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Laurie Vetere

New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) has held elective office continuously since 1983. Englebright’s long tenure now comes to a close. 

In a tight state election for District 4 last month, Englebright narrowly lost to his Republican Party challenger Ed Flood (R-Port Jefferson). In an exit interview, the outgoing assemblyman reflected upon his pathway into government, the legislative victories throughout that time and the meaning of public service.

The road to politics

Growing up, the young Englebright spent much of his time in libraries. He found refuge in books, which satiated his curiosity and “compelling interest in how things worked.” He also nourished a lifelong fascination with history through those hours devoted to learning.

Leading up to his first run for office, Englebright said he was deeply disturbed by the environmental degradation characteristic of those times. The “almost daily reports” of overdevelopment and sprawl, oil spills and drinking water contamination, each had left a deep and abiding impression on him.

‘The proper role of government is to protect the people who sent you.’ — Steve Englebright

He was teaching geology at Stony Brook University when he began considering public life. “I realized that drinking water was the first limiting factor for the continued well-being of this Island, and I was not really seeing any meaningful public policy growing out of the reports of chaos,” he said.

The late professor Hugh Cleland, from the SBU Department of History, would prove to be the catalyst behind Englebright’s ascent to politics. Cleland sat down with him at the campus student union. For several hours, the two discussed a possible bid for a Suffolk County legislative seat.

“This was a really serious and credible and well thought-out request that he was making,” Englebright said. “So I didn’t just wave it off. I gave it some thought and, sure enough, I found myself saying, ‘What’s next?’” 

After that meeting, Englebright decided to run and was elected to the county Legislature in 1983. He won election after election for the next four decades.

County Legislature

Upon entering the county Legislature, Englebright simultaneously confronted an array of environmental dilemmas. He described the defunct Long Island Lighting Company, the precursor to today’s Long Island Power Authority, as “at that time wanting to build a small galaxy of nuclear power plants on Long Island.” He stressed that the utility company was favoring its shareholder interests at the residents’ expense. 

Englebright successfully championed, along with a grassroots movement of LILCO ratepayers, against the construction of the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant and other nuclear plants to follow. Their resistance efforts were grounded primarily in the risks associated with evacuation.

Another major policy issue during his early political career was the protection of groundwater and surface waters in Suffolk County. “I pushed successfully for the largest county-level open space program in the nation,” he said. He was one of the earliest critics against sprawl. 

As a county legislator, he initiated the first plastics ban in the nation. Though ahead of his time on the issue, he admitted that not enough has been done elsewhere to counteract the problem, which he said “has exploded into a worldwide catastrophe.”

He sponsored legislation excising a small fee on hotel and motel rooms, considering the measure as a fee on tourists allowing for their continued enjoyment of the area through reinvestment into the county’s most attractive destinations.

“If you wonder why county Legislator [Kara] Hahn [D-Setauket] is able to have some discretion to provide funding to Gallery North or the Reboli Center, that funding is coming from the hotel/motel room fee,” he said.

State Assembly

New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket). Photo from North Island Photography and Films

As a state assemblyman, Englebright quickly picked up where he left off, building upon and expanding his county policies at the state level. Among his earliest actions was the Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act, a state law ensuring the preservation of the Pine Barrens as open space.

He sponsored some of the original laws in New York state related to solar power and other renewables. “In my first year in the state Legislature, I was successfully pushing for legislation that had paved the way for the electronic age,” he said.

Englebright added that the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act was the most crucial legislation he ever sponsored. This ambitious law aims to reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions by 85% from 1990 levels by 2050.

Englebright also successfully led a statewide ban on purse seining, a highly efficient fishing technique responsible for the depletion of menhaden, or bunker, in New York’s surrounding waters.

“The marine world all depends on having this abundant fish at the base of the food chain,” the assemblyman said. Purse seining allowed large-scale fishing operations to collect “whole schools of menhaden, millions and millions of fish.”

One of the fondest moments throughout his tenure happened just last summer. On a boat trip off the coast of Montauk Point during early morning hours, the sun rising off the horizon line, he witnessed entire schools of menhaden beneath the water.

“The sea was boiling with fish,” he said. “Menhaden, they were back by the billions.”

Reminiscent of his earliest years in libraries, historic preservation would be a significant point of emphasis for Englebright. “I’m very proud of the many properties that are preserved, the historic sites.” Such sites either preserved or to be preserved include Patriots Rock and Roe Tavern in Setauket and William Tooker House in Port Jefferson, among many others.

Even in his final days in office, Englebright made historic breakthroughs. Though his reelection bid was unsuccessful, Englebright rejoiced in yet another major victory for environmental sustainability. Last month, New Yorkers overwhelmingly approved a recent $4.2 billion environmental bond act, a multiyear investment in clean water, air, wildlife and the environment.

Reflections from his community

During his extended time in political service, Englebright has worked alongside countless public representatives at all levels of government. He maintained “they’re not all scoundrels,” adding that many were “superb public servants.”

In a series of written statements and phone interviews, several public representatives and close Englebright associates and friends had an opportunity to weigh in on his legacy of service and commitment to his community. 

Englebright “proved himself to be an environmental pioneer, a champion for the causes and concerns of his constituents and an unflinching fighter for the communities he served,” Hahn said. “For those of us who served in elected office with him during his tenure, irrespective of political persuasion or level of government, Steve proved himself to be a friend and mentor who embodied the role of effective leadership in the lives of those we represent.”

 As recently as Dec. 6, the Three Village Community Trust honored the assemblyman by renaming the Greenway trail as The Steve Englebright Setauket to Port Jefferson Station Greenway.

Port Jefferson Mayor Margot Garant commented on the characteristics that set Englebright apart from other politicians. She said his scientific background and wide-ranging interests added depth to his political persona.

 “He’s a unique legislator in that he’s so well rounded in those other areas and that he’s not just focused on the hard line of the law,” she said. “He’s involved with his community, he’s approachable, he’s caring, he’s kind. He’s a very unique representative, and we’re going to miss him sorely.”

 Like Englebright, Port Jefferson village trustee Rebecca Kassay worked in environmental advocacy before entering government. She discussed Englebright’s ongoing extended producer responsibility legislation, which would require producers of packaging materials, rather than taxpayers, to be responsible for managing post-consumer packaging material waste.

 “This can be a step toward addressing a multitude of waste management, environmental and financial issues facing municipalities and individuals,” Kassay said. “I hope to see the assemblyman’s colleagues and successor continue advocating for policies with long-term solutions,” adding, “Englebright is the type of commonsense representative we’d like to see more of in government.”

 In a joint statement, George Hoffman and Laurie Vetere of the Setauket Harbor Task Force reflected upon Englebright’s importance to local harbors.

 “In his time as our state representative, Steve Englebright never forgot the importance of the harbor,” they said. “Assemblyman Englebright found ways to secure needed dollars from Albany to help the task force in its mission of protecting water quality and the sustainability of Setauket and Port Jefferson harbors.” 

Joan Nickeson, community liaison of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Chamber of Commerce, credited Englebright for the continued flourishment of her area. She said the hotel/motel tax he sponsored had enabled the chamber to conduct its annual summer concert series at the Train Car Park.

 “Assemblyman Englebright has continued to be a friend of the chamber by supporting our local businesses and attending our ribbon-cutting ceremonies,” she said.

 Within those 40 years, countless other acts and initiatives have come to fruition with Englebright’s assistance. Reflecting on his time in public service, he outlined his political doctrine.

 “The proper role of government is to protect the people who sent you,” he said. “If you keep your eye on the prize, you can achieve things for the people who invested their trust in you.” 

 On the role of the public representative, he added, “Use the office as a bully pulpit, speak truth to power, identify things that are wrong and right them, and treat the office as an opportunity to do good.”

 For wielding his office as a force of good for four decades, TBR News Media dedicates Steve Englebright as honorary 2022 Person of the Year.

From left, Setauket Harbor Task Force co-founder, Laurie Vetere, Supervisor Ed Romaine, Setauket Harbor Task Force co-founder, George Hoffman and Bay Constable Connor Reid. Photo from Town of Brookhaven

On May 25, Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine joined members of the Setauket Harbor Task Force as they brought in the season’s first Sugar Kelp harvest. This season, the growing location was moved from Setauket Harbor to Port Jefferson Harbor just offshore by the northwest mooring field.

Sugar Kelp is a brown-colored native seaweed that thrives in the cold waters of the Long Island Sound and other areas of the northeast. Aquaculture farmers seed juvenile Kelp on long lines attached to buoys or docks in November and December, and then they wait until spring to harvest the fast-growing crop. Kelp is an excellent dietary source of fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, iron, calcium, magnesium, iodine, and other trace minerals; it can be used dried, powdered, fresh, cooked, and fresh frozen.

Pictured left to right are Setauket Harbor Task Force co-founder, Laurie Vetere, Supervisor Ed Romaine, Setauket Harbor Task Force co-founder, George Hoffman and Bay Constable Connor Reid.

The Setauket Harbor Task Force is a volunteer organization which works for clean water and healthy harbors. It was founded in 2014 by local Setauket residents who love the harbor and want to protect and preserve it. For more information about Sugar Kelp and to learn more about the Setauket Harbor Task Force, go to www.SaveSetauketHarbor.org.

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Residents can now use a boardwalk from East Setauket Pond Park to the harbor. Photo by Maria Hoffman

Three Village residents have a new way to enjoy and connect with nature.

The Town of Brookhaven recently constructed a 180-foot boardwalk that starts at East Setauket Pond Park, next to Se-Port Delicatessen, and ends with a viewing platform at Setauket Harbor. Laurie Vetere and George Hoffman, co-founders of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, said the boardwalk complements the group’s vision for the site.

“We always had a plan for the park,” Hoffman said. “We really think it’s a unique park that’s been neglected over the years.”

Vetere called the park its pet project.

“We can see the vision of it becoming a beautiful waterfront park right in the heart of downtown Setauket,” she said.

Hoffman and Vetere said the town plans to add benches to the viewing platform and switch out the current light posts to match the historic fixtures along Route 25A. The town is also currently waiting for a permit from the New York State Department of Conservation to cut down the phragmites that are currently slightly blocking the view at the platform.

The task force co-founders said a couple of months ago the town’s Parks & Recreation Department had a surplus of funds for park improvements around town, and Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) and Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) were able to secure $75,000 to be used for the Three Village park.

Vetere, said the Three Village Civic Association, of which she is 2nd vice president, is currently forming a committee to be chaired by Herb Mones and Robert Reuter. She said the hope is to further the vision of the park including aspects such as adding plantings, play equipment for children and possibly moving the gazebo that is currently there to another spot in the park.

“The hope is just to make it more useful and get people invested in Setauket Harbor and the beauty of the harbor,” Vetere said.

Cartright said she was happy with the improvements.

“This is an important place in our community, and we want to increase and promote public access and use of the park,” she said. “We received community feedback about improvements that residents wanted to see at this location. Working off of that community input, I was able to secure $75,000 funding for this project that started about two-and-a-half weeks ago and was completed [Oct. 15].”

In addition to the current work being done by the Town of Brookhaven, in 2016 state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) secured a $1 million grant for the town for East Setauket Pond Park. The funds, which became available at the end of 2018, will go toward removing sediment from the retention pond at the park and implementing improvements to mitigate stormwater inputs into the harbor. The grant will also go toward repairing the dock at the Shore Road park along the harbor.

“We look forward to the completion of this project as it fits into the larger picture of preserving and protecting the area,” Cartright said.

Setauket Harbor file photo by Rachel Shapiro

Setauket is harboring a working relationship with North Shore officials as advocates flood their offices with environmental projects.

The newly formed Setauket Harbor Task Force has been in talks with various elected officials, including Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) and Parks Commissioner Ed Morris, as the group continues its push to sustain the beauty of the North Shore spot. The group gathered for a walking tour of the town-owned Setauket Harbor properties on May 12 to highlight areas around the harbor that need attention.

Laurie Vetere, a North Shore-based attorney and president of the volunteer task force, said the meeting was a step in the right direction.

“The task force is encouraged by the town’s swift response in meeting with us and their receptivity to our concerns,” she said.

Some of those concerns included making sure the town pays attention to the road runoff retention basin and pond that forms near the inlet at Setauket Harbor, and maintaining park property just to the west of the area’s footbridge, Vetere said.

The group also urged town officials to keep their eyes on the beach and dock along Shore Road, where a combination of winter ice and 8-foot tides had severely damaged the dock, upending the pilings and twisting the aluminum gangplank, the group said. The town had already replaced both the pilings and the dock as the winter came to a close, and Morris confirmed the gangplank leading down to the dock would be repaired by the beginning of summer.

Charlie Lefkowitz, a board member and Setauket-based businessman, said the town was more than receptive to the task force’s concerns, and results were already tangible.

“We want to be partners with the town in improving the harbor and working with them to put in place corrective actions that will help water quality and enhance the general enjoyment of the harbor view-shed,” he said.

The Setauket Harbor Task Force was formed last year over concerns about the harbor and the deteriorating water quality, and it recently held a meeting about the health of the harbor that drew more than 60 local residents.