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Port Jefferson Station

The efforts of Craig den Hartog beautify local hamlets year after year after year

Craig den Hartog in front of his truck often seen by the side of Old Town Road. photo from PJS/T Chamber of Commerce

Craig den Hartog, a Terryville resident, was only a neon ink blot on the side of Old Town Road. A hunched figure in the weeds, his body bent over, his head low to the dirt, he could have been praying. 

A sign for Old Town Blooms in front of his planted daffodils. photo from Old Town Blooms Facebook

On the edge of the road, near to passing cars streaming past upward of 50 miles per hour, den Hartog was in his own sanctuary. The side of the road was his chapel that he has cultivated for upward of 10 years. In that time, he has planted tulips and bushes alike, one to keep the poison ivy and other invasive plants down, the other to make the corners along the road striking to anybody who takes the time to look at them.

Den Hartog is the owner of Emerald Magic Lawn Care landscaping company and the founder of Old Town Blooms, a community group that looks to maintain beautification efforts along Old Town Road and into the rest of the local hamlets. 

“You got to try and work with, and against, Mother Nature,” said den Hartog as he attacked the weeds along Old Town Road the morning of May 18. One particular stretch was choked with poison ivy and litter. 

The founder of Old Town Blooms has made it a personal mission to clean up his local area, though he is an old hand at landscaping. It’s been nearly a decade since he started, but his mission of beautification continues undaunted.

In numerous places the Terryville resident’s flowers bloom — daffodils and tulips. In the Steven J. Crowley Memorial Park, all the flowers that shine bright with oranges and purples are thanks to his constant efforts.

The Old Town Blooms project started nearly a decade ago, with him and neighbors having an “attitude adjustment hour,” calling themselves lawn lizards where a bunch of them would go to neighbors’ houses to do a specific piece of lawn maintenance. That was when the neighbors started to see just how dirty and overgrown Old Town Road had become with weeds, garbage and construction debris, including a growing pile of bricks. After complaining to Brookhaven town and not getting a response, they realized they were on their own. 

Since then, Old Town Blooms has planted thousands of flowers along the course of the road from Coram into Terryville and East Setauket. Den Hartog has become notorious in the area for his cleanup efforts and his attempts to get his neighbors involved. Having extra flower bulbs on hand, he has stuck them in his neighbors’ mailboxes and has felt great pride in seeing those flowers bloom in the beds in front of their homes.

Now he is the owner of Holtsville-based Emerald Magic Lawn Care Inc., where he does soil testing and diagnosis. He said those skills work great toward keeping the area safe from dangerous plants, as such things like mulching and which plants prevent weeds is often
very misunderstood.

“A big part of my job is not just diagnosing the problems in the landscape but also educating the client,” he said. 

Though the flowers present a united and vibrant resolution to beautification, many of his efforts go unnoticed. Plants that may seem like natural growth are actually specifically planted by the veteran horticulturist. Plants like purple coneflower and sedum are his “volunteers,” or the plants others would just throw away if they become overgrown. They help stem the tide of weeds, and he has to make sure that Brookhaven’s subcontractors don’t come in and mow his preventative plants. Since the program started, he has spent thousands of dollars of his own money on plants to bring life to the two-lane road.

It’s not just Old Town Road that has received his touch but the surrounding community. Joe Coniglione, the principal of Comsewogue High School, said Hartog helped with beautification of the school, sprucing the area up with flowers of gold and blue, the school colors. 

“You got to try and work with, and against, Mother Nature.”

— Craig den Hartog

“Him having spread that around this community is really uplifting,” Coniglione said. “His kids went through Comsewogue, they are long gone, but he is still involved in the community and the school… he’s just a great person.”

Den Hartog’s daughter, Michelle, lives in Queens and works at the Developmental Disabilities Institute in Huntington as a teacher, but she tries to come out once or twice a year to help her father. Nearly 10 years ago, when the work started, she could only think how simple a fix it was, and she has started to do the same kind of cleanup and bloom plantings with the children at her school.

“Even starting at young ages, it’s so important to teach taking care of your community,” she said. “Every year, coming down this road in March and April and seeing all the daffodils it makes me so happy — just the seven miles — I’ll just do the drive just to see the blooms.”

Joan Nickeson, the community liaison for the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Chamber of Commerce had met den Hartog years ago in the early spring, surprised by the sight of bright yellow daffodils popping up along Old Town Road. The Terryville resident would become involved with the chamber and was instrumental in area beautification, helping to remove invasive vines on trees and to maintain the chamber-owned train car at the corner of Route 112.

“At home we call him for our green issues,” she said. “He and my husband Rich could ‘talk trees’ for hours … We are indebted to him.”

Den Hartog has a passion for getting others involved, calling all who help him in his efforts “bloomers.” This passion for beautification has extended well past the confines of Old Town Road. Debbie Engelhardt, the director of the Comsewogue Public Library, said the library organized a community cleanup in conjunction with the overall Great Brookhaven Cleanup. Den Hartog was there offering his expertise, and she said they will be working with him in the future.

“We are indebted to him.”

— Joan Nickeson

“Craig’s contribution was cutting the ‘mother vines’ of the poison ivy plants endangering many of the trees along Terryville Road,” Engelhardt said. “I was amazed at how many trees had been enveloped; most of us drive by and don’t think about these things. I’m glad the community has Craig out there, so we can keep as many trees healthy as possible.”

Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) has seen the work of the Terryville horticulturist on multiple occasions. 

“He has always played an active role in our community,” Cartright said in an email. “Mr. den Hartog works hard as both a local business owner and on his volunteer endeavor, Old Town Blooms. Craig’s dedication to rallying our community and organizing local beautification efforts is truly commendable and a gift to the Port Jefferson Station-Terryville community.”

However, cleaning up such a vast area with himself and a few of the occasional volunteers does begin to become a mental rock climb. He admitted he does occasionally procrastinate on parts of the project, especially considering its vast size, not to mention his own business and the work he does at his house. But that’s when the script flips, once work begins, the momentum carries him through.

“As soon as I start, I start enjoying myself,” he said. “If you want something done, you just have to start.”

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File photo
Men inside store. Photo from SCPD

Two men who used a child to help them steal a saw from a Port Jefferson Station store are currently being sought by Suffolk County Police.

Security footage of men entering with child. Photo from SCPD

Two men, accompanied by two children, entered MVP Power Outdoor Equipment, located at 86 Comsewogue Road, May 8 at around 10:30 a.m. Police said one of the men instructed one of the children to remove a Stihl concrete saw from the shelf and the four then walked out of the store. The stolen saw has a value of approximately $1,050.

The men are wanted for grand larceny and endangering the welfare of a child.

Suffolk County Crime Stoppers offers a cash reward of up to $5,000 for information that leads to an arrest. Anyone with information about these incidents can contact Suffolk County Crime Stoppers to submit an anonymous tip by calling 800-220-TIPS (8477) or texting “SCPD” and your message to “CRIMES” (274637). All calls and text messages will be kept confidential.

Joe Rella reflects on his career, his fight over state tests and how music fits into all of it

Retiring Superintendent Joe Rella and incoming Superintendent Jennifer Quinn. Photo by Kyle Barr

Joe Rella, the soon-to-be retired superintendent of the Comsewogue Central School District once, nearly 30 years ago, found himself without a job.

He was in business administration for close to 15 years, saying he had been “on top of the world,” before his company, the last private electric supplier in New York, closed. After he lost his job he did everything he could, from a paper route in the early morning to playing a local church organ, just to add a little extra money into the pot. His late wife, Jackie, went part-time in college and started working at Mercy Hospital. That’s when he saw it, an ad for a part-time job.

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella with students who participated in Joe’s Day of Service. Photo from CSD

“I couldn’t even say the name,” he said in a sit-down interview less than a month before his final high school graduation ceremony June 26. “Com-sew-ogue,” he said it phonetically. 

He lived in Farmingdale at the time, but he grew up in Flatbush Brooklyn, where they used to call this area of Long Island “East Jesus,” because “only God lived out here”, there were so few people.

The job was part-time music teacher, where he would be accompanist to a middle school music teacher for a salary of $28,000. Over time, this part-time instructor would become a full-time music teacher, the high school principal, and eventually work his way up to superintendent of the entire district.

Jennifer Quinn, the current assistant superintendent and person tapped to become the next head of school starting in September, said in her 13 years of experience with the district, this climb from music teacher to superintendent was rare. She had never seen it or heard of its like since.

Rella said the jump from music teacher to a district leader wasn’t so much of a huge leap, especially considering his more-than-decade- long experience in business administration, yet he likened the practicality of music to running a school, helping one interact with people, and taking mistakes in stride.

“Because one thing you learn, there is no such thing as a mistake, it’s a springboard to your next part of the piece,” he said.

Quinn described herself as following in Rella’s footsteps. When the retiring super moved from high school principal to assistant superintendent, she became principal. When Rella moved into the big chair, he tapped her to be one of his assistant superintendents.

“It’s not a big shift, because all the programs we’ve done over these years, she’s responsible for,” Rella said.

Quinn has been encouraged to lead discussions and programs, with Rella there to offer advice.

“The fact is he always puts other people before his own ego,” she said. “Because in most places it’s close of business one day and then the next person starts. He’s purposely stepped back and given me the opportunity to start to do things and he’s here to guide me.”

They both described several necessary components for a good district leader. One is to communicate back to residents, and not wait days to respond to emails or phone calls. Another is to “be present,” to have your face and name be known not only by teachers but by students.

“They need to know who you are — kids do, parents do, everybody does” he said. “Pope Francis had a good expression, ‘The shepherds have to smell like the sheep.’”

To say the school district has been inspired by Superintendent Joe Rella would be an understatement. Unlike many other districts where one could be hard-pressed to find people who know the name of their head of schools, the name of Rella often brings an immediate impression. Rella has become a rallying cry for supporting student-first initiatives and programs based on a general idea of “kindness.” Just one example is Joe’s Day of Service, designed by special needs teacher Andrew Harris. 

Beyond Comsewogue, Rella became a name on the lips of New York State officials and even beyond, all due to standardized testing initiatives put forward on both the federal and state levels.

In 2013, the superintendent was at the forefront of protests against Common Core State Standards (implemented late in 2012), writing a letter to New York State officials asking them to address concerns or remove him from office. The letter went viral, and later that year Rella was at the head of a rally held at Comsewogue High School decrying Common Core. He said it became apparent immediately after the first standards were released to school districts that there would be no way to test the exams and offer criticism to the state’s program plans, adding letters sent to all New York superintendents suggested the state expected only a third of students would pass this first round of testing.

“We couldn’t accept what was happening to our children,” he said. “If a teacher comes in and says, ‘I’m only expecting a third of my class to pass this year,’ I would say, ‘Why don’t you throw your keys on the desk.’”

“Pope Francis had a good expression, ‘The shepherds have to smell like the sheep.’”

— Joe Rella

Though it’s been several years, the state’s testing standards still put Rella on a rant, though now he sees the district moving beyond it. Comsewogue implemented a problem-based learning (PBL) curriculum for groups of interested ninth- and 10th-graders. Last year the district relished statistics that said those who were involved in PBL had better overall Regents test scores than their contemporaries, though he said the state was not interested in any kind of replacement for standardized testing with PBL. Instead the district has looked to the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Elementary and Secondary Schools, from which they were granted accreditation in 2017.

The superintendent continued that, since the huge outcry has boiled down into a low simmer, parents have been making the choice for their own children whether they would take the tests. 

“They haven’t budged,” he said.

Rella was diagnosed with stage 4 bile duct cancer in October 2017, though he has told TBR News Media previously a “mango-sized” tumor found on his liver hasn’t grown or spread, and his health played no role in the decision to retire. He said he and his late wife Jackie, who died following a bout with breast cancer in 2016, had long discussed 2018-19 as being his last year, as it would be his 25th in the district and ninth as superintendent.

Now, he’s living with his son and his grandchildren, whose little shoes will soon be running around the Comsewogue school district. He’s looking forward to spending time with his grandchildren while working on his piano and gardening skills. 

But while he will still be close to the district, Quinn said the legacy he left will be attempted to be replicated in the years to come.

“You will never be punished for not being perfect, you will be helped, you will be coached,” she said.

Rella again likened his job to music, and the drive to improve that is always at the forefront of practice, because what is school if not practice for life?

“You’re learning a piece of music — brand- new — you don’t know it, you’re not going to play it perfect right away, but what you do know is with careful practice, you’re going to get better,” he said.

Students got to interact with therapy dogs before the start of their exams. Photo from Andrew Harris

In the Comsewogue High School cafeteria, where the air would usually becomes tense with the anticipation of final exams at the end of the school year, signs were posted on empty chairs during regents week which read, “Come pet me… and chill.”

School Social Worker Taylor Zummo said that the dogs had an incredible impact on the students. Photo from Andrew Harris

Quickly those empty chairs filled up and lines started to form behind them. Sitting in the now filled chair was a student who would be taking their regents within the next few minutes. Opposite them was a therapy dog and it’s handler, both welcoming the student to relieve a little stress with a friendly canine.

“They have a calming effect on people,” said Bill Bodkin, a retired teacher and administrator at the high school. “The animals benefit just as much as the humans do. Medically, it lowers blood pressure and the pulse rate of the person petting them.”

Bodkin’s dog, Corey, was trained with the Smithtown-based nonprofit Guide Dog Foundation, and together they often visit hospitals, nursing homes, and schools.

The idea of bringing in dogs before the regents exams was welcomed by high school Principal Joseph Coniglione. The dogs were an instant hit, with students gravitated to the dogs and some stayed with them up until the instant they went to take their exams.

Several other therapy dogs were sent in from Dog Works in Holtsville, where they go through rigorous training to become certified.

“These dogs are very unique, and not all of them make it through the process.” Said Deb Feliziani, who works for Holbrook-based Dog Works and is the owner and trainer for the hounds Gabby, Bette and Comet, all who levelled their training to aid the high schoolers.

In addition to the therapy dogs, district teachers said students were taught meditation and breathing techniques to help lower stress and anxiety before testing.

“As students waited to take their regents exams, in a room that is typically filled with nervousness and fear, there was a lighthearted energy that took over as they interacted with the therapy dogs,” said Taylor Zummo, a high school social worker. “Between the smiles on their faces and the laughs of excitement, it was clear that these dogs had an incredible impact on the students. There is something quite powerful that happens when dogs are in a room, and it was apparent that the students could feel it too.”

Tom King, a special education teacher, has been taking his own certified therapy dog named Bailey, a Labradoodle, to class for years. King and Bailey walked around to students who had pre-testing jitters and were quickly surrounded by them all wanting to pet Bailey.

From left, retired teacher Bill Bodkin, Teacher Dave Hughes and Principal Joe Coniglione said the dogs lightened the mood for students taking the regents. Photo from Andrew Harris

Overall, the visits were a huge success, said Andrew Harris, a special needs teacher and advocate for therapy and service dogs who helped get the dogs to the high school.

“I saw many of my students light up when a dog comes to visit our class,” he said. “I especially see this for students with Autism and decided to make it a part of my curriculum. You would be amazed if you saw the level of excellence these students rise to when they know a dog is visiting.”

Harris added he has been training dogs for years, though he had taken advice from Feliziani to travel to Canada to find the “perfect dog.” This young hound named Ramsey has learned to alert people with medical emergencies and assist with walking up and down stairs. At only 11 months he can climb ladders, complete obstacle courses and assist people. At home, the dog acts a protector and house pet to him and his family.

“He has been in training since the day he was born and has taken rides on various forms of public transportation and socialized with people and other animals,” Harris said. “I think it helps me be a better teacher because you continually learn positive reinforcement.”

Teachers at the high school said they expect to utilize the dogs in the future in the school district.

Information provided by Andrew Harris

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Suffolk County police car. File photo
Security footage of man who allegedly robbed PJS Family Dollar. Photo from SCPD

An employee of a PJS Family Dollar was assaulted and the store robbed early this May.

A man assaulted an employee of Family Dollar, located at 526 Jefferson Plaza, May 2 at approximately 10:40 a.m. The man fled with a cash register drawer that contained approximately $200.

Suffolk County Crime Stoppers offers a cash reward of up to $5,000 for information that leads to an arrest. Anyone with information about these incidents can contact Suffolk County Crime Stoppers to submit an anonymous tip by calling 800-220-TIPS (8477) or texting “SCPD” and your message to “CRIMES” (274637). All calls and text messages will be kept confidential.

Local residents help clean up; from left to right, Donna Denner, Susan Guerin, Debbie Bush, Pete Giery, Danielle Ray, Laura Rizzo, Christina Heaney and Claudia Capie-Friszell. Photo courtesy of Audrey Asaro

For the first time, Comsewogue Public Library participated in helping to clean up Brookhaven town.

As part of the 12th Annual Great Brookhaven Cleanup, staff and patrons from the library started early May 17, on the northern section of Terryville Road, cleaning up garbage along the wooded areas. They collected over eight large bags of garbage, two hub caps and a lot of plastic and glass bottles. 

Firefighter Cliff Lesmeister greets Selden resident Bob Short for the second time at SBU Hospital. Photo by David Luces

“It means everything that he was there — he knew,” Bob Short, a Selden resident said of Cliff Lesmeister, a Port Jefferson Station resident and New York City firefighter. The man had rushed to his aid after he crashed his car and stopped on a lawn in Selden and went into cardiac arrest Feb. 25. 

Lesmeister and Olivia Hoerner were presented with a community award. Photo by David Luces

Four months later, Short and Lesmeister reunited for the first time since the incident at Stony Brook University Hospital May 28. The 28-year veteran of the FDNY and Olivia Hoerner, an EMT from the Selden fire department, were presented with the Stony Brook University Heart Institute’s HeartSaver Community Award. 

Lesmeister was off-duty and was parked on the other side of the road taking a phone call when he witnessed Short’s car crash. He and a bystander ran across a street, called 911, broke the car window to rescue Bob and started performing CPR. In a short time, the Selden EMS/fire department responded, and Bob was taken to the Heart Institute. After 15 days of treatment, which included a protected percutaneous coronary intervention procedure, Short was released March 12. 

When asked if he remembered anything from that day. Short said he doesn’t remember a thing and when he regained consciousness his wife told him he had suffered a heart attack. 

Lesmeister and Short’s wife Dawn embrace. Photo by David Luces

“Something was wrong — I had to act, and I was just happy I was there,” the FDNY firefighter stationed in Astoria said. 

Short stated he didn’t know what he could say to the firefighter and said he didn’t know if he’s supposed to be here or not supposed to be here after all that has happened. 

“You are supposed to be here,” Lesmeister reassured him. 

Recipients of the HeartSaver Community Award are recognized for delivering exemplary cardiac care to the community at large by the Heart Institute’s Chest Pain Center and Door-to- Balloon Committee.

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Members and compatriots of the American Legion Wilson Ritch Post 432 in Port Jefferson Station hosted their annual Memorial Day commemoration at Veterans Memorial Park right in front of Port Jefferson Harbor.

After a presentation of the colors and the wreath laying, veterans moved the flags to half-mast. The group moved onto the Three Village area, where they participated in the unveiling of a newly rejuvenated veterans memorials in Stony Brook Village and the Setauket Village Green. The work is being done with the efforts of Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and several local veteran groups and has been funded through outside donations. This first phase of the project was completed by Memorial Day, and the second phase is expected to revitalize the Setauket Veterans Memorial Park and the Port Jefferson Veterans Memorial Park by Veterans Day this fall.

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Holding coat hangers and signs high above their heads, nearly 20 protesters stood at the corner of Nesconset Highway and Route 112 shouting “Keep your hands off our bodies,” and “We won’t go back.”

The locals, organized by the North Shore Peace group, came out in protest decrying several states’ moves to severely restrict abortion, including Alabama, Georgia, Ohio and Missouri. In Alabama’s case, abortion will be restricted to only in cases that the woman’s health is in danger. It also restricts abortion for people who are victims of rape, and doctors who perform abortions could face up to 99 years in prison.

The laws have largely been seen as attempts to move abortion to the plate of the U.S. Supreme Court in the hopes that landmark case Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortions, would be overturned.

Protesters held coat hangers high above their heads to symbolize the instrument used when abortions were illegal to perform
“backroom” unsanitary abortions, often out of desperation.

“I’m speechless, I just don’t know what to say anymore,” said Myrna Gordon, a protest organizer.

One protester, Janet Sklar, had a charm necklace that she plucked out of her shirt and laid over her sign. One charm, a coat hanger, had been on that necklace for close to 40 years.

“We were marching in the ʼ70s for this, and look how far we haven’t come,” she said. 

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Project part of near-decade-long attempt to revitalize area

New rustic street lights along Route 112 in Port Jefferson Station, near Port Jefferson Cinemas. Photo by Kyle Barr

Beginning at the end of April, Port Jefferson Station residents will start to notice new rustic lights being installed along Route 112 near Joline Road as part of the early stages of a long-awaited project. 

New rustic street lights along Route 112 in Port Jefferson Station, near Port Jefferson Cinemas. Photo by Kyle Barr

The installation of the rustic lights is part of the main street project, which dates back to a 2008 hamlet study done by Louis Antoniello, a former Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association president and Lee Koppleman, a longtime Suffolk County planner. When the first phase of the project is complete, the lights will be installed at various points throughout Main Street in Terryville on Route 112 between Bicycle Path and Route 347.

Antoniello, who co-chaired the initial hamlet study with Koppleman, said the idea to install these rustic lights came about due to answers from a questionnaire put to residents several years ago. 

“They told us what they liked about the area and what they didn’t,” he said. 

Antoniello, a Terryville resident, said many residents expressed the desire for the preservation of important buildings in Port Jeff Station, more open space and, most importantly, they wanted an identity. That identity would start with improving Main Street. 

The former civic president also said people in the community wanted places to go on Main Street where they could go shopping, eat and enjoy the area. 

“The area [Port Jeff Station] has a lot of history and landmarks,” Antionello said.

Another factor in the project is to repair buildings and get businesses to come that will benefit the community. 

Antoniello said the process to get the funds needed to begin the lights installation took a long time to come about. 

He first spoke with Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) about the proposed lights project and with his assistance was able to get  approved a $150,000 grant from New York State in November 2016 to help purchase the lights. 

Despite being approved, Antoniello said the money was not received until almost two years later. 

“I contacted the governor’s office on my own and asked for assistance,” he said “This began the process of getting the money released.”

The former civic president said the state holds on to grant dollars for months, sometimes years. This, he was told, by elected officials is common practice. Once the money was released, he worked with engineers and the Town of Brookhaven Street Lighting Department in preparation for the lighting structures to be installed. 

The $150,000 grant will cover the Nesconset Highway/Joline Road section installation. This comes after the installation of the lights on the eastern side of Route 112 by the new ShopRite center. Antoniello said he plans to try to get another grant from New York State and will be applying to the Downtown Revitalization Grant Program to get additional funding for the Main Street project. 

This won’t be the first time Port Jefferson Station has applied for the downtown revitalization grant. 

“They said we aren’t a true main street, we have too much traffic and we don’t have enough buildings,” Antoniello said. “It’s a lot of excuses — hopefully this time it will be different.”

Brookhaven town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) said the antique lighting project is a long-standing community project connected to the revitalization of Route 112 and promoting and enhancing the existing “main street corridor.”

“Many current and past members of the civic association were very involved with supporting and championing this project,” Cartright said. “Main street is the heart of any downtown community and the antique light project helps create a sense of place in the community. This in turn helps to attract additional businesses to the area.”  

Some of the lights are already installed near Uncle Giuseppe’s Marketplace and residents are already taking notice.

“Somebody told me it looks great and are glad that they are finally up,” Antoniello said. 

The Terryville resident also had ideas for other proposed projects in the area, including putting a historic marker on Patchogue Road, as it served as the road for stagecoaches back in the 19th and 20th centuries.   

He also plans on helping with the construction of a community park located at the intersection of Route 112 and Nesconset Highway where the Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce-owned train car resides. Antoniello said once funding becomes available they will move forward with constructing the park.