considered a right. In the Earth Day Legislative Package in June, the New York State Legislature included a proposed amendment to the New York State Constitution that would ensure that clean water and air are treated as fundamental rights for all New Yorkers. The bill prioritized keeping contamination like dangerous chemicals and pesticides out of our drinking water. Unfortunately, although it passed in the Assembly, it was not passed in the Senate.

All the water for Long Islanders comes from our three underground aquifers, including the water in our bays and harbors, lakes, ponds and streams. Experts tell us that some of the water in the uppermost aquifer is no longer safe to drink. 

In the deeper aquifer (the Magothy), nitrogen and pesticides have increased by 200 percent between 1987 and 2005. Nitrogen pollution creates algal blooms in most of our bays, breeds weeds that choke lakes and ponds and threatens our fisheries and our recreation. 

The deepest and oldest of aquifers (the Lloyd) is small; water is being withdrawn from it, resulting in salt water intrusion in the Sound and Great South Bay. Although surface waters require nutrients, such as nitrogen, to support healthy ecosystems, excessive nitrogen can cause aquatic weed growth that draws oxygen from the water, producing “dead zones” where dissolved oxygen levels are so low that aquatic life cannot survive. 

To preserve its land, the five eastern towns (Southampton, East Hampton, Riverhead, Southold and Shelter Island) in 1998 created a community preservation fund, paid for by a 2 percent real estate transfer tax to purchase land to provide watershed protection through open space. (Recently, out of concern with nitrogen, referenda in the eastern towns have made it possible to use up to 20 percent for nitrogen removal.)  

Nitrogen intrusion has been attributed to two factors: wastewater from cesspools and runoff from lawn and agricultural fertilizer. In 2017, County Executive Steve Bellone (D) introduced a Septic Improvement Program to replace existing cesspools and septic tanks with new systems that averaged an output of 9.2 mL of nitrogen, compared with systems that discharged anywhere from 40 to 120 mL in influent flows. To encourage homeowners to enroll in the program, the state, the county and Southampton and East Hampton offered grants and loans to cover the cost of the installation. The homeowner pays the maintenance.

The 2015-16 New York State budget appropriated funds to the Long Island Regional Planning Council (LIRPC) and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, in consultation with the Indian Nations, local governments and interested organizations, to create the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan, or LINAP. Data, sorted by watershed, will make it possible to assess conditions and assist with prioritization. A project management team is responsible for LINAP administration and management, but local ownership and direction in its development is key. 

In addition to public education, a bill to reduce the intrusion of discarded pharmaceuticals into the water supply through the Drug Take Back Act passed in both the Assembly and the Senate and was signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) in early July. 

In April of 2018, Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) introduced a bill to prohibit the sale of any lawn fertilizer in Suffolk and Nassau counties with more than 12 percent nitrogen, with at least half of it water insoluble. It passed in the Assembly but when introduced in the Senate by Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City), it failed on the grounds that it is not certain that the nitrogen in the fertilizer is the major cause — that the 12 percent limit is arbitrary and unscientific.  

Many local coalitions and organizations are involved in the campaign to keep our waters clean. They have lobbied and raised awareness. But even more action by Suffolk County voters is needed. On Nov. 6, voters will elect New York State Assembly and Senate members. If you are concerned about the quality of our water supply, let the candidates in your districts know that nitrogen intrusion is an important issue and urge them to support measures to remove it. 

For more information, visit the websites of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Long Island Pine Barrens Society, Group for the East End, Water for Long Island and the Nature Conservancy.

Nancy Marr is first vice president of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

A letter to the editor of your local newspaper will reach members of the public as well as your legislator.

By Nancy Marr

As we debated whether or not to support a New York State constitutional convention on Election Day, we considered the only other way change is possible — through the state legislature itself. If our legislators do not choose to make the changes, change cannot happen.

One example is the New York State election system. For many years, the League of Women Voters and other “good government” groups have worked together to convince legislators that our election system needs major improvements. Concern about the very low number of New Yorkers who actually vote has led us to lobby to remove some of the roadblocks to registering and voting.

Although there are no charges of voter suppression in our state, the state constitution prohibits early voting and stipulates that you can change your party designation only prior to the previous year’s election. Access to absentee ballots is very limited. The state requires that we have a full-face ballot, resulting in a ballot that is difficult to read. Counties cannot make any of these changes, so we have turned to the state legislature for action, with no results.

What is the most effective way to bring about change? The Legislature can change these constitutional roadblocks but will have to pass the legislation in two consecutive years and then present it to the voters for approval. To advocate for change, we have to start with our individual assembly member or senator regarding one important issue, for instance, a no-excuse absentee ballot.

How can we convince our legislators to support legislation to allow state residents to vote by absentee ballot without requiring a specific reason? Currently voters must state that they will be out of the county, that they are ill or disabled, are in a veterans hospital, in jail or prison or that they are primary caretakers of a person who is ill or disabled. If you believe that it would benefit all voters if they could vote by absentee ballot for any reason — if they are busy on Election Day, or if they have no transportation — how can you communicate this most effectively?

If we hope to see a change enacted this year, we will have to reach our state legislators by March (or earlier) in order to have the issue considered in the April budget. Start by locating your assembly member or senator and his or her contact details. Check in the league’s Directory of Public Officials at http://www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org/files/DPO2017_3.pdf or go to the website of the Board of Elections at www.suffolkvotes.com to identify your district and legislators.

Call to make an appointment at your legislator’s local office. Explain who you are or who you represent (if you belong to an organization you will be representing) and explain that you want to discuss no-excuse absentee voting because you think it will increase the turnout in your district (which is also your legislator’s district). Try to arrange for two or three persons who agree with you to attend as well. Including a young person can add a new perspective to your presentation.

Before you visit, find out about the legislator: voting record, committee assignments and leadership positions in the legislature, and any bills he or she sponsored that you support. (This information is available on legislators’ websites.) Decide with your companions what you will say, and who will say it. It is helpful for one of the visitors to agree to be the leader or spokesperson, another to be the recorder, and the others to have specific points to add.

Introduce yourselves to the legislator and present your concern about the low turnout in the voting district. Give any statistics that you have to back up your concern. If the legislator is not equally concerned, you and your colleagues may want to talk about why you think it is important that people feel involved in election issues.

Be sure to watch the clock. Knowing ahead how much time the legislator has agreed to spend with you, the leader should allot an appropriate amount of time for each issue and keep everyone on the subject. Record the legislator’s response. If you anticipate printing any part of the interview, you are obligated to get the legislator’s permission and specific conditions under which it may be printed.

Be sure and write a follow-up thank you after the visit. This gives you the opportunity to underscore some of the points made or answer any questions you were asked.

Other ways to express yourselves to legislators are by phone, letter or social media. A letter to the editor of your local newspaper will reach members of the public as well as your legislator. Rallies often are effective ways to make your opinions known and to show support for them. You may be able to arrange a public information meeting to discuss the issue and its significance. Invite your legislator to speak. Even if not concerned about low voter turnout, you could invite him or her to speak along with a representative who would present the opposite point of view.

Maximum impact results from many constituents visiting and communicating with their legislators. Many factors will affect the legislator’s response. Those who are now in office may be reluctant to expand the voting base to the benefit of possible opponents. New York State has representatives from counties that differ widely in their goals and interests. Upstate and downstate representatives are often in opposition because they face different challenges. In a later article we will discuss the political dilemma posed by the downstate/upstate differences and the differences between members of the same party in New York State government.

Nancy Marr is first vice president of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org, email league@lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

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