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Sandra Swenk, former mayor of Port Jefferson, chronicles the causes and effects of the village’s incorporation movement. Photo by Raymond Janis

This year marks Port Jefferson’s 60th anniversary as an incorporated village.

On a snowy day in December, 1962, Port Jefferson residents voted to form their own local government, a maneuver that still has ramifications generations later.

Sandra Swenk was among those leading the cause for incorporation and later served as the third mayor of the village she fought to create.

In an exclusive interview, Swenk reflected on the village’s genesis story, outlining the contributing factors for incorporation and the lasting effects of this homegrown revolution.

Civic awakening

Before there was a village, Port Jeff was an unincorporated hamlet, subject to the local laws and rules of the Town of Brookhaven. At around the time of incorporation, Brookhaven had been exploring instituting a parking district, a proposal jeopardizing the area’s historic character.

“They wanted parking, but they were going to take down some of these old homes to do it,” Swenk said. “That spurred a lot of interest in having home rule.”

The Port Jefferson Property Owners Association was the central civic group of that period. Swenk considers herself among the few remaining surviving members of that civic effort.

“Our property owners association was very active at the time,” she said.

Road to self-determination

Swenk noted several contributing factors leading to the village’s incorporation. Paramount among them was the growing industrial activity surrounding Port Jefferson Harbor.

“We were very concerned about the industrial aspect of the harbor — the tankers, barges, oil and possible spillage,” she said. “We wanted more recreational use of the harbor.”

‘It’s about making our own decisions.’

— Sandra Swenk

The threat of a deeper harbor, and the precipitating industrial and commercial growth, had also loomed large at the time. Growing tensions had existed for some time between the town and the surrounding residents of the harbor, with a fear of possible dredging.

“We in Port Jefferson did not want to see the harbor dredged because that meant a deeper port for larger boats to come in,” Swenk noted. “That was something that really triggered our interest in incorporation. That was a turning point, I would say.”

When referendum day arrived, the outcome was “overwhelming,” according to Swenk. “We won by a 2-1 margin [689-361],” she said, adding, “It was overwhelmingly in favor of incorporating — having our own government, our own board of trustees and controlling what might happen.”

Home rule

Following the vote, locals then set out to guide their village board in a direction reflective of the popular will.

Swenk said historic preservation, beautification and adaptive reuse had been core tenets of her administration from 1971 through 1977.

“I wanted to see the village revitalized,” she said. “I felt that there was adaptive use of some of the older buildings throughout the business district.”

She referred to Upper Port as a “thriving business district” during those early years, with bookstores, retail spaces and other commercial opportunities uptown.

“We were always a busy community, and that was something I wanted to see continued,” she said.

Another essential feature of home rule, according to her, was the preservation of the area’s historic character. Swenk, a charter member of Port Jefferson Historical Society, said she continues this endeavor to this day.

Incorporation in context

Swenk suggested that on the whole, the incorporation achieved much of its aims, such as protecting the harbor from overcommercialization and preserving the village’s historic charm.

She noted that parking remains an unresolved issue even today and that the village’s municipal boards can sometimes skirt their own rules.

“They’re not adhering to the codes in many cases,” she said. “As an application comes in, what an applicant is required to do to meet the code and all, they should follow it.”

She added that various stakeholders within the community could have greater collaboration in remediating local issues. “There hasn’t been enough togetherness in planning,” she said. 

Yet since incorporation, Swenk maintained that citizens have served as the drivers of their local democracy. With the recent reemergence of the Port Jefferson Civic Association, Swenk said some patterns of local history are playing out again today.

“It takes an issue to get people involved,” the incorporation leader and former village mayor said. PJCA members “seem to have the interest of the village” at heart.

Reflecting upon the legacy of the incorporation movement, she said locals could take away from the movement the power of civic engagement in contributing to tangible change in their community.

“It’s about making our own decisions,” she said. “It’s good being incorporated. I’m proud of my village. It means a lot to me.”

This story is part of a continuing series on the incorporation of Port Jefferson.

Guiding the incorporation movement, in part, was a desire to extract value from the Port Jefferson Power Station, pictured above. File photo by Lee Lutz

On a snowy day, Dec. 7, 1962, Port Jefferson residents voted 689-361 to incorporate as a village. After court challenges, the vote was made official in April 1963. 

But how did this vote affect public education in the village? Through the lens of the incorporation movement, village residents can better understand the local issues of their time.

In an exclusive interview, state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) for Assembly District 4, which includes Port Jefferson, explores some of these themes.

A vision for better schools

Decades before incorporation, the educational landscape was quite different than it is today. Contrasting the great variety of school districts along the North Shore, residents once belonged to one central school district, the epicenter of which was Port Jefferson. 

By the early 1930s, Port Jeff High School was accepting students as far west as Stony Brook and parts of Smithtown and as far east as Wading River and Yaphank.

But in the spirit of local control characteristic of the times, that central school district began to unravel. Fragments of the district started to break away, forming districts of their own, guaranteeing greater control. 

Fearing dissolution of their school district, local residents considered incorporating to counteract the trend of declining student enrollment. “They were motivated to make sure that the school district was not further depleted by actions beyond their control,” Englebright said. “There was a good deal of emotion in that incorporation involving the school district and the concerns of parents for the well-being of their children.”

Englebright regards the desire for quality public schools as one of the principal factors driving the incorporation movement. He added that proponents of incorporating viewed education as a priority for the Port Jefferson community.

This, the assemblyman maintains, holds true even today. “The reality is the parents and the community of Port Jefferson care deeply about their school district and their children,” he said. “They don’t want to lose that brand of excellence and the well-being of that school district, which has always been a superb place for education.” 

Extracting value

A power plant was located at the water’s edge of Port Jefferson Harbor. Contained within that plant, locals saw a promise for better schools, according to Englebright.

“I don’t think it was a singular motive on the part of Port Jefferson to capture the tax base of the power plant, but it certainly was seen as important to maintain the infrastructure of the schools in Port Jefferson,” the assemblyman said. 

Port Jefferson has enjoyed a largely subsidized school district for over half a century thanks to the power station. But as the world comes to grips with the danger of combustible energy sources, so is the village affected and, by extension, the local school district.

“The changing technology of energy production has been very much a part of the people’s consciousness, particularly the leadership of the school board and the village board,” Englebright said.

Despite its pivotal place in the cause to incorporate, the long-term future of the Port Jefferson Power Station, which is operated by National Grid USA, is undecided. The village government is already seeing declining subsidies from Long Island Power Authority, which supervises transmission and delivery functions. Whether the plant goes dark in the coming years remains an open question.

Englebright acknowledges this uncertainty and its impact on certain public school districts on Long Island. For him, the trends in New York state and around the globe point to a phasing out of combustion energy.

“The trend is to move away from combustion as the source of energy,” he said. “I do believe that it is likely that the plant … will prove to be less used going forward. The question of when that will happen, I can’t tell, but that is certainly the trend.”

Despite a cloud of uncertainty over this tax-generating facility, Englebright sees opportunities for community adaptation. Though the power plant may someday shut down, he foresees Port Jeff emerging as a local leader in renewable energy, becoming a central hub for offshore wind.

“I have been very much involved with helping to advance offshore wind and, at the same time, to guide and nurture a relationship between a power-generating site that has been a part of our region for half a century now and more, and to the extent possible enable a sort of gas pedal and clutch transition to occur,” the assemblyman said.

Even in the face of possibly losing a significant tax base, village residents can be reassured that the transition of its energy economy is already underway. 

Incorporation in context

Port Jefferson School District is nearing a public referendum scheduled for Monday, Dec. 12. This referendum, totaling approximately $25 million, may decide the future of facilities in buildings across the district, and possibly its long-term fate.

Englebright has expressed support for the facilities improvements, citing that they will be necessary to maintain a proper educational venue for future generations of students. [See story, “Capital bonds: PJSD nears historic referendum over school infrastructure.”] 

Compounding an already complex issue, PJSD, like many others throughout the area, is also experiencing a decline of student enrollment. “There’s no easy answer here, not just for Port Jefferson but for many school districts,” the assemblyman said. “The incoming population of youngsters entering first grade is significantly less than what the schools they are entering were built to accommodate.”

In the face of declining student populations, some are even suggesting the remerging of Port Jefferson with the Three Village School District, which broke away from Port Jeff in 1966, four years after the vote to incorporate.

Despite these calls, Englebright feels the overriding spirit of local control remains preeminent. If the community favors keeping its school district intact, the state assemblyman recommends making the proper investment in its facilities.

“At the moment, I just don’t see [merging with another school district] as a popular idea because people within their communities identify their sense of place through a mechanism of community and neighborhood identity, which is their schools,” he said. “It behooves the well-being of the children and the quality of the school district … to make the investments to keep that infrastructure in a condition that meets or exceeds all appropriate standards.”

Revisiting the village’s incorporation, we find that the issues of today are not unique to our time. Questions surrounding school infrastructure, energy subsidies and student enrollment have puzzled generations of Port Jeff residents. While these issues may seem problematic, public dialogue and an open confrontation with local history may offer a pathway to brighter days ahead.


This story is part of a continuing series on the incorporation of Port Jefferson.

Industrial dredging vessels such as this were used to remove sand from the Belle Terre coastline, wiping out large sections of territory. This drove residents of the area to incorporate as a village in 1931. File photo from Pixabay

Nearly six decades ago, the residents of Port Jefferson made a pivotal decision: to incorporate as a village.

On a snowy day Dec. 7, 1962, villagers voted 689-361 in favor of incorporation. After court challenges, the vote was made official in April 1963.

Philip Griffith, co-editor of Port Jefferson Historical Society’s newsletter, said the incorporation of Port Jeff had been under discussion as early as 1960.

“At that time, Port Jefferson was part of the Town of Brookhaven,” Griffith said in a phone interview. “They were concerned that things happening in Brookhaven were being done independently of the residents of Port Jefferson. A lot of people were starting to feel, ‘Why don’t we incorporate as Belle Terre had done.’ Then we can make our own decisions, we can raise our own money through taxation and we can use those tax monies locally.” He added, “Instead of relying on representatives of the Town of Brookhaven, we would have our own elected representatives, all of whom would be residents of the village.”

While there were many proponents of incorporation, Griffith said there were also persuasive arguments made in opposition: “The main arguments against were people having a fear of leaving Brookhaven and not having the ability to raise sufficient finances to carry a village.” He added that opponents of incorporation were mainly driven by fear: “Fear of something that’s new, fear of change, fear of losing the umbrella of Brookhaven — and the fear of going on out your own.”

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket). Photo from Englebright’s Facebook page

Legacy of Belle Terre

This week, TBR News Media sat down with state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), who shared his perspective of the legacy of incorporation in Port Jefferson and beyond. 

One of the first village incorporations in the area was Belle Terre, a coastal community preyed upon by industrial dredgers. In the early 1920s, hydraulic sand miners dredged large swaths of Belle Terre’s coastline to support the growing concrete industry which helped in the expansion of New York City.

“The sand had to come from somewhere and it came in the 1920s and ’30s mostly from the North Shore of Long Island,” Englebright said. “It was very threatening to the people who had homes and dreams of continuing to live in those homes and pass those homes on to their children. They lived in fear of having the sandy grounds under their homes sandblasted away.”

“The sand had to come from somewhere and it came in the 1920s and ’30s mostly from the North Shore of Long Island.” — Steve Englebright

Endangered by the sand miners right in their backyards, the residents of Belle Terre were advised to incorporate. 

“The relationship with the town had become fraught because the town was basically trading against the best interests of the people who lived where the resources were extractable,” the assemblyman said. “It was clear that sand dredging was a real threat to the quality of life for these North Shore communities.” He added, “It wasn’t just Brookhaven that was trading against the best interests of the North Shore residents, but all of the towns were doing this.”

After its successful incorporation in 1931, mining in Belle Terre had stopped altogether. 

The incorporation movement 

Port Jefferson accommodated a prosperous shipbuilding industry from the 1790s until the 1920s. After it wound down, the residents of the area were left with little choice but to adapt to the changing circumstances. 

With the construction of a new power plant between 1948 and 1960, villagers were motivated to incorporate to draw from this as a revenue stream. “They said if they incorporated as a village, they would be able to draw some revenue from that industrial facility and it would only be fair because they were hosting that facility and it served all of the town,” Englebright said. “They rationalized that it would be reasonable to draw the tax benefits from the imposition of such a heavily industrialized facility because it served for improving the quality of life for the village, most particularly the school district.”

This is the first story of a series on the incorporation of the Village of Port Jefferson. If you would like to contribute to this continuing series, please email [email protected]. 

Correction: In the original version of this story, it was reported: “The first village incorporation in the area was Belle Terre.” This statement is historically incorrect as Old Field had incorporated in 1927, four years before the incorporation of Belle Terre in 1931.