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Mallie Jane Kim

Ward Melville High School. File photo

By Mallie Jane Kim

Three Village Central School District will see at least 67 retirements across instructional and noninstructional staff this year, according to Deputy Superintendent Jeffrey Carlson. Those retirements, along with a restructuring of district administration, will allow Three Village to cut about 15 full-time positions through attrition and save an estimated $2.9 million. 

Carlson explained at an April 3 school board meeting that staff adjustments will include three additional elementary teachers to help balance class sizes as well as the restoration of an administrative-level director of curriculum and instruction, though he pointed out the number of administrators will stay the same. 

“Because of the retirements, that gives us a chance to look at different positions, and maybe there would be a different structure that would fit us better,” Carlson said.

The staff adjustments are part of budget plans to stay within this year’s 2.84% tax levy increase cap for the district, against the background of uncertainty in the state budget negotiations in Albany. New York’s budget dictates how much state funding goes to each district, and though it was supposed to land April 1, the process is still ongoing.

Carlson maintained his optimism that the $9 million in cuts to the district proposed by Gov. Kathy Hochul’s budget plan in January would not come to fruition, yet indicated the district administration has planned the 2024-25 school year budget with caution. 

“We feel we’ve put a solid budget together,” Carlson told the board. “If we do wind up with a reduction in aid, then we will be prepared to make the recommendation for what gets cut.”

The district is proceeding with its budget planning as though state funding will come through. According to Carlson, that makes more sense than planning for hypothetical state aid cuts since what voters will choose whether to adopt on May 21 is a maximum budget amount.

“It doesn’t mean we have to spend that much money — it just means we can’t spend more than that,” he said.

Two board members push for advanced planning, taxpayer relief

Trustee Karen Roughley again pushed administrators for more advanced planning, suggesting a sort of vision board to help steer Three Village toward its goals, and account for probable mandates coming down the pike from New York State, like potential financial literacy requirements for graduation. 

“If I had some sort of plan to say, ‘In the next one to two to three years, we want to increase the business department by three teachers because we want to add XYZ courses,’” she said, posing a hypothetical example. “Then we could see as we’re working through the budget with you guys that, ‘OK, maybe this is the year to add one of those in, and then next year maybe we can add the two more in.’”

Her colleague David McKinnon went further, suggesting the district halt any budget growth for 2024-25 over the current $230.9 million budget. 

“I’m afraid it’s really now or never for local tax relief,” McKinnon said, pointing to this year’s state aid uncertainty and the likelihood that changes to future state aid would probably mean less money over time flowing from the state to the district, due to lower enrollment.

He added that though enrollment has been declining for more than a decade, residents have not seen any decline in their taxes. “Taxpayers have not had very effective representation in the budget process,” he said, indicating that’s why he ran for the board in the first place. “The result is obviously some pent-up frustration with the budgets.”

Superintendent of Schools Kevin Scanlon pointed out enrollment has leveled in the lower grades, indicating a move toward stabilization in student numbers. He added that the cost of educating students has gone up, and many of those rising costs are due to inflation or otherwise out of the administration’s control, like employee contracts, which are negotiated by the school board in conjunction with the relevant unions.

“Going from the 2.84% in tax levy [increase] now to a zero would definitely have a tremendous impact on our budget,” he said, suggesting class sizes would soar and the district would have to cut programs and close an elementary school by September. “While the taxpayers would have the relief, the students would suffer in my opinion in many ways.”

Board member Jeffrey Kerman took issue with the suggestion of further cuts, and with McKinnon’s assertion he is on the board to negotiate for taxpayers.

“We all represent the taxpayers — we also represent the students,” Kerman told McKinnon. “We try to negotiate with our unions and everything else, but we’re here for the students — to make sure our district remains the district that it is now, a wonderful district.”

The board is scheduled to adopt a budget at an April 17 meeting, and the budget will face voters on May 21.

Three Village Civic Association emblem. Photo courtesy Three Village Civic Association Facebook page

Group also hears pros and cons of village incorporation, LIPA advocacy

By Mallie Jane Kim

Three Village Civic Association leaders have “serious concerns” about the proposed development of the Northville property in East Setauket, according to the association’s land use chair Herb Mones. 

At the April 1 meeting, Mones said he and other civic association leaders had expressed their reservations to Northville in a few conversations at Brookhaven Town Hall — but that the community’s impact was key. 

“I want to congratulate everybody,” Mones said of those who showed up to a March 25 meeting Northville hosted to share their dual proposals of building warehouses or multifamily rental units alongside their petroleum storage tanks. That meeting had to be canceled because an overabundance of attendees created a fire hazard in the rented hotel meeting room. 

“I think that was pivotal in any further discussions in regards to the development at Northville,” he said.

Mones added that in his 30-plus years on the civic board, he has never seen a developer go directly to the community to air such ideas. Rather, he said, they usually go through the local civic association to invite input from local residents. 

He also expressed confidence in the area’s elected officials for their representation of community concerns over the development. But he believes the overcapacity meeting sent a strong message. 

“Without that participation, I think we would start to see different outcomes,” Mones said. “I think it made it very clear that this community is very involved in any development.”

When canceling the March meeting, a lawyer for Northville said the company would find a larger venue to accommodate citizens for the rescheduled meeting and expressed a strong desire to hear any community concerns about the proposals.

Village incorporation explained

The civic association also heard about the benefits of village incorporation, which include local control over zoning, site plan approvals and traffic safety. 

“Every day, decisions are being made that have a direct impact on us and our families,” explained municipal lawyer and longtime Three Village resident Joseph Prokop in his presentation. “When you have a village, the people making those decisions are people that live in your community and are being affected the same way that you are.”

Prokop explained there are ways to predict whether and how taxes would change under incorporation, but that varies from village to village, depending on what services the village opts to provide.

He mentioned nearby incorporated villages included Port Jefferson, Belle Terre, Poquott, Old Field, Lake Grove and Head of the Harbor. 

Civic association board member George Hoffman said after the meeting that Three Village currently has a good relationship with the Town of Brookhaven, but there’s something appealing about incorporating. “I like the idea that it’s your own neighbors you go to in making the decisions,” he said.

Hoffman and other board members stressed that incorporation is just a hypothetical at this point. If there was a significant push or reason to explore it seriously, the next step would be to form an exploratory committee. 

A big question in incorporating the Three Village area, according to Prokop, might be what exactly to name it.

Ronald McDonald House update

In another presentation of community interest, Sam Ostler, capital campaign manager of Ronald McDonald House Charities, announced the group is planning to break ground on its facility near Stony Brook University Children’s Hospital on April 30. He said it will be a 30-room Ronald McDonald House and will serve about 300,000 people over the next 10 years. 

“Not one person has ever regretted staying at a Ronald McDonald House,” Ostler said. “They may look back on it as a very traumatic time — we have many heartbreaking stories — but they always look back on a place that was a home for them.”

Ostler said the charity had already raised 80% of the $30 million necessary to build the facility, and it will be working to complete the fundraising in coming months.

LIPA advocates speak

Area residents JoAnne Doesschate and Jane Fasullo asked citizens to consider making Long Island Power Authority its own public utility, rather than continuing to contract out to PSEG Long Island, a change proponents estimate would save $80 million per year.

Lawmakers in Albany are currently examining an option to end its relationship with the for-profit power provider when its contract expires in 2025, allowing LIPA to run the grid itself — essentially changing leadership, as the contracted union workers would remain on the job. 

“PSEG lobbyists are pushing to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Doesschate said. “And so we need all of you to make sure it does happen.”

Doesschate and Fasullo, who said they have been involved in advocacy organization Reimagine LIPA for several years, pointed to the fact that Long Island electricity rates are among the highest in the nation. In addition to saving money, they said, it would be better to keep money spent on power local. 

“You’re giving all this money to a for-profit company in New Jersey, and we could keep it here,” Doesschate said.

Not everyone at the meeting agreed. One attendee said he had experience as an electrician interacting with the power company and questioned whether a public agency would do a better job at setting the standards for responsiveness to citizens. 

“They’ve been doing a really good job the past years,” he said of PSEGLI. “Some people may not agree with me, but I can tell you from experience, they’ve been working really hard.”

Civic association president Charles Tramontana welcomed the lively discussion and said community-interest presentations are what the association is all about.

“Whether you agree or disagree, at least you get information here and you can decide for yourself,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons we like to facilitate different speakers coming in.”

The pony Snowball once kept at Sherwood-Jayne Farm. Photo courtesy Mallie Jane Kim
Preservation Long Island is exploring other ways to run a working farm

By Mallie Jane Kim

The bucolic farm scene on East Setauket’s historic Sherwood-Jayne Farm no longer includes grazing animals, as the elderly pony and four sheep who lived there were recently moved to new homes. According to farm owner Preservation Long Island, they are settling in well, and the organization is looking forward to the future of the farm. 

“It’s a new beginning, and it’s a nice place,” said PLI executive director Alexandra Wolfe.

The pony Snowball. Photo courtesy Mallie Jane Kim

According to Wolfe, the sheep have gone to Berkshire Farm Sanctuary in Massachusetts, and the pony, Snowball, has moved to a private family property on Long Island, with people who are familiar with caring for elderly ponies. Wolfe said PLI moved Snowball first so she wouldn’t be left alone on the farm, after a vet deemed her safe for transport and “very sound” for a pony her age — some 40 years old.

Wolfe said her contact at the farm sanctuary told her this week that the sheep are adapting well and getting ready to join a new flock. “It looks like heaven up there, as far as I’m concerned,” Wolfe said of Berkshire. “If I was an animal, I’d want to go retire there.”

It was a calm end to a contentious chapter on the farm. After hearing of plans to rehome the animals last summer, some area residents protested in an attempt to get PLI to change its plans — people were attached to the animals and enjoyed having that picture of historic farm life on Old Post Road. A petition to that effect garnered more than 3,500 signatures.

Surprised by the community response, PLI paused plans for a time but ultimately arrived on a November morning to move the animals, with short notice to the animals’ longtime caretaker Susanna Gatz. Friends of Gatz and other concerned neighbors formed an impromptu protest. Tensions ran high, but in the end the organization tasked with transportation decided the animals were too spooked to force into a vehicle.

Despite the protests, PLI maintained that animal care was not central to their mission, which is to celebrate and preserve the cultural and architectural heritage of the region. Also, Wolfe explained, the organization’s board didn’t feel it could meet best practices related to maintaining livestock at historic sites, pointing to a document that lays out details to consider, including fencing type, feed storage, security measures and many other factors. 

“Preservation Long Island doesn’t have the capacity or resources to implement a viable interpretation of 19th-century livestock farming.” Wolfe explained. “The primary motivator for Preservation Long Island is best practices.”

So PLI opted to give Gatz official notice to move out of her on-site apartment, and they waited until she had moved and the freezing weather passed before rehoming the animals.

Still, some residents are sad to see the farm quiet, without its grazers. The school bus that drives by every afternoon will no longer slow down for the kids to wave at Snowball and the small flock of sheep. 

“It’s a bit lifeless now,” said Tony Lopez of East Setauket. “It was always nice when you drove by and saw someone stopped there looking at the animals — it was a gem.”

Lopez says he wishes the community and PLI could’ve worked something out to allow the animals to stay but he maintains the historic house itself is a gift to the community, and said he hopes PLI can bring back some of the festivals Sherwood-Jayne used to host.

Festivals may be a long way off, though, because of county regulations on the property that prohibit use of the pasture as a parking lot and require PLI to obtain county permission before hosting big events that include the farmland.

Those regulations came to light last fall as part of a letter from Suffolk County informing PLI the property was out of compliance with its Farmland Preservation Development Rights program. The county and the Town of Brookhaven jointly purchased development rights to the farm parcel in 2003, requiring Sherwood-Jayne to maintain a working commercial farm.

According to Wolfe, PLI is in the process of seeking out local partners, like the Peconic Land Trust, to help sort out the most fitting way to bring the property back into compliance. 

PLI’s board does not want to jump into a relationship with a farmer who would bring in large, commercial equipment, Wolfe said, so they will take their time researching and deciding. 

“It has to be in alignment with the historic character of the farm,” she said, adding that whatever they do should match PLI’s interpretive goals and the natural setting. “Our goal is also to find something that contributes to the community in some way.”

Proposed site plan. Photo courtesy R+M Engineering

By Mallie Jane Kim

South Setauket may see three mega-warehouses with 77 loading stalls for tractor trailers, if a site plan by Northville Industries goes through. The petroleum storage and distribution company sent a letter to neighbors explaining the plan and inviting comment at a public meeting in the Centereach Holiday Inn Express set for Monday, March 25.

“This is an area that’s underserved for warehouse uses,” Northville’s lawyer Tim Shea said. “Most of the warehouses are by the freeway or on the South Shore.”

But that’s not the only plan on the table.

Shea indicated the company would also present the option of multifamily housing: “We had discussed the alternative of doing multifamily, and we plan to offer that alternative to the neighbors at that meeting.” 

Town board approval required

The property, bordered by Upper Sheep Pasture Road and Belle Mead Road, is zoned for industrial use, and that zoning would need to be changed to add an apartment complex or townhome community, for example. 

But that suggestion has already faced pushback at the town level.

Brookhaven Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich (D-Stony Brook) acknowledged Northville had approached him about rezoning for multifamily homes, something he is against. “I told them it’s not an appropriate site next to the gas tanks, and in the middle of this other neighborhood,” he said.

Shea contends any multifamily housing would meet setback requirements from the tanks, adding that he’s familiar with other areas of the country that have housing similarly situated near tanks like the ones in Setauket.

Kornreich, who deals closely with land use and zoning issues in his role on the town council, said he has seen developers in other situations use a “carrot and stick” method to rally community support: Asking for what they truly want but, in the face of resistance, offering something that might sound worse but is within their rights to build. Kornreich said he’d be curious to see if that is the strategy in this case. 

“Sometimes communities are given a false choice,” he said.

The potential “false choice” in this case is a proposed addition of a driveway onto Upper Sheep Pasture Road, where traffic is already tricky and not built for large trucks. At issue is a stipulation in a zoning lawsuit settlement from the 1990s, which contains a stipulation that, according to Shea, permits Northville to add a driveway north onto Sheep Pasture Road. According to Kornreich, the town’s legal department disagrees. 

In any case, Northville would still need town board approval. Kornreich said he would oppose a site plan if it includes that driveway, and he sees no reason his councilmember colleagues would break with him on this issue. 

“It would be extremely unlikely for them to override a decision in my district, especially over something as small as the position of a driveway,” he said, pointing to the respect among current board members.

Local reaction

George Hoffman, one of the Three Village Civic Association leaders who attended meetings between Kornreich and Northville, expressed grave concerns about adding that driveway on Upper Sheep Pasture. “It really jams up — it’s not a good corner,” Hoffman said. “This could be one of those last-mile warehouses where you have those trucks coming in and out, and the quality of life for people who live on those streets is really going to be impacted.”

Shea said Northville does not have a contract in place for use of the proposed warehouses, so it’s not decided who the final user would be and what the warehouses would be used for. 

He added that Northville sent its notification letter even more broadly than required by town code out of a desire to interact with the neighbors, and indicated the company has heard the concerns about a northern driveway. “When we did our traffic analysis,” he said, “it came out that having the entrance on Sheep Pasture Road would actually lessen the impact on traffic to the area, rather than pushing everything to Belle Mead Road.”

But Hoffman, who is also a water quality advocate and has raised concerns about Northville in the past, wishes the gas company would be more willing to work with community representatives, especially in light of its environmental record. In 1988, Northville revealed it had suffered a slow gas leak of about 1.2 million gallons of gasoline into the ground at the Setauket property, which, according to news articles at the time, led to years of remediation, $25 million in damages and repairs and a $7.2 million settlement with homeowners who said their property values had declined in the aftermath of the spill.

“They have a terrible environmental history,” Hoffman said. “Why do they want to be so confrontational to the community and to the town?”

For his part, Kornreich does not see a problem with new warehouses per se, as long as trucks are not funneled onto the residential Sheep Pasture Road. He said warehouses are within Northville’s industrial zoning rights, and they could help diversify the area’s economy while providing good-paying jobs. 

“You’ve got to have some industrial space around, and that’s the space for it,” Kornreich said. “You’re not cutting down trees, and it’s on land that’s not being used for anything else.”

Traffic disruption is only one of the concerns for nearby residents, though. Gillian Maser, who lives nearby on Upper Sheep Pasture Road and within sight distance of the large gas tanks, said she is also concerned about the environmental impact and noise pollution in a relatively quiet, family community. 

“I’m trying to stay as objective as possible, but there are definitely some red flags on this one,” Maser said. “With 77 tractor trailer bays, there could be a lot of noise in the middle of the night, with trucks loading and unloading.”

Maser said she and her husband are hoping to attend the March 25 meeting. 

Chocology’s Linda Johnson shares insights on savoring chocolate akin to tasting wine. Chocology’s Linda Johnson shares insights on savoring chocolate akin to tasting wine. Photo by Rob Pellegrino

By Mallie Jane Kim

Do you scarf chocolate or savor it? According to chocolatier Linda Johnson, tasting chocolate is akin to tasting wine: Take small bites and let the flavor develop in your mouth. 

“That started for me 10 years ago when I would see people just pack chocolate into their mouth and swallow it and say, ‘Oh, that was good,’” Johnson told the 30 attendees at a Three Village Historical Society tea hosted by the Reboli Center for Art and History in Stony Brook on March 11. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute, it took me two days to make that.’”

Linda Johnson, owner of Chocology in Stony Brook. Photo courtesy Three Village Historical Society

In the sunlit art-lined Reboli Center, Johnson, who owns Chocology in Stony Brook, shared that her appreciation of chocolate springs from her knowledge of cacao’s rich history, from its position as a sacred tree and a currency among the Mayan and Aztec people through its evolution as a sweetened treat in Europe and to the “bean to bar” movement toward quality ingredients and good, child-labor-free processing today. She punctuated her presentation with delicious tastes of various high-quality chocolates from around the world.

Tea with a Spot of History has traditionally been held in the historical society’s cozy circa 1805 homestead on North Country Road in East Setauket, but according to TVHS community engagement manager Kimberly Phyfe, taking the event on the road allows for more attendees and solidifies partnerships among aligned organizations around the Three Village area. 

“Going on the road is a win-win-win,” Phyfe said. “It’s a win for us as the historical society, for our community partners and also for our presenters.”

Phyfe pointed out that several attendees were hearing about Johnson’s shop for the first time, and also that many people were browsing and making purchases from the Reboli Center gift shop. 

“Everybody wins, and that’s what we’re about,” Phyfe said. “We look at the whole community as our living museum.”

The Reboli Center hosted the Tea with a Spot of History on March 11. Photo courtesy Three Village Historical Society

For its next on-the-road installment, Tea with a Spot of History will visit The Long Island Museum on April 5 to celebrate the history of quilting with the Smithtown Stitchers, and Phyfe said she is in talks with other area venues to secure two other teas to round out the spring.

The tea events, in contrast with the more formal lecture series THVS holds at The Setauket Neighborhood House, are a chance for people to sit elbow to elbow, learn a bit of history interactively — and with some tasty treats. Phyfe said the teas used to draw mainly retirees, but have started to also attract others looking for “bite-sized infotainment” during a weekday, from stay-at-home parents to remote workers to those who are able to take a long lunch.

One attendee, Bianca Dresch of Stony Brook, volunteers for TVHS with her husband Dan, but can’t usually attend weekday activities due to work. Both found this event irresistible. “I try to attend whenever something grabs our attention — I saw this combination with the chocolate and Reboli, and I thought, ‘Oh, we’ve got to do this,’” she said. 

Teagoer Bonnie Dunbar of East Setauket does usually attend the teas and found the new venue refreshing: “It’s a nice way to get to know what’s around the neighborhood.”

Dunbar said the event piqued her interest in the history of chocolate, and she would have preferred to focus even more on that history. As for the tasters? Those left her satisfied. 

“I like the idea of putting the chocolate on your tongue and letting it melt, instead of gobbling it down like I usually do when I eat chocolate,” she said.

Ward Melville High School. File photo

By Mallie Jane Kim

After weeks of advocacy, Three Village Central School District is planning its budget as though proposed drastic cuts in state funding won’t happen. 

Administration officials expressed optimism during a preliminary budget discussion at a March 6 Board of Education meeting, stating they plan to create the 2024-25 school year budget based roughly on current state aid numbers, as opposed to incorporating the nearly $9 million in cuts the district would receive under Gov. Kathy Hochul’s (D) state budget proposal. 

“I’m fairly confident we’re going to get [funding] restored,” said Superintendent of Schools Kevin Scanlon while sharing that he had just returned from a few days lobbying in Albany. “Whether or not we get an increase, that stands to be seen. Until we receive confirmation of that, I think we should proceed cautiously.”

Deputy Superintendent Jeffrey Carlson agreed, adding, “That does not mean we don’t plan for that kind of thing going forward, whether it be next year, the year after, the year after that.” 

Part of Hochul’s rationale in presenting the budget was realigning state school funding to reflect declining enrollment in certain districts. Affected districts pointed to extreme inflation in recent years, and also said it would be an overwhelming burden to force school districts to absorb in one year cuts based on a decade’s worth of enrollment decline.

Freshmen board members Karen Roughley and David McKinnon, who ran for the board in part to push for more advanced budget planning, both encouraged the district to consider options to fundamentally make district spending more sustainable, such as repurposing a school.

“Infrastructure costs money,” McKinnon said, explaining that district costs are rising faster than its income. “It’s one of the first things businesses do — we’re going to have to cut down on how much infrastructure we’re trying to maintain. There’s no way around that.”

Roughley agreed. “We need to make sure that we are preparing for things to be reduced every single year, because it’s going to happen,” she said. 

Administration officials previously estimated the cost savings of $1.1 million for repurposing one of the district’s five elementary schools, but during the public comment section of the board meeting, resident Carmine Inserra questioned that figure. “I feel it’s probably more than that if you include the benefit of combining programs at less schools, which offers efficiencies at dividing students among teachers, rooms and transportation,” said Inserra, who leads the Residents for Responsible Spending group in the district. “It’s far more savings than just turning down the heat.”

Inserra also called out the district administration and board for “ignoring” declining enrollment for years and for neglecting to give enough information and authority to its Budget Advisory Committee, a group of stakeholders that advises the board on the budget plan. 

“The BAC meetings have turned into sales presentations from the district admins on what their departments do and the successes they’ve had,” said Inserra, who served on the BAC a few years ago and said he watches the meetings even though he was not selected this year. “Have you given them any projected expenses and income for the coming years? Have you explained to them how expenses are affected by contractual [teacher] salary and benefit increases?”

For his part, Carlson defended the BAC presentations, saying he felt the committee would be more equipped to make good recommendations if they understand where the money is going, rather than looking at a line item on a page. 

Scanlon noted that much of the district’s rising costs are out of the administration’s control, such as increases in transportation contract costs and unfunded mandates from the state, like the one to switch to electric school buses by 2035. But the district is still watching for ways to be more cost-effective, he said, and pointed to one expected area of savings — teacher retirements. More than half the district’s teachers are “very senior” with about 26 years of experience, according to Scanlon, who anticipates 117 teacher retirements over the next four years. 

“That is a significant brain drain to our community,” he said. “We’re going to lose a lot of highly-qualified teachers, but at the same time it’s going to be a cost savings.”

Carlson, who heads up the budget planning process and presented the preliminary 2024-25 budget, said that the district can make reductions in next year’s plan as needed once real state aid numbers come in, to stay within the district’s tax cap. 

The state’s budget is due by April 1, though last year it didn’t land until May. That timing makes it hard for school districts, which need to have budgets ready for public review between April 30 and May 7. In Three Village school district’s timeline, that means the board needs to adopt its budget at the April 3 meeting. 

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Dan Panico attended the Three Village Civic Meeting on March 4. Photo by Mallie Jane Kim

Town board aims to cut red tape and enhance transparency in development processes 

By Mallie Jane Kim

Two months into his term as town supervisor, Dan Panico (R) is shaking things up in Brookhaven, removing a layer of bureaucracy from those seeking development permits or looking to add legal accessory apartments to their homes. 

Panico promoted the changes at a March 4 meeting of the Three Village Civic Association, where he repeated his campaign position that government should be efficient and perform the functions it is supposed to perform. “We all know on Long Island, everything takes too long to do,” he said. “We have layer after layer of government.”

Under the new changes, the appointed planning board and accessory apartment review board will be dissolved. Town board members will deal with planning requests directly, and the building department will process accessory apartment applications administratively. 

Civic association member George Hoffman praised the changes, saying they should lead to more transparency and accountability in town planning because residents can express concerns to their elected councilmembers, who will have more control in the process. He called Panico an expert on land use and a defender of low-density suburban communities. 

“That’s exciting also because we’re a civic association that puts a lot of effort into trying to keep our quality of life like it is,” Hoffman said.

Shoreline, wind energy and lithium batteries

Panico also got a warm welcome from Suffolk County Legislator Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), who called Panico “on top of the game” on the issues, and said his openness to working together “reinforced the sense of optimism for our town.” 

Englebright followed up on New York State’s Environmental Bond Act, which Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) announced in December would provide $479 million in climate change mitigation projects including shoreline restoration and water quality improvement. He asked Panico if he’d welcome involvement from the civic association as well as residents who live within the Setauket Harbor watershed to identify priorities for preservation.

“Absolutely,” Panico told him, touting his record of preserving open space during his years as a town councilman representing part of Brookhaven’s South Shore. “I’d love to work with you to get as much of that money down into Brookhaven for worthwhile properties as we can,” he said.

Panico also addressed lithium battery storage for upcoming wind energy projects that are part of the state’s climate goals — other Long Island towns have put moratoriums on licensing and construction of battery storage systems, but Brookhaven has not. Panico said the town board sees wind energy as a wave of the future, but also a matter of consistency in position. 

“You can’t support wind energy without supporting batteries,” he said. “You need the storage somewhere.”

Setauket resident Janet Sklar raised concerns at the meeting about a proposed location of the battery storage — near North Bellport. She related it to the existing landfill not far from there, which is nearing its capacity and scheduled to wind down to closure over the next few years. 

“These are things that are necessary,” she acknowledged. “But they’re showing up in areas that are poorer than their surrounding neighborhoods” and in communities of color, she added.

Panico said he is working to serve people in that area of town and pointed to his recent success securing a $4.5 million grant from the state for downtown revitalization of North Bellport.

“Whatever your background is doesn’t mean that you should bear the ills that are associated with anything, whether it be traffic or whether it be a landfill,” Panico said. “I care about the people of North Bellport.”

Brookhaven landfill

The landfill, which has been in its location since 1974, stopped accepting solid waste in the late ‘80s and is scheduled to stop accepting construction and demolition waste by the end of 2024. It will, however, continue to accept ash from burned trash for another few years, which has caught some communities off guard as the site was expected to be closed completely by this year.

At the civic meeting, Panico said that the plan to continue accepting ash from incinerated household garbage until the landfill reaches capacity is not new. “It’s the same course that’s been in place when Ed Romaine (R) was the supervisor, for almost two years,” he explained, adding that the plan “gives this region time to deal with the looming issue of what we’re going to do with our waste.”

Panico suggested more rail is necessary as a solution to ship garbage off Long Island, but also acknowledged electrification of the Port Jefferson Branch line is not likely anytime soon. “The town has been supporting electrification for as long as my memory,” he said, explaining that a meeting with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority last year left him with the impression that any such changes will be slow in coming due to other pressing financial priorities closer to the city. 

“New York State has climate action goals, right?” Panico said. “Yet we’re still rolling around on diesel trains. That’s sort of ironic.”

A sign on the TVHS property shows a rendering of the exhibit and education center. Photo by Raymond Janis

By Mallie Jane Kim

Setauket’s historic district shouldn’t be marked by a bright-blue-wrapped, half-finished barn for much longer, as the Three Village Historical Society plans to start working in earnest on the Dominick-Crawford Barn Education and History Center just as soon as the weather thaws and their supply orders come in. 

“You’re going to see a lot going on in the spring,” said Steve Hintze, who has been on the TVHS barn committee since its inception. “We ran into roadblocks, which seems to be par for the course, but now we’re ready and have everything set to really start moving.”

The society raised the barn exterior quickly last year, only to stall in the fall due to design changes that needed assessment by the Historic District Advisory Committee, a citizen group appointed by Brookhaven Town Board to advise the planning commissioner on changes in historical districts. 

The committee recommended adjustments to the society’s altered plans, including to the spacing of seams on the metal roof as well as to the color of the exterior, according to Hintze, who was TVHS president when the society began the barn process in 2014. Hintze added that some of the proposed changes were due to cost increases after the COVID-19 pandemic. The society moved toward less expensive but still historically-accurate materials, and away from a pricey cedar roof and particular windows that had shot up in cost. 

“We had enough money to get everything done before the pandemic,” he said. “Due to the pandemic, the cost doubled — flat out doubled.”

This start-and-stop rhythm has been nothing new to the TVHS barn project, which ran into roadblocks from the beginning. The society took down the original 1840s barn from its location in Old Field in 2014, with plans to use the wood to reconstruct a historic barn structure within a commercial shell that could host exhibits and events. According to Hintze, in the process of seeking permits with the Town of Brookhaven, the society learned their building lacked an appropriate Certificate of Occupancy, an issue he said was left over from the previous owner, and there were several past clerical errors that needed ironing out. 

“So once we started the project, we immediately started moving forward and then had to slow down,” Hintze said. “Then we move forward and then slow down. So that was the beginning of the barn taking a while to get accomplished.”

Then in 2022, someone cut and stole some key pieces of the original barn wood — including the longest piece. To solve that, the society has additional same-period wood coming from other places locally and from around New York state. 

One design sticking point is whether the society can use the high-density engineered wood LP SmartSide siding on the outside structure, which requires less labor and comes with a 50-year guarantee, or whether they need to use historically-accurate siding material like cedar or pine. Hintze said the society would like to consider long-term costs in maintaining the barn, with a material he said is indistinguishable in appearance from classic wood and far more resistant to bad weather, woodpeckers and other wood-destroying creatures. 

But some TVHS board members and members of the HDAC have been hesitant, if not against using the material. Town councilmember Jonathan Kornreich (D-Stony Brook), who is familiar with the arguments for and against LP siding on the barn, explained the hesitancy comes from those concerned about historical accuracy — much like a Model T car club using modern materials to restore historic vehicles. 

“If you get leaders in who say, ‘Hey, what if we put a Honda engine in the Model T, or fiberglass siding, or maybe air conditioning to be more comfortable,’ at some point, you’re not the Model T car club anymore,” the councilmember said.

Kornreich added that a decision about siding material is a big deal because Setauket’s historic district is one of the strictest in Suffolk County. If LP is allowed there, the door opens for it to be used in other historical applications.

But that reason is one TVHS leaders see as a possible plus, opening the door for forward-looking materials in historical contexts. “There’s something to be said about the historical society being able to set a standard, if we’re using these other materials, let’s use the very best of it,” explained society director Mari Irizarry. “Solar panels weren’t approved in the historic district for years, and now they are.”

Hintze said any debate surrounding LP siding shouldn’t slow down the barn building, and added that they are open to cedar if that will get the barn project finished. “It’s not structural — it’s the last thing that goes up,” Hintze said. “It really is something that can come down to the wire.”

In the meantime, the $300,000 JumpSMART grant the society recently received from Suffolk County will help move construction forward, and TVHS community engagement manager Kimberly Phyfe is planning to ramp up fundraising efforts in coming months. “We still have a little ways to go in terms of fundraising and grant writing,” she said, adding that she is hoping the barn will be ready to host visitors by the society’s annual Candlelight House Tour this December.

Setauket Elementary School. Photo by Mallie Jane Kim

By Mallie Jane Kim

Some area seniors and persons with disabilities will qualify for a 50% cut to the school portion of their property taxes next year, after the Three Village Board of Education voted during their Feb. 7 meeting to raise the maximum income levels on a tax exemption aimed at easing the financial burden on vulnerable groups.

The move comes after nearly a year of advocacy by area senior Rochelle Pollack, who approached the podium with her walker at several board meetings since March 2023 in order to ask the board to make the change. She said seniors have elevated medical and prescription costs — alongside the high inflation rates impacting everyone. “House prices have skyrocketed,” she said at an April 2023 meeting. “It’s great if you’re selling, but it’s not if you’re staying, as school taxes have also skyrocketed.”

Pollack pointed out that someone making $40,000 but paying $14,000 in property taxes is left with $26,000 to live on. “In this day of high inflation, gas, food, heat, medical procedures and prescriptions, I dare any of you to live on $26,000,” she told the board. “How can seniors?”

According to Deputy Superintendent Jeffrey Carlson, it’s unclear how much the savings for these groups will impact all the other homeowners in the area.

“What makes it tricky for the board is there’s no way to know how many people will now get this exemption,” Carlson explained, adding that changing the income levels opens up the exemption to a whole new group of people. “How many? No idea. We have no idea what income levels are, so it’s hard to say how much it will cost everyone else.”

During previous board meeting discussions of the exemption, Carlson compared it to splitting a restaurant bill. If two people in a group of 10 want to pay less because they only had water and salad, the other eight diners must pay more — the cost of the bill doesn’t change. “For one person to pay a little less, it means everyone else pays a little more.”

New York State raised the maximum allowable income levels in 2022 to $50,000 for those aged 65 and over, but the board opted to meet that increase halfway in light of uncertainty over how many seniors will take advantage of the tax credit, and what the real impact will be on all other homeowners. 

The sliding scale approved by the board will mean people over 65, or those with disabilities, who make up to $39,500 can qualify for the maximum 50% benefit. At the lowest end of the exemption, those making $47,000 to $47,900 can get a 5% tax break. Residents would need to apply for the exemption to the town assessor by March 1. 

Carlson explained that the state used to raise maximums for this income-based exemption incrementally each year, but until last year hadn’t made an increase since 2009, hence the substantial jump. Previously, residents needed to make $29,000 or less to qualify for the 50% discount. 

Trustee David McKinnon vocally supported increasing the income levels for the exemption, as he had during previous board discussions, as a moral issue of fairness. He called property taxes regressive by nature since they tend to disproportionately burden people with lower incomes — the less a person earns, the higher percentage of their income they end up paying, on average. McKinnon also praised Pollack for her advocacy in raising the issue to the board.

“She’s been an incredibly effective advocate for seniors here,” he said. “I knew nothing about this particular issue, and she came in at considerable cost to herself.”

The board was unanimous in approving the increase, and left open the possibility of bringing the district in line with state maximums next year, depending on the impact this change has on the rest of the community.

Ward Melville High School. File photo by Greg Catalano

By Mallie Jane Kim

A proposal to make secondary school start times later in Three Village Central School District failed in a deadlock 3-3 vote Jan. 24, due to concerns over newfound uncertainty sparked by Gov. Kathy Hochul’s (D) proposed state budget plan, which could see the district lose $9 million in funds. 

“If only this had all happened before we got this lovely little bomb dropped from Albany,” said board president Susan Rosenzweig at the Jan. 24 meeting.

Later start times were originally going to be part of the Jan. 10 district restructuring vote, which solidified a plan to move the sixth and ninth grades up to make 6-8 grade middle school and a four-year high school in the fall of 2025. But advocates for later start times asked the board to consider making a change for the 2024-25 school year, before the restructuring. That start-time vote failed because of increased cost and dissatisfaction that the proposed 35-minute change did not push start times late enough. 

The district’s Ward Melville High School currently begins at 7:05, and during a public meeting on start times in 2023, one parent shared video of a student getting picked up by a school bus in the pitch darkness of the early morning.

According to Rosenzweig, board procedure dictated they couldn’t vote on start time changes both for 2024-25 and 2025-26 in the same meeting, and the board was expected to approve the start time change for fall 2025 on Jan. 24. 

Until that “bomb from Albany.” 

“While the will is strong to make this happen, while we care more than anything about the children and their well-being and their welfare and want to do the right thing — we agree it’s a health issue — that burden of financial responsibility to me is too heavy right now,” Rosenzweig explained.

According to the district’s budget expert, Deputy Superintendent Jeffrey Carlson, the “real number” loss in funding under the governor’s budget would be about $8 million, after accounting for expected changes in building aid and taking out the “hypothetical” funding available for Universal Pre-K, which the district does not receive because implementing UPK would be more expensive than the current Three Village pre-K program, even with the additional aid money.

This vote marks the first time the six-member board ran into an even split. They opted last fall to rely on their “collegial” relationship rather than spend district money on a special election to replace the seventh board member, who had to vacate her position for personal reasons.

In the event of a tie, a motion does not pass.

The proposal’s failure comes despite years of advocacy by parents and, according to Rosenzweig, 22 letters written in support of later start times to the board in the week before the meeting.

Trustees Karen Roughley and David McKinnon argued that the board has been coupling restructuring with later start times through the decision process, and acting in good faith would mean keeping that pairing in place. “We need to distinguish a hypothetical, which is the governor’s budget, from a principle which is that we have to protect students’ health. They’re two separate things. We should be voting on principle, not some hypothetical which virtually everyone believes is going to change,” McKinnon said.

He added that restructuring the district without changing start times would create an “inferior product” since ninth graders would have to wake up even earlier than they do while housed in the junior high schools. “We would be agreeing that the ninth-grade students would now also have to get up as early as 5:30 in the morning in order to study physics and calculus while they’re half asleep.”

Board member Shaorui Li, the third “yes” voter, questioned the need to put off the decision over the potential cuts to a budget that for 2023-24 is $230.9 million. “We said many times this is a health issue — $8 million is about 4% of our total budget. For this 4%, are we willing to sacrifice our students’ health again?” she asked.

In voting “no,” Rosenzweig also pointed out the upcoming engagement of a transportation consultant, who the board hopes will figure out a way to push secondary school start times closer to 8 a.m. while spending less than the nearly $1 million increase predicted to accommodate additional buses.

Rosenzweig urged district families not to see the lack of decision as final. “This is not the end of the conversation,” she said. “This is just a moment where we have to be responsible with the information we have, and the information we don’t have yet. We don’t have the transportation consultant’s report yet, and we don’t have verified information from Albany. We don’t know what’s real and what’s a stunt.”