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Sarah Anker

The 10-mile route that the Port Jefferson Station to Wading River Rails to Trails project will take. Image from Legislator Anker's office

As hundreds packed the auditoriums of Shoreham-Wading River and Miller Place high schools the same sentiment reverberated off the walls — there’s not only a want, but a need for a safe place for children to ride their bikes.

After the deaths of two local children, the desire for the Rails to Trails project to push forward was prevalent among the Port Jefferson Station, Mount Sinai, Miller Place, Sound Beach, Rocky Point, Shoreham and Wading River residents who live along the proposed 10-mile trail.

“I don’t know if this trail is going to move forward 100 percent, but so far it’s picking up momentum,” Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said to the March 29 group in Shoreham. “We need the ability to ride bikes in a safe place, the ability to take a walk or push a baby carriage in a safe place.”

Residents listen to questions and answers during the meeting at Shorheam-Wading River High School. Photo by Desirée Keegan

The legislator, who is propelling the project, brought members the Suffolk County Department of Works and engineering company NV5 to her first general meeting to gather public input and answer questions.

“I need to hear what you want, because I’m here to make it happen,” Anker said.

Steve Normandy, project manager with NV5, discussed the flat surface and location being conducive to a trail.

“There’s over 1,600 rail trails nationwide over 20,000 miles,” he said. “They’re good for biking, hiking, walking, safe travel to school, and studies have shown businesses thrive and home values increase, it improves air quality and enhances sense of community.”

On March 28, the county Legislature unanimously approved a negative New York State Environmental Quality Review Act determination for the proposed 10-foot-wide trail, which would be opened from dawn to dusk. The adoption of negative SEQRA determination means that there is no anticipated environmental impact for the project.

The path will have paver markings and mile-markers for county miles, as well as emergency services to locate those in need. It will also meet Americans with Disabilities Act slope requirements. The design report was submitted to the state Department of Transportation in February. If design approval is received this summer, final design plans will be prepared in the next year in the hopes of received final design plan approval from the NYSDOT in winter 2018.

Currently, the plan is that construction will begin in spring 2019, for a fall 2020 finish.

“We’ve met with quite a few partners and discussed a bunch of different aspects of maintenance, but the biggest issue we anticipate is really going to be cutting the grass,” said county Department of Public Works chief engineer, Bill Hillman. “We’ll be asking the community for help, to pitch in with a lot of the different maintenance aspects.”

The hope is that a not-for-profit like the Friends of Greenway, which maintains the Setauket to Port Jefferson Greenway Trail, will form to beautify and preserve the attraction.

Kaitlin Brown, who moved to Wading River five years ago, said she entered the area because she loved the trees.

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker responds to questions from the audience. Photo by Desirée Keegan

“I want to pledge my support because I think it’s a wonderful component that our community doesn’t have, and it needs,” she said, adding she is willing to help mow and maintain the piece of property, which is owned by LIPA. “I found my house on the map, and it looks like one day when I have kids, they’ll be able to get from our house through back roads to the trail, and then take the trail to the high school.”

Judy Black, who has lived in the area for 47 years, said she’s been hoping the trail would become a reality from day one, back in 2001 before plans derailed, and again in 2011 when Anker tried to revive the idea.

“I so hope we can come together and make this happen,” she said. “With a son that rode his bicycle all over the place I was always worried about him.”

She explained how she once saw a cyclist fall on North Country Road trying to maneuver around a construction sign. She was in need of medical attention, and when examiners arrived, they asked her why she was riding along a major road.

“But where else do you ride your bike?” Black said. “We need a safe place to ride, to walk with friends, to expand our community connection, and I’m so for it.”

The ideas weren’t without opposition.

There were some like 10-year Rocky Point resident Mary Anne Gladysz, who said she’s felt like she’s been kept in the dark.

“I’m not in favor of this at all,” she said, although adding she would probably be in favor of Rails to Trials if she didn’t live near it.“This is in my backyard 24/7; you come for an hour-and-a-half walk and then you leave. I’m here all the time.”

Some of her concerns included if the trail will take property from homeowners, if cesspools will be affected and what issues her dogs barking toward the trail could bring.

Hillman and Anker reassured her that she will not be losing property, and cesspools will not be affected. As for dogs barking and noise ordinances, Hillman said it’s an issue Gladysz would have to take up with Brookhaven Town.

The trial currently doesn’t have any guardrails, fences, beautification elements, toilets or lights budgeted into the $8 million plan.

Those who would like to see where the trail will be located in relation to their homes could view individual hamlet maps during the meeting. Photo by Desirée Keegan

Anker said she is working on a plan to protect privacy along the path, and said Eagle and Girl Scouts typically do beautification projects, which could include adding benches and other useful things along the trail.

Others still worried about safety and other crime-related issues, were soothed by Sgt. Walter Langdon of the Suffolk County Police Department, and 7th Precinct COPE officer Mike Casper, who said there has been “little to no crime” at Setauket-Port Jefferson Greenway Trail, but added that there will still be a police presence along the path.

By the end of the first meeting, those like Rocky Point resident Cory Fitzgerald were heard loudest, and supported by other community members for their opinion of the trail.

Fitzgerald has daughters aged 8 and 6, and both love riding their bikes.

“We take trips to Cape Cod every summer and the rail trail up in Cape Cod is phenomenal,” he said. “My girls ride their bikes more in that one week than during the entire year in Rocky Point. The roads in Rocky Point are very narrow and hilly, so I want to give my girls that opportunity to ride whenever they want. We’ve been waiting for so long — I’ve been told this was coming and I’ve been so excited and the girls really want this to happen. It’s going to be great for our community.”

Residents in favor of the trail, which some like Wading River resident Bruce Kagan are naming the “Tesla Trail,” because it will lead to the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe in Shoreham, were unanimous on the biggest topic of discussion: kids.

“This is the most deadly county for injuries and deaths for pedestrians and cyclists,” Kagan said. “There’s no place for our kids. Let us do this for our children and our children’s children.”

A copy of the plaque that Shoreham Town Hall and homeowners of suffrage movement homes will receive to serve as markers along the Suffrage Trail. Photo by Kevin Redding

Long Island women who cast their votes this past election have a nearby town to thank.

Shoreham, an epicenter of women’s rights activism in the years leading up to the passing of the 19th Amendment in 1920, will be the first stop on a planned trail that will trace the rich history of the women’s suffrage movement on Long Island.

In recognition of this, an enthusiastic group of local leaders, community members and dignitaries packed into the Shoreham Village Hall April 1 to witness the official establishment of the Long Island Suffrage Trail.

Coline Jenkins, the great great granddaughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton — a leading figure whose “Declaration of Sentiments” in 1848 served as the foundation on which all women’s rights movements ever since were built — speaks during the ceremony. Photo by Kevin Redding

The ambitious project will allow residents to visit different sites across the region that have a history with the women’s suffrage movement.

The plan is that, in a few years’ time, a map of these marked sites will be available at public libraries and rest stops so people can embark on a history tour in their own backyard.

At home base is Elizabeth Cady Stanton — a leading figure whose “Declaration of Sentiments” in 1848 served as the foundation on which all women’s rights movements ever since were built — and several generations of her family.

“We wanted to start a trail in the most auspicious place we could and, we decided, there’s no better place than Shoreham,” said Nancy Mion, vice president of the Islip branch of the American Association of University Women, the organization behind the trail.

“We’re so fortunate that on Long Island, in Shoreham, we are a hotbed of people involved in the movement,” she said. “If we’re going to start, we might as well start at the top … and after years of dreaming and hoping, it’s real. We’re going to educate individuals and continue the history of women. We’re very proud.”

It was in 2012 that Mion and fellow AAUW members, including its president Susan Furfaro, first got the ball rolling on the project.

At the organization’s New York State convention, Coline Jenkins, the great-great-granddaughter of Stanton and a municipal legislator, proposed a challenge to the branch to investigate historical events of the movement and set up a local trail.

Jenkins herself gave a testimony in 2009 before the U.S. Senate that contributed to the creation of a suffrage trail at the national level.

Members of the Islip branch soon delved into back issues of Suffolk County newspapers as well as old publications and documents, and wound up setting their sights on Shoreham, with the help of the town’s historian Mimi Oberdorf.

The group got a surprise recently when it received a metro grant from its organization, the money from which will fund plaques and markers to be installed at the trail’s historic sites.

“We’ll be applying for the grants each year, so if we can average two to three sites a year, in six years, we’ll have enough to make a map and that’ll be when we’ll finally have a complete trail,” Furfaro said.

Event attendees listen to speakers discuss the importance of Shoreham during the suffrage movement. Photo by Kevin Redding

The first four plaques made were presented at the ceremony, one to be hung inside village hall and the other three to be hung outside nearby homes that were occupied at one time by Stanton and her relatives.

Shoreham Mayor Edward Weiss, who accepted the plaque on behalf of the village — which deemed Shoreham “the summer capital of the suffrage movement” — said he was honored by the recognition. The plaque will hang at the entrance of the building. The specific spot where it’s to be installed had been decorated by a paper version for the time being.

“Our thinking is that if you’re going to honor us with the unveiling of this plaque today, we should at the same time honor you by unveiling what will be its — or should I say, her — permanent location,” he said to Mion and Furfaro, who were dressed in Victorian clothing and wore large “Votes For Women” ribbons.

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) took to the podium to congratulate the town and thank Stanton and all those involved in the suffrage movement.

“Were it not for Susan B. Anthony [and Stanton] I would not be able to have my role as council representative today,” Bonner said. “How fortunate and blessed are women in the United States to have the right to vote and hold office today? I do believe, one day, in our lifetime, we will have a female president.”

Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) echoed Bonner’s sentiments, adding women still have a lot for which to fight.

“When I was young, we were taught to be quiet, to listen, to do what we were told, and not go and conquer our dreams,” Anker said. “We need to change that, and I see here today that we are changing that. We need to continue to support our girls.”

A map of the Rails to Trails project provided by the county’s Department of Public Works. Photo from Legislator Sarah Anker’s office

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) will host two public information meetings to discuss the proposed design for the Port Jefferson-Wading River Rails to Trails project. The two dates for the public meetings are:

•March 22 at 6 p.m. at Shoreham-Wading River High School, 250 Route 25A in Shoreham.

•April 5 at 6 p.m. at Miller Place High School, 15 Memorial Drive in Miller Place

The proposed trail, a project that was spearheaded by Anker, is a 10-mile-long shared-use recreational path.

The path will be built along the abandoned Long Island Rail Road right-of-way, which currently is owned by the Long Island Power Authority. The trail will run through the hamlets of Port Jefferson Station, Mount Sinai, Miller Place, Sound Beach, Rocky Point, Shoreham, East Shoreham and Wading River.

These meetings will give residents an opportunity to hear from the Suffolk County Department of Public Works regarding the plan for design and construction of the trail. For more information, contact Anker’s office at 631-854-1600.

Miller Place art teacher Julia Vogelle helped form The Brick Studio and Gallery nonprofit. Photo from Julia Vogelle

Who better to bring vibrancy and revitalization to downtown Rocky Point than a group of local artists? With the support of elected officials, a new nonprofit organization is leading the charge to help enrich, educate and electrify the Rocky Point community and surrounding areas.

The Brick Studio and Gallery is an art collective of more than 20 local artists and instructors with aspirations to grow and develop into a full-fledged community studio and hub.

Spearheaded by Miller Place High School art teacher Julia Vogelle and professional ceramicist Justine Moody, the group blossomed around the time Stony Brook University’s Craft Center and ceramics studio closed for renovations in January 2016, leaving potters and artists without a space to do what they love.

Pottery making will be offered at The Brick Studio and Gallery. Photo from Julia Vogelle

Vogelle and Moody, who shared dreams of opening up a cooperative to bring art back into the community, met in the wake of the Craft Center shutdown and enlisted the help of the “homeless” artists to form the organization.

Since then, the project has grown, culminating in a Kickstarter campaign with an ambitious goal of $18,000 to turn a dream into a reality. With 120 backers, their goal has already been exceeded, raising a total of $18,150.

The money will cover the start-up costs to find a location and equip and supply the studio with 14 pottery wheels, two electric kilns, kiln shelves, clay, glazes and ceramic tools. According to the fundraiser page, the studio “has the potential to begin a renaissance in historic Rocky Point, with other artists and artisans joining in bringing life to other empty buildings” and plans to open in early spring.

“My vision is to have this cultural center energize and bring all the money back into the hamlet,” Vogelle said. “Rocky Point has a lot to offer. People 16 and up can come; we’d have services for students, seniors, veterans and anyone who would like to work. I want to look at Broadway in Rocky Point as ‘artist’s row.’”

In addition to pottery, glass and jewelry making, the studio will be a venue for documentary showings, live poetry, trivia nights and  live music.

Moody expanded on the grand vision.

“I think it’s going to become a destination place … I don’t know that Rocky Point has one, and there are a lot of towns here with a tremendous group of creatives who don’t really have a place to call their own,” Moody said.

She’s hoping it could be a place to attract locals during the summer to take lessons, and others from outside the community on Friday nights, saying she envisions big events on weekends and other pop-up events throughout the year.

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) believes The Brick has the potential to be a tourist attraction that could boost Rocky Point’s foot traffic and revenue — much-needed since the state built the bypass, which encourages traffic to go around the area, hitting downtown businesses especially hard.

“There are a lot of towns here with a tremendous group of creatives who don’t really have a place to call their own.”

— Justine Moody

“So many of our residents come in from the Long Island Expressway, from Sunrise Highway, and they look to go east from the North Fork, and my hope is that maybe they’ll turn left and go west to experience what Rocky Point and Shoreham have to offer,” Anker said. “There are so many high-level artists that live in the area and this will hopefully give them a way to stay local and promote their craft to the public.”

Anker has been involved in North Shore revitalization plans since 2011, participating with the Rails to Trails project and the clean-up of the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe, and said that art is not just trendy.

“We underestimate how important art is, it needs to be cultivated,” she said. “It’s part of our culture and it has an educational component. It will definitely benefit downtown Rocky Point.”

Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point), who contributed $100 to the art collective’s Kickstarter campaign, said she’s so excited about the studio and points to Vogelle and Moody’s hard work and dedication.

“They’re very dedicated and committed and they’re not looking for somebody else to solve their problem … grass isn’t growing under feet at all and it’s hard not to pay attention to that,” Bonner said.

As a 30-year Rocky Point resident, the councilwoman is hopeful that the artists can bring people back to downtown Rocky Point and trigger change.

Vogelle feels the same, stating that she believed that the art can bring value to homes and surrounding businesses.

“If you put art into a community, people want to move in,” she said. “If you put music in town, people want to gather around and enjoy it. A cultural center like this always connects with schools in the district and it will also help people realize there’s so much culture that’s hidden. And anyone can get hooked on ceramics — the elderly, veterans, teens. Once you touch mud, you never go back.”

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.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, on right, gets signatures from residents in support of the Community Protection Act outside Stop & Shop in Miller Place. Photo from County Executive Bellone's office

By Kevin Redding

In light of recent court rulings and pending lawsuits in favor of sex offenders, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) is urging the New York State Legislature to follow in the county’s footsteps and get tough on sex criminals by passing legislation that gives the county authorization to uphold its strict laws against them.

On Feb. 11, Bellone and Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) spoke with parents and residents in Miller Place about supporting and protecting the rules within the Suffolk County Community Protection Act — a private-public partnership law developed by Bellone, victims’ rights advocates like Parents for Megan’s Law and law enforcement agencies. It ensures sex offender registration and compliance, and protects residents and their children against sexual violence — much to the dismay of local sex offenders, who have been suing the county to try to put a stop to the act.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Legislator Sarah Anker talk to residents about the Community Protection Act. Photo from County Executive Bellone’s office

“We’re encouraging people to go on to our Facebook page and sign the online petition,” Bellone said. “We want to get as many signatures as we can to communicate to our partners in the state that this is a priority that we pass legislation that makes it clear Suffolk County has the right to continue doing what it’s doing to protect our community against sex offenders.”

While the county executive said Suffolk representative have been supportive of the law, which was put in place four years ago, he wanted to make sure they’re armed with grassroots support to convince state colleagues they have a substantial evidence to prove it’s popularity and show it’s the right thing to do.

Since it was enacted in 2013, the Community Protection Act has been the nation’s strictest sex offender enforcement, monitoring and verification program, cracking down on all three levels of offenders when it comes to their proximity to a school facility or child-friendly area, and reducing sex offender recidivism in Suffolk County by 81 percent. Ninety-eight percent of Level 2 and more than 94 percent of Level 3 registrants are in compliance with photograph requirements, what Bellone said is a significant increase from before the law took effect.

Through its partnership with Parents for Megan’s Law, the county has conducted more than 10,000 in-person home verification visits for all levels of sex offenders, by sending retired law enforcement to verify sex offenders’ work and home addresses and make sure their registry is accurate and up to date. More than 300 sex offenders have also been removed from social media under the law.

According to the Suffolk County Police Department, the act is a critical piece of legislation.

“The program has been incredibly successful, which is why sex offenders don’t like it.”

—Steve Bellone

“The numbers don’t lie, there’s a lot of hard evidence and data that shows this act has done precisely what it was designed to do: monitor sex offenders and make sure they’re not doing anything they’re not supposed to be doing,” Deputy Commissioner Justin Meyers said. “To date, I have never met a single resident in this county who didn’t support [it].”

Besides the sex offenders themselves, that is.

The act has made Suffolk County one of the more difficult places for registered sex offenders to live and, since its inception, Suffolk sex offenders have deemed its strict level of monitoring unconstitutional, arguing, and overall winning their cases in court that local law is not allowed to be stricter than the state law.

In 2015, the state Court of Appeals decided to repeal local residency restriction laws for sex offenders, claiming local governments “could not impose their own rules on where sex offenders live.”

In the prospective state legislation, Bellone hopes to close the sex offender loophole that would allow high-level sex offenders to be able to legally move into a home at close proximity to a school.

“The program has been incredibly successful, which is why sex offenders don’t like it,” Bellone said. “This is what we need to do to make sure we’re doing everything we can to protect kids and families in our community. As a father of three young kids, this is very personal to me and I think that while we’ve tried to make government more efficient and reduce costs here, this is an example of the kind of thing government should absolutely be spending resources on.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, on right, with a community member who signed his petition urging state lawmakers to uphold the Community Protection Act. Photo from County Executive Bellone’s office

To conduct all the monitoring and fund educational resources offered to the community by Parents for Megan’s Law — teaching parents what to look out for and how to prevent their children from becoming victims — costs roughly $1 million a year, according to Bellone.

In addition to the residential restriction, Bellone is calling on the state to authorize the county to verify the residency and job sites of registered sex offenders, authorize local municipalities to keep a surveillance on homeless sex offenders, who represent less than 4 percent of the offender population in Suffolk County, and require them to call their local police department each night to confirm where they’re staying, and require an affirmative obligation of all sex offenders to cooperate and confirm information required as part of their sex offender designation.

“If people really knew this issue, I couldn’t see how they would oppose the Community Protection Act, because sex offenders are not a common criminal; there’s something fundamentally and psychologically wrong with somebody who commits sexual crime and we as a society have to understand that,” said St. James resident Peter , who held a “Protect Children” rally in the area last years. “Residents should know that the sexual abuse of children is out of control.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four girls are abused and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18.

“It is imperative that we, not only as a community, but as a state, make efforts to further ensure the safety of our children from sexual predators,” Anker said. “We must do everything in our power to ensure that this law is upheld and that’s why I’ve joined [Bellone] in calling on the New York State Legislature to consider an amendment to grant the county the ability to uphold it.”

To sign the petition, visit https://www.change.org/p/new-york-state-protect-our-children-support-the-community-protection-act.

Not-for-profit asks community members to join committee

Heritage Trust President Lori Baldassare, below, talks to community members about various elements that could be incorporated in a splash pad, like the one shown above. Image from Heritage Trust

Heritage Park in Mount Sinai has been a safe place to walk, play soccer, hit the playground, attend a carnival and fly a kite. Now, the not-for-profit Heritage Trust is looking to add another summer attraction to keep visitors coming in the hotter months: a splash pad.

The trust’s board of directors held a meeting Feb. 4 to ask not only for community input, but community involvement and help in implementing the idea.

Lori Baldissare speaks during the meeting. Photo by Desirée Keegan

“We need people to come back and help us take this to the next stage,” trust president Lori Baldassare said. “We do all of these things, but think about what we could do if we had more people.”

The almost 50 attendees that packed the Heritage Center were in agreement they’d like to see the idea come to fruition.

“It should be a place where kids play and splash around, but kids could also discover,” one father said.

In a slideshow presentation, Baldassare showed various images of what the splash pad, which will be built next to the playground, could look like — vertical water features like mushroom or tree showers, a spray pool, misters, grills that shoot water straight up from the ground or some combination of those ideas.

Most community members in attendance agreed whatever was decided on should maintain the multi-generational feel of the park, making it a place where kids could play and pretend they’re discovering, say, a lake, but also a place adults can walk past and marvel at.

“I like the kiddie ideas where they can run and chase the water, but then there’s people like me who are seniors and like more ‘adult’ water parks — parts of it where it mists you,” said Deirdre Dubato, a member of the Mount Sinai Civic Association who was also a founding member of the trust. “I like the dual idea and a nature element.”

“I like the kiddie ideas where they can run and chase the water, but then there’s people like me who are seniors and like more ‘adult’ water parks — parts of it where it mists you.”

—Deidre Dubato

This splash pad was in the original master plan, which was submitted to the town not too long after the trust was established in 2000, but being that the not-for-profit runs almost solely on donations, raising money has taken time. The trust first raised $1.7 million to build the center in 2007, put up the playground in 2008 and added a putting green last year, which was donated by a local community member. Funds are generated from events, like the spring and fall carnivals, Easter egg hunt, Halloween festival and Breakfast with Santa. Other ideas are also currently in the works, like a plant maze, skating rink and amphitheater, and a pollination garden is set to open this year.

“We grow with the community as wants and needs change,” Baldassare said.

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) was in attendance, and urged residents to help in any way they can. The splash pad will cost roughly between $100,000 and $125,000 depending on how elaborate the design is. The trust only has about $10,000 in reserves, so fundraising will be a big part of the splash pad committee’s task, besides formulating a design and finding the right builders.

“It doesn’t matter how small a contribution it is, anything given is helpful,” Anker said. “Be it money, resources, knowledge.”

To give feedback and ideas, join a committee or donate, interested people should email contact@heritagetrustmail.org.

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.”

A rock, that sits in front of a home in Rocky Point and is believed to be a boulder deposited from glaciers thousands of years ago, is part of a Suffolk County spending controversy. Photo by Erin Dueñas

By Erin Dueñas

The massive boulder that sits in front of the boarded-up house at 30 Sam’s Path in Rocky Point looms large in the childhood memories of Annie Donnelly, who grew up there. When she was 8 years old, the rock was the place to be in the neighborhood — the place local kids would gather for use as a clubhouse or a fort or even just to climb. Years later, teens would find the rock made a great place for a first kiss or a first swig of beer.

“It was the focal point for so many of us,” said Donnelly, who is now retired and living in Florida. “It was the go-to place for many of our first times in those days.”

The rock, which measures 50 feet long and 35 feet high, was even the site for Donnelly’s wedding reception in 1971.

The home which the rock sits in front of, at 30 Sams Path, was purchased last year for $107,000. Photo by Erin Dueñas
The home which the rock sits in front of, at 30 Sams Path, was purchased last year for $107,000. Photo by Erin Dueñas

“There was a dance floor built by my dad behind the rock and we decorated it with flowers from around town,” she said. “It was an enchanted wedding.”

With her fond memories, it comes as no surprise that Donnelly supports efforts spearheaded by Suffolk County legislator Sarah Anker to acquire the property and turn it into a “pocket park.” Donnelly recalled that her father never minded when kids played on the rock, even though it sat on his front lawn. “Any kid could use it,” she said. “We knew it belonged to the town and everyone in it.”

According to Anker, efforts to acquire the property where the rock sits began after campaigning in the area last year, and listening to neighbors who weren’t concerned with the rock, but more with the dilapidated, empty house behind it.

“Neighbors asked about doing something with the zombie home,” Anker said. “Revitalizing the property was the main objective of the initiative.”

Anker pointed out that she never submitted legislation for the county to purchase the property with tax dollars like it’s been reported — stressing that public funds would not be used to purchase it. She said she is in talks with several not-for-profit organizations including the Nature Conservancy and the Peconic Land Trust, who may have an interest in helping to purchase the property for public use. The house was purchased though, last year, for $107,000, and the current owner has signaled that he could be willing to sell.

While some like Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Smithtown) says it’s “preposterous” and “embarrassing” to buy a rock, community members and historical leaders view the piece of property differently.

“Rocky Point is very proud of this rock,” said Rocky Point Historical Society President Natalie Aurucci Stiefel. “It’s a natural wonder and the town takes pride in it.”

“Neighbors asked about doing something with the zombie home. Revitalizing the property was the main objective of the initiative.”

—Sarah Anker

She said that the rock is likely how Rocky Point got its name. Local legend contends that it was once a spot frequented by Native Americans in the area, lending it its nickname, Indian Rock. Stiefel said that like many of the rocks on the North Shore, the boulder was deposited from glaciers thousands of years ago.

Anker said that there are many benefits to revitalizing the spot, which as it stands now, depreciates the value of the entire community. She noted the historical and natural value of the rock, as well as value of remediating the blighted area.

“There’s also the educational value,” she said. “I imagine a child looking at that boulder from thousands of years ago in awe.”

Dot Farrell, of Sound Beach, said she passes the rock frequently and considers herself sensitive to the historical significance it plays in the town. But she has reservations about what the acquisition of the property could mean for the town.

“Pocket parks become drug hangouts,” she said. “We don’t need another one.”

She also questioned where the money would come from to maintain the property, even if the initial purchase was made without tax dollars.

“It’s going to need ongoing upkeep and there are so many other things to spend money on,” she said. “I prefer my town didn’t take on anymore obligations that they don’t need. I want my town to be as fiscally savvy as I try to be.”

With Suffolk County’s dire financial straights for the present and the future, some legislators are proposing ideas to trim the fat and save costs, while others think the real problems are not being addressed.

County Legislator William Lindsay III (D-Bohemia) has drafted two bills, one that would freeze salaries for all legislators for five years and another to consolidate the Legislature from 18 members to 13.

County legislators receive an annual raise equal to 4 percent or the increase in the Consumer Price Index, whichever is lower. This year the raise is expected to be 0.58 percent, according to Lindsay’s office.

Lindsay has advocated to get rid of the automatic increases for some time, and recently drafted legislation for a five-year freeze — a motion that didn’t receive a seconder in the Government Operations, Personnel, Information Technology & Housing Committee. Fellow members Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset), Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) and Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue) declined to second Lindsay’s motion. Hahn and Kennedy did not respond to requests for comment.

“This sends a message we’re serious about tackling the issue,” Lindsay said. “Everyone should feel the pain a little. We should lead by example. This gives us more credibility.” Lindsay froze his salary when he first took office in 2013, and other legislators have done the same.

Lindsay said he was surprised the proposal didn’t get more consideration from his colleagues.

“We need to show we can be an example, that we’re cutting back during fiscally challenging times.”
—Sarah Anker

“With the financial issues we’re facing, we need to look at alternatives to cut spending,” he said.

Lindsay’s second proposal to drop from 18 to 13 representatives was created in the same spirit. The first public hearing on the bill was due to be held Dec. 6. If the bill is approved by the Legislature it will be up to a voter referendum.

“Why shouldn’t we allow voters to decide how they should be governed?” Lindsay said.

The 8th District representative said he thinks cutting legislators would help reduce costs without sacrificing the quality of representation for each district.

His proposal would see each representative go from roughly 80,000 constituents to 110,000.

According to a 2015 government census report, Suffolk’s population is approximately 1.5 million. By comparison two Californian counties, Sacramento and Alameda, each have five representatives for their 1.4 million and 1.6 million residents respectively. Both of these counties function with a board of supervisors, instead of legislators.

According to Lindsay’s office, Suffolk almost doubles the national average of representation while each legislator represents only one-fifth of the average constituency nationwide.

Lindsay’s proposal states that at present each county legislator receives a salary, is assigned three paid staff members and is entitled to a district office, among other benefits.

If this legislation passes, it would not go into effect until 2021, after the county district lines are set to be redrawn.

Lindsay’s suggestions all take aim at relieving some of Suffolk’s budgetary issues. Legislators, a credit rating agency and the director of the Budget Review Office for the Legislature have said the county’s financial situation is dire.

Robert Lipp, director of the Budget Review Office, expressed concerns in his assessment of the county budget.

“How are we able to provide services at needed levels when facing a structural deficit that is far in excess of $100 million in each of the past several years? It is a conundrum,” Lipp said in a letter accompanying his review of the budget in October. “The short answer is that the county’s structural deficit is increasingly driving our decisions. As a result, some initiatives, that may be considered crucial, are funded without regard for our ability to pay, while others are funded at less than needed levels because of our deficit position.”

He said the county has set a bad precedent by borrowing money to pay for operating expenses. The credit rating entity Moody’s Investors Service has projected a negative credit rating outlook for the county due to outstanding debt and a reliance on borrowing.

Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said the budget is deeply flawed, but he does not believe either of Lindsay’s proposals would help fix the problem.

“This is pennies compared to the problems we have,” Trotta said in a phone interview. “It’s showboating.” The District 12 representative is most concerned with the county’s contract with the Suffolk County Police Department, which he said costs Suffolk $135,000 per day.

“We’re in these binding arbitrations that we have no ability to pay,” he said.

Trotta’s primary concern is contractual pension and pay increases for county police officers. The county and the Police Benevolent Association agreed on the current contract in 2011, which runs through 2018. Trotta, a former SCPD detective, estimated for every 200 cops that retire, it could cost the county more than $60 million.

“We need to generate businesses and growth, but we can’t afford to,” he said.

Trotta said a five-year salary freeze for legislators is equivalent to a grain of sand on the beach, but he would support a salary freeze of all government employees. As for a reduction in members, he said he doesn’t think that goes far enough either.

“It should be six or seven members,” he said. However, Trotta warned fewer representatives could put grassroots campaigns at a disadvantage with more ground to cover in a single district. Ultimately he called the idea a double-edged sword.

Lindsay’s proposal acknowledged this concern, stating districts would still be small enough to “allow underfunded candidates to compete effectively in legislative races and permit winning candidates to provide excellent services to their constituents.”

Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said she supports the five-year freeze. She froze her own salary in 2011.

“We need to show we can be an example, that we’re cutting back during fiscally challenging times,” she said in a phone interview.

But Anker doesn’t back a smaller Legislature. “If you have less representation, that’s not in the best benefit for the public.”