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John Kennedy Jr.

The Commerdinger home in Nesconset, as seen today, was expected in 2006 to become a living museum.

Instead of selling their property to a developer for nearly $2 million, the family of Walter S. Commerdinger, Jr. sold to Suffolk County in 2006 their property on the north side of Lake Ronkonkoma with its historic home, circa 1810, for a reported $1.2 million. The idea, said Commerdinger’s heir, Paul Albert, was to turn the site into a living museum to honor the legacy of the family, regarded as one of Nesconset’s earliest settlers.

The home, which was in pristine condition when sold, has sat vacant for more than a decade now and has been repeatedly vandalized. Despite being awarded $100,000 in grant money for repairs from the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation, the county has allegedly not yet followed through with its end of the bargain.

The Commerdinger home in 2006, when the county purchased the site.

Both parties aim to renegotiate the agreement. 

Marie Gruick is a member of Nesconset Chamber of Commerce and she’s been helping Albert navigate the situation he’s facing with the government.

“They keep saying they’re broke,” Gruick said. “It’s been a bunch of empty promises. They just gave other communities $500,000 for a parking lot.”

The situation, though, highlights the challenges of preserving history on Long Island and in New York in general. Commerdinger Park and Marion Carll Farm, in Commack, are two examples of families hoping to preserve history with gifts of historic homes and properties to public entities. Both sites have historic homes that have fallen into a state of disrepair. 

Sara Kautz is the preservation director of Preservation Long Island. The not-for-profit organization works with Long Islanders to protect, preserve, and celebrate cultural heritage through advocacy, education, and stewardship of historic sites and collections.  The organization offers many services for free.  She said that more and more places are at risk.

John Kennedy Jr. (R) served as Nesconset’s county legislator in 2006 and helped facilitate the initial transaction for the Commerdinger site. Kennedy now serves as county comptroller and is running for county executive. His wife Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) now serves as county legislator for District 12. She said there are no new updates.

“There’s a contract that everyone is reading through, so Commerdinger can join up with Smithtown Historical Society,” Leslie Kennedy said. “But it’s all in the talk stage.”

Gruick said the park is the last green space in Nesconset and its trails stretch to Lake Ronkonkoma. If the county isn’t interested in maintaining the home, she said, they should give it back. The family formed a 501(c)3 nonprofit, W.S. Commerdinger Jr. County Park Preservation Society, in 2008 to serve as stewards for the site but have been unable to accomplish what needs to be done for the house and its buildings. They say they feel like they’re on a merry-go-round.

“How long is the county going to dangle carrots,” Gruick said. 

The most immediate task, Gruick and Albert said, is to get PSEGLI to hook up the electricity to the site, so they can install security cameras to prevent further damage and to get county water hookup. What Gruick doesn’t understand, she said, is why the county is telling them that hooking up to electricity needs to go to bid if PSEGLI is the business that connects electricity. 

The county said in response to our inquiries that the order is in with PSEG, which needs to schedule the work. They could not provide a time frame for electric hookup and could only say that the request has been in for a while. 

Albert said that he has collections of antiques, including pottery crafted in the first kiln brought to America. He had hoped to move the pieces into the site by now. Formerly a banker, Albert said that he needs a lawyer that specializes in preservation but is unsure who has that expertise.

Crolius family heirs hope to exhibit a rare pottery collection in the Commerdinger home museum.

Kathryn Curran is the executive director of the Gardiner Foundation, a philanthropic group that supports historic preservation projects for 501(c)3 organizations with an education mission, but not for schools. 

The foundation offers $5 million in grants annually and said that some projects go more smoothly than others. When a municipality owns a building, she said, they typically have a contract in place with a “friends” group to manage the property. 

“The money is allocated to the friends group, not the municipality,” she said. 

Because of the “friends” agreements with government, she said the group needs town approval for the work and the contracts it hopes to secure. For some reason, towns or government entities don’t always feel comfortable with the process.

“We’re trying to give historic educational experiences to enhance a community,” she said. “It’s a downtown revitalization gift.”

She said that local businesses benefit when these projects are completed, so she doesn’t always understand herself why governments are reluctant. She said that many people are willing to volunteer as part of a friends group. These people, she noted, are also a precious gift. 

“It appears they don’t want to be beholden to private money,” she said. 

Gruick and Albert said they are frustrated but remain hopeful. They plan to meet with officials in the Town of Smithtown in the upcoming weeks for help. 

John, Jr. and Leslie Kennedy, of Nesconset, both serve as elected county officials. Photos from The Kennedys.

Nesconset resident Leslie Kennedy stepped into Giorgio’s of Nesconset Pizzeria & Restaurant Dec. 15, but not to grab a bite to eat. She had a busy day ahead. Her schedule only allowed for a short stop at the Nesconset Chamber of Commerce’s annual holiday luncheon. But the local business owners knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Kennedy would come by to say hello and ask how they were doing.

“Even though she only had 10 minutes, she came by to show her support,” said Christine DeAugustino, president of the Nesconset chamber. “We are so grateful for her support.”

It’s no surprise to residents when Suffolk Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) or her husband, county Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset), show up together at a business luncheon, parade, street fair, blood drive, civic association meeting or any number of local events.

“They are huge supporters of the local community,” DeAugustino said. “They are tremendous. Every time we have an event, her and her husband both come.”

Now both elected county officials, they have deep roots in public service and dedication to their constituents. John Kennedy Jr. was first elected to the Suffolk County Legislature representing the 12th District in 2004, where he served for 10 years.

“John has been there from the very, very beginning when they were reconstructing Smithtown Boulevard, Rosevale Avenue and Gibbs Pond Road intersection,” said Martin Aponte, president of the 9/11 Responders Remembered Park in Nesconset.

John Kennedy Jr. was fundamental in securing the land for the memorial to first responders who died on 9/11 or as a result of 9/11-related illnesses, Aponte said, and even set aside his office’s roundtable space for the organization’s meetings. Leslie Kennedy has continued to set aside meeting space for the foundation since filling her husband’s shoes, being first elected to represent the 12th District in  the county Legislature in 2015.

They are extremely involved in the community, both John and Leslie, most of the time you’ll find them there. They have a very positive effect on the community.”

— Ed Wehrheim

“[Leslie]’s not only there for moral support for the chamber and businesses, she’s always there for me as a resource,” DeAugustino said. “She makes herself and the office available to the people of Nesconset as a resource.”

The Kennedys, together, have sponsored and help establish the chamber’s annual Nesconset Summer Concert Series which draws hundreds of residents to the Nesconset Gazebo each July and August.

“They are extremely involved in the community, both John and Leslie,” Smithtown Supervisor-elect Ed Wehrheim (R) said. “Most of the time you’ll find them there. They have a very positive effect on the community.”

Wehrheim said the county comptroller has always been responsive to Town of Smithtown’s tax questions and fiscal concerns.

“What he is there for, that I appreciate, is anytime we have a question he makes himself and his experience available to us,” Wehrheim said.

Similarly, the town officials are in frequent communication with the current legislator regarding how to best address and tackle the opioid issue in Smithtown and as a channel to communicate with Suffolk County police. The supervisor-elect said the Kennedys have been helpful in pushing the downtown revitalization of Kings Park forward at the county level through their respective offices.

This year, Legislator Kennedy secured the acquisition and preservation of the Hauppauge Springs property on the south side of Route 347 in Hauppauge, preserving open space at the headwaters of the Nissequogue River. It’s been sitting on the county’s master list of environmentally sensitive priority properties for more than 20 years, dating back to when she worked as a legislative aide.

The legislator has called it one of her biggest victories, one she hopes will be remembered as part of her legacy. It was a priority, she said, to protect the environment and help ensure safe drinking water for local residents.

 

Mike Borella, left, stands with his parents, Carolyn and James Borella, at their family nursery in Nesconset. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

Carolyn and James Borella of Borella Nursery have been making Smithtown a better, kinder and prettier place to live for decades — although they would probably refuse to take any credit for that.

The Borellas, whose family business of wholesale growing officially started in 1958, have gone out of their way to beautify just about every inch of the town, often free of charge, and that’s just a small percentage of the dynamic duo’s selfless efforts.

For all they’ve done to help their community and its people thrive, the Borellas have been recognized as Times Beacon News Media People of the Year.

Carolyn Borella, 61, said everything they do comes from the heart.

“We love living here, we love this community [and] all the businesses; we want people to live here and we want Smithtown to stay beautiful,” she said in an interview.

“[They] are two of the kindest, most giving and hard working people I have come to know.”
— Mike Donnelly

James Borella, 55, who was raised in the house that still stands next to the nursery, said he can’t imagine ever leaving where he’s been his whole life.

“I have a lot of friends retiring shortly or [who] have retired and they’re all moving and say ‘why don’t you move and retire out in the Carolinas or Florida?’ I say ‘there ain’t no way in hell I’m leaving here.’ Everything I love is within this town.”

When she’s not serving in the Nesconset Chamber of Commerce, Smithtown Business and Professional Women’s Network or at the Smithtown Historical Society planning festivals and taking care of the farm animals sheltered there, Carolyn Borella joins her husband in going to local restaurants to put poinsettias in their windows, donating leftover flowers and plants from their greenhouses to spruce up town hall, and growing vegetable flats for different churches to feed the local hungry.

With their son Mike Borella, 37, who works with them at the nursery, the Borellas built the first Garden of Freedom — a special garden decorated with statues, American flags and a banner thanking those who serve the country as firefighters, police officers, military personnel, as well as K9 dogs — in New York, for which they were recently recognized at a dedication and community celebration by Suffolk County Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr. (R) and Suffolk County Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset).

According to Martin Aponte, president of the 9/11 Responders Remembered Park in Smithtown, the two have been instrumental in providing whatever the site needs since it opened in 2011.

“They have been so gracious with supplying us plants and bulbs and trees at no cost,” he said. “Around Christmastime, they have been giving us so much roping and so many wreaths; they are a staple in the town of Smithtown and their hamlet of Nesconset.”

Aponte said the Borellas are great people who believe in giving back.

“They’ve been generous with so many others throughout the community,” he said.

Just mentioning their names ushers in a wave of praise and admiration among Smithtown residents.

“[They] are two of the kindest, most giving and hard working people I have come to know,” Mike Donnelly, organizer of Smithtown’s 350th anniversary parade said, in which the couple was honored. “Their level of helping [and] sharing is beyond what most people are capable of being aware of. Running into them always makes me feel good.”

Christine DeAugustino, president of the Nesconset Chamber of Commerce, said the Borellas have been quietly supporting the town behind the scenes for years.

Speaking specifically about Carolyn Borella, DeAugustino said “the woman’s got a heart of gold.”

Carolyn Borella, known for loving all people and animals alike, recently held a fundraiser at the historical society and raised $6,000 for the maintenance and feeding of the animals, which include horses, ponies, sheep, chickens and barn cats. Fittingly, she also served as Mrs. Claus for holiday celebrations in Nesconset.

Carolyn Borella said her mother inspired her to give back.

“[Growing up] in Valley Stream, we were very money-challenged and I was raised by my mother, who was both my mother and my father because my father left when I was a very young girl,” she said. “My mother taught me three things: Soap and water is cheap; you will always be clean. I know how to cook and grow a garden, so you will always have food. And I will teach you what’s in your heart, and you will be the richest girl in the world … and I am; I may not have everything but I have it all.”

The couple met March 28, 1987, and got married 90 days later on July 3 at the foot of her mother’s hospital bed right before she died. They’ve been inseparable ever since.

“There ain’t no way in hell I’m leaving here. Everything I love is within this town.”
— James Borella

She said they have a complete ying-yang dynamic, and the fact they get along so well working together 365 days a year, 7 days a week, is a testament to that.

The nursery business came from James Borella’s family. His mother was raised in the world of greenhouses as his grandfather had a string of them in Flushing, Queens, back in the 1930s and ’40s. His father, on the other hand, was a potato farmer who would eventually be persuaded to drop his trade and start a nursery with his wife.

As James Borella said, it wasn’t much of a challenge for his father since working in the greenhouse is just “glorified farming.”

When his parents were retiring and mulling over the idea of closing down their long-running business, James Borella, who had been an employee, couldn’t bear seeing all their hard work disappear and decided to take it over in 1990.

From there, he was a one-man-band working behind the desk, growing in the greenhouses, hopping in the truck to deliver everything, until about 1995 when it was all getting too much for him to carry on his own.

He said he went to his wife and asked if she could come in and help, and she joined in, committed to building something together with him.

“That’s when Borella Nursery really started to go in a completely different direction and become the Borella Nursery it is today,” Mike Borella said, who works mostly in sales but also drives and delivers and helps customers. “From then until now, we’ve probably tripled our business.”

He said he wanted to make it known there are things besides working that his parents enjoy, like being in the Smithtown Bay Yacht Club.

But, naturally, the couple has taken it upon themselves to donate all the plants there, as well as organize three movie nights during the summer at Long Beach for the yacht club community.

“We set up a painter’s tarp, bring the movie, I bring a cotton candy machine and popcorn,” Carolyn Borella said. “It’s all free.”