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Joe Palumbo

Photos by Raymond Janis

After a roadway closure spanning nine months, construction resumed last week at the intersection of Arlington Avenue and State Route 25A.

The construction project signals progress and a cooling of tensions between the Village of Port Jefferson and the New York State Department of Transportation. The initial roadway obstruction was created in September 2021 as part of the DOT’s sidewalk initiative along 25A. Under the original design, a sidewalk was added through the intersection along the pavement and changes were made to the grade, causing vehicles to get stuck at the bottom of the slope.

Seeing this as a public safety hazard, village officials closed down the intersection to traffic, igniting an intergovernmental dispute between the village and DOT.

Recently, travelers along the 25A corridor noticed significant digging, uprooting of pavement and movement of dirt. Stephen Canzoneri, public information officer for DOT Region 10, detailed the progress of the reconstruction efforts.

“The New York State Department of Transportation is working to address longstanding terrain issues at the intersection of Arlington Avenue and State Route 25A in the Village of Port Jefferson and expects work to be completed by the end of the summer,” he said in an emailed statement.

Responding to the ongoing construction, Joe Palumbo, the village administrator, offered thanks to DOT and to state Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) for expediting the reconstruction efforts. The Palumbos are not related.

“The Village of Port Jefferson is delighted to see active construction taking place to redesign the intersection of Arlington and West Broadway,” Joe Palumbo said in an email. “The village would like to thank Senator Palumbo for his help in getting this project started and NYSDOT for seeing the need for the redesign and executing the new plan.”

To read more about the background to this dispute, see The Port Times Record’s March 24 story, “PJ Village clashes with DOT over Arlington Avenue obstruction,” available on the TBR News Media website.

Construction of a retaining wall to fortify the toe of the East Beach bluff is expected to begin this year. Photo by Carolyn Sackstein

By Carolyn Sackstein

In a continuing effort to report on bluff erosion near the Port Jefferson Country Club at Harbor Hills, TBR News Media reached out to the Village of Port Jefferson to discuss the recent visit by assessors from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  

Village administrator, Joe Palumbo, detailed FEMA’s visit to the village. He said the inspectors were assigned to assess the damage caused by Hurricane Ida last September to the recharge basins on Oakwood Road, Port Jefferson. 

“FEMA’s recent visit was to inspect and assess the damage caused by Hurricane Ida to the large and small recharge basins on Oakwood Road,” Palumbo said. “For some reason, this group of FEMA inspectors were not assigned to inspect the bluff project.” Adding that he hoped to get more clarity on FEMA’s plans, he said, “I had a call with FEMA to find out why and whether they are coming back to inspect [the bluff]. I hope to have a response to these questions on, or before, my next call with them.”

In an emailed statement, the village administrator provided additional historical context surrounding this issue. He described the difficulties of working with governmental agencies that lacked the sense of urgency necessary to secure the village’s assets in a timely manner.

“The village was unable to take action to stabilize the bluff until it received permits to do so from [the Department of Environmental Conservation] and Army Corps of Engineers,” he said. “It has been a long process. We submitted our permit to DEC in 2018 and received [approval] this past June.” 

Palumbo was also asked about the concerns raised by village residents, who want a public hearing and referendum on the matter. According to him, the village has worked closely with a coastal engineer who has provided an informed assessment of the proposed projects at East Beach.

“The village has been working vigorously with an experienced and qualified coastal engineer to develop a plan that will stabilize the bluff and protect the village asset that sits atop the bluff,” Palumbo said. “This plan has been presented and approved by a majority of the Board of Trustees, and is the plan that we believe is the best to preserve the bluff for many decades to come.”

Port Jefferson is not alone in its struggle against coastal erosion. Belle Terre is also taking up measures to counteract erosion of its beaches and mitigate storm damage. When asked if there was any intergovernmental cooperation between the villages of Port Jefferson and Belle Terre, Palumbo acknowledged the limitations of coordinating village responses.

“The Village of Belle Terre is a separate entity,” he said. “Our engineers had reviewed the measures taken and material used in Belle Terre, but believe the plan developed and materials being used to stabilize our bluff is the right plan that will last for decades to come.”

While the Port Jeff Board of Trustees has already approved a $10 million bond for the two-phased bluff project, Palumbo said the village is actively seeking grant funding that may subsidize the initiative significantly. 

“The village is looking at several funding opportunities, including through FEMA disaster declarations under Tropical Storm Isaias [last August] and Hurricane Ida; discretionary funds through Congressman Lee Zeldin [R-NY1] and Senator Chuck Schumer’s [D-NY] offices; and the [FEMA] Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.”

The fate of the clubhouse at Port Jeff Country Club is uncertain. Photo courtesy of Port Jefferson Village

Debate around the future of the Port Jefferson Country Club intensified on Monday, April 4, when longtime local residents confronted the Village of Port Jefferson Board of Trustees during a public session.

Myrna Gordon and Michael Mart both condemned the board for moving ahead with plans to curb coastal erosion at East Beach without first holding a public forum, arguing that an issue of this magnitude requires greater public input. “The bluff touches every resident … and there should be a public forum for this,” Mart said. Gordon added, “This is an important issue in this village … and on this particular issue, the ball was dropped.”

Responding to these charges, Mayor Margot Garant said the bluff projects are time sensitive, requiring prompt action on behalf of the village before its permits expire.

“This is an area regulated by the Army Corps of Engineers and the [Department of Environmental Conservation],” Garant said. “The window of opportunity is closing because our permits are not going to be there forever.”

History of the country club

Philip Griffith, historian of PJCC and co-editor of Port Jefferson historical society’s newsletter, chronicled the history of the country club since 1908. According to Griffith, the club originated as a nine-hole golf course designed for the residents of Belle Terre.

In 1953 Norman Winston, a wealthy real estate developer, purchased 600 acres of land in Belle Terre and added nine more holes, establishing the Harbor Hills Country Club. In 1978 Mayor Harold Sheprow leased the Harbor Hills club for $1 and in 1980 village residents approved the purchase of the property for $2.29 million by voter referendum. In 1986 the club was renamed the Port Jefferson Country Club at Harbor Hills.

“The club is 114 years old and it is not private anymore,” Griffith said in a phone interview. “Once the village took it over, it opened membership to all residents of Port Jefferson. Membership pays a fee and they operate the club not by using the residents tax money, but by membership dues paid to the country club.”

Due to the erosion of East Beach, the clubhouse, which sits along 170 acres of village property with golf, tennis and parking facilities, is in danger of falling down the slope. Village residents and elected officials are now weighing their options. 

Man vs. Mother Nature

TBR News Media sat down with Mayor Margot Garant in an exclusive interview. She addressed the rapid erosion of East Beach, the precarious fate of the clubhouse and the measures her administration is taking to address this growing problem.

“This is a village asset,” Garant said. “We always say that the country club is one of the five crown jewels of the village and I feel I have to do everything I can — and I will continue to do so — to preserve that facility because I think that’s in the best interest of the community.”

Projects to combat erosion have been ongoing since 2015. Intense storms, such as hurricanes Irene and Sandy, prompted shoreline restoration efforts on behalf of the village. However, as officials addressed the damaged beach, they spotted an even more alarming trend along the bluff.

“We noticed that the bluff started to have chunks of land just kind of detach and start sliding down the hill,” Garant said. 

Malcolm Bowman, professor of physical oceanography at Stony Brook University and distinguished service professor at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, said eroding bluffs have become commonplace for coastal communities along the North Shore.

“It’s a particular problem on the North Shore of Long Island because these bluffs are very steep, they’re very high and they’re made of what we call unconsolidated sand,” Bowman said in a phone interview. “In other words, it doesn’t stick together and it’s only held together by vegetation, which can be very fragile and can be easily eroded.” 

In 2018 Garant filed permit applications with the DEC and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. These applications were subjected to multiple rounds of modification, with the approval process lasting over three years. During that period, the bluff continued to wither away.

“Because there’s no protection of the slope, we lost 16 1/2 feet of property in three-and-a-half years, so now the [clubhouse] is in jeopardy,” Garant said.

Man-made efforts to resist erosion do not offer long-term solutions, according to Bowman. Nonetheless, coastal engineering projects can buy valuable time for communities before large swaths of territory get washed away to the sea.

“In the end it’s futile because, basically, you’re buying time,” Bowman said. “You can fight it and you may get another 50 years out of it. And you might say, ‘That’s almost a human lifetime, so therefore it’s worth it.’ The taxpayers of the incorporated village — they’re the ones who are paying for it — might say, ‘It will allow me to enjoy the club for another 50 years and my children, maybe.’” He added, “Beyond that, it’s anybody’s guess.”

In a unanimous vote, the Board of Trustees approved a $10 million bond on Nov. 15, 2021, to finance bluff stabilization. The entire project will be completed in two separate iterations: phase I to secure the towline of the bluff, and phase II to preserve the clubhouse.

Phase I: Lower wall

“Phase I is going to consist of hardening the toe of the bluff with steel riprap rock and some concrete, as well as the revegetation of the bluff itself,” said Joe Palumbo, village administrator. “We’re basically creating a seawall there to slow down, or prevent, any further erosion.”

In its initial permit application, the village planned to construct a 20-foot-high steel retaining wall that would run approximately 650 linear feet along the toe of the bluff. However, due to concerns about the wall’s length and height, DEC asked the village to scale down its proposal.

“Part of the modification of the permit required us to eliminate the steel wall for the portion of the property behind the tennis courts,” Garant said. “We originally wanted to go in — I’m going to estimate — 650 linear feet and they pulled it back to about 450 linear feet.” The mayor added, “We went a little back and forth with DEC, saying we don’t understand why you’re making us do that, but we’ll do it because I’m trying to get something started to protect the integrity of the bluff.”

Phase II: Upland wall

After a 4-1 vote to approve phase I, the board is now considering ways to protect its upland properties, including the clubhouse, tennis courts and parking lot. Phase II involves constructing an upland wall between the clubhouse and the bluff to prevent any further loss of property. 

“The upland project will consist of driving steel sheets into the ground behind the village’s [clubhouse] facility, extending past the courts on the lower side and the upper side,” Palumbo said. “Some revegetation in front of that wall and behind the wall will also take place. I believe the wall itself will extend out from the ground about 15 to 24 inches so as not to impede the view that exists there.” 

The Board of Trustees is also exploring the option of demolishing the clubhouse, a less expensive option than building the upper wall, but still a multimillion-dollar project due to the cost of demolishing the building and adding drainage atop the cliff. “I’m trying to get all of that information together to put on the table, so that we can make an intelligent decision about the upland plan while we proceed with advancing the installation of the toe wall,” Garant said. 

Weighing the options

Although the village’s acquisition of the country club was finalized by voter referendum, residents have not yet voted to approve phases I or II. Garant believes voters had a chance to halt these projects during last year’s election process.

“When the Board of Trustees voted 5-0 to borrow the $10 million, that’s when the public had an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute,’” Garant said. “I could have put it out as part of the election that’s coming up or had a separate vote, but the clock is ticking on my permits.” She added, “I feel I have the authority — and my board has the authority — to do these kinds of projects.”

During the interview with Garant, she agreed that bluff stabilization was an unforeseen expense when the village purchased the property. Asked whether the country club is a depreciating asset, Garant maintained that the property has been a lucrative investment.

“It’s not just the building [that we’re protecting], it’s all of the country club’s assets,” she said. “The parking lot is a tremendous asset. I’m trying to preserve some of the sports complexes up there and even expand on them.”

One of the central arguments made for preserving the clubhouse is that the country club raises the property values of all village residents, and that to lose the facility would hurt the real estate market. Jolie Powell, owner of Port Jefferson-based Jolie Powell Realty, substantiated this claim.

“What makes us unique here in the incorporated Village of Port Jefferson is that we are one of very few [villages] that offers these amenities,” Powell said in a phone interview. “It adds value to the community and to prospective homeowners because they want to live in a village that has a private beach, country club amenities and pickleball.” She added, “The country club is essential to a prospective buyer who comes to the village. … They’re looking for amenities and the golf course is huge.”

When asked about the potential costs to village residents, Powell offered this perspective: “I don’t know what that cost will be for the residents, but it will be nominal. Our taxes are so low to begin with compared to every other community.”

Another sticking point is the long-term prospect of golf as a recreational activity. Martin Cantor, director of the Long Island Center for Socioeconomic Policy and author of “Long Island, The Global Economy and Race,” said the popularity of golf has waned in recent decades. He suggests any proposal related to the preservation of the clubhouse should also include a plan to boost recreational activity at the golf course.

“Golf is not as widely played as it was 30 years ago,” Cantor said in a phone interview. “If the village puts up a retaining wall, then it has to also have a development plan or a plan for how it’s going to generate economic activity to pay back the loan for the retaining wall.”

Responding to Cantor, Garant said the COVID-19 pandemic has helped to revive interest in the sport. “Prior to the pandemic, I would say that might be right,” the mayor said. “Since the pandemic, the sport is booming. That program up there is so robust that they have not only paid back the money they owed the village to help them run operations, but they’re now exceeding their budget and have money to put up netting.” She added, “Right now golf is the thing.”

Since bluff stabilization is closely linked to the activities at the country club, Cantor suggested that an economic feasibility study may add clarity to this issue, allowing residents and officials to determine whether preserving the clubhouse is in the fiscal interest of the village. 

“In terms of economics to the village, other than the rent, all of the money that gets paid in the golf club stays within the golf club,” Cantor said. “They have to do a feasibility study on the economics of keeping it open.”

Factored into this multivariable equation are also the qualitative benefits that the clubhouse may offer to the community. Griffith packaged the country club with the library, school district, public parks and other amenities that raise taxes but contribute to the character and culture of the village.

“These are things that add not only to the monetary value, but also the cultural and aesthetic value of the village,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to see those kinds of things eliminated. Each of these amenities — these assets — are wonderful values that make this village what it is.” He added, “It’s not just a home. You’re buying into a community and a community has to offer something beyond your own little piece of property, and that’s what Port Jefferson does.” 

Griffith added that he would like the issue to be put on the ballot so that residents have the final say. “I am in favor of having a public hearing on the matter and then having a public referendum. Let the people decide, just as they decided to purchase the country club.”

For six months, roadway barriers, shown above, have blocked the intersection of Arlington Avenue and State Route 25A. Photo by Jim Hastings.

Public officials are addressing an ongoing dispute between the Village of Port Jefferson and the New York State Department of Transportation involving a roadway obstruction at the intersection of Arlington Avenue and Route 25A on the long hill leading into Port Jeff.

Due to its steep slope, Arlington Avenue requires a specific grade to allow vehicles to safely traverse the intersection without bottoming out. Under the current design, instituted in September 2021 as part of DOT’s sidewalk initiative throughout the village, the roadway remains impassable.

Stephen Canzoneri, public information officer for DOT Region 10, addressed the issue in an email statement: “The New York State Department of Transportation is working with the Village of Port Jefferson to address longstanding terrain issues at the intersection of Arlington Avenue and state Route 25A and hopes to reopen Arlington Avenue as expeditiously as possible.”

“Prior to them doing the work, there was no issue there.”

— Kathianne Snaden, deputy mayor of Port Jefferson Village

Joe Palumbo, Port Jeff village administrator, shared that the DOT has not yet put together a workable plan to resolve the matter.

“Their design there is not acceptable in terms of navigating the road from 25A onto Arlington,” he said. “The grade there is not sufficient for vehicles to go up and down that road.”

According to Palumbo, the grade issue remains the primary point of contention between the two parties.

“DOT is in the process of putting a design together,” he said. “Their most recent design that they had sent over to us is not acceptable. The village would prefer to have something that was similar to the grade that was there prior to the paving, or better.”

According to Palumbo, under DOT’s present plan, vehicles can still get stuck at the bottom of the slope. Kathianne Snaden, deputy mayor and commissioner of public safety, said there had been no problem with the grade before DOT’s changes.

“Prior to them doing the work, there was no issue there,” she said. “It is a steep hill, but cars could easily get up and down, emergency vehicles could get up and down, school buses could get up and down.”

Snaden objects to the addition of a sidewalk along the pavement. She said that by adding the sidewalk, DOT had created a grade that is different from that of the pavement. According to her, this presented a safety hazard requiring the intersection to be closed to traffic.

“They paved 25A and additionally, with the paving, they added a sidewalk,” she said. “The sidewalk, for some reason, they put straight across the roadway, which we’ve never seen before. In doing so, it changed the grade from a slant to more of an angle because the sidewalk, obviously, is low.”

Snaden said that the roadway closure, put in place by DOT six months ago, is a significant risk to public safety. “My concern, of course, is the safety of the residents,” she said. “We had a house fire on Arlington almost two years ago. The roadway was impassable, but that time it was because of a downed tree. When that house caught fire, they couldn’t get all of the firetrucks to that house.”

According to Snaden, as long as the intersection remains blocked, this scenario may repeat itself in the future.

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Village workers have already started landscaping near the Toast stairway. Photo by Kyle Barr

The Village of Port Jefferson is remaking the path around the stairway near Toast Coffeehouse, though plans are much more subdued than what had been proposed last year.

Village workers have already started landscaping the area at the bottom of the black iron steps, which empty out close to Portside Bar & Grill. Joe Palumbo, the village administrator, said they do not have a site plan or a concept drawing, but the general idea is to beautify the walkway and create much more greenspace. The bottom of the stairs has long been an enclosure of dead grass and tree stumps.

“This is conceptually in the mind,” Palumbo said. “There’s going to be grassy areas along with other plantings.”

Mayor Margot Garant said the cost, ignoring labor, could be around $20,000 when all’s said and done, but lighting costs are still unknown. The village plans for goosenecked lanterns on the stairs and along the pathway, which may include additional accent lighting.

“Internally the guys have been doing a great job, and I’m happy to see they can handle a project of that scale,” she said. 

Last April, the village had received a proposal from Sean Hanley, the husband of Melissa Hanley, who owns Salon Blonde hair stylist just across the street from the top of the staircase. The plans had called for a complete remodeling of the iron staircase into a more modern, concrete staircase and at the bottom create a pocket park, complete with water features and patio.

The problem is, officials said, that plan would have cost around $96,000. 

Instead of tearing up the walkway like under that plan, the village is keeping the same walkway, remodeling the columns at the entrance to the stairway and include an approximated 12-by-12-foot patio. On Monday, March 2, Lisa Harris, who owns several Port Jeff businesses, said she would be donating two benches to the project.

Currently, Palumbo said the issue they’re facing is the large tree just to the right of the stairs bottom. The roots are apparently at a high elevation and run deep underground and restrict extending the blocks that run along the back side of the space to the other side of the path. At the March 2 board meeting, Garant said that tree could not be removed. 

Palumbo said they would have to look at alternatives.

Trustee Bruce Miller said that the current project and other village beautification initiatives will be important as Port Jeff moves along the LIPA settlement glide path, which will see the village getting less in property taxes from the Port Jefferson Power Station over the next several years.

“I just think we got to make this village more attractive if we are losing revenue, we’re going to be charging more or providing less,” he said.

Palumbo said next week they will begin to install irrigation and then after install the patio. They hope to have the plantings and sod installed by spring.