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Port Jefferson Country Club

File photo by Heidi Sutton/TBR News Media

The Port Jefferson Board of Trustees delivered several important announcements to the public during its monthly general meeting on Monday, Aug. 1.

During the business meeting, the board accepted the resignation of village administrator Joe Palumbo, effective Aug. 12. This marks the end of Palumbo’s nearly three years of service in that role.

Along with the resignation of the village administrator, Mayor Margot Garant announced multiple appointments, naming Deputy Mayor Kathianne Snaden as trustee liaison to the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals. Trustee Rebecca Kassay will take over as the village’s commissioner of environmental sustainability. In addition, residents Gerard Gang and Jennifer Testa were appointed to the Architectural Review Committee.

Mayor’s report

During the general meeting, Garant delivered several updates on projects at East Beach that will affect residents in the coming weeks. Construction of the lower wall at East Beach to stabilize the bluff will begin next week. The mayor predicts the project will take approximately eight months to complete.

“You’ll start to see large boulders and the steel being delivered to the parking lot area,” Garant said. “They’re going to start to mobilize with construction. Unfortunately, the beach, folks, will be closed. You can walk down, but you’ve got to stay away from the major construction.”

About 450 lineal feet of bluff line will be sloped and revegetated, likely sometime in the spring. “It’s a long project, it’s a lot of stabilization, and that is underway,” Garant said.

The mayor also announced that plans to construct an upper wall to protect the clubhouse at the Port Jefferson Country Club will be going out to bid. This next step, according to the mayor, will allow the board to gather more information as it prepares to make a final determination on how to proceed with regards to that facility.

“That project will be going out to bid just so we can get the information and see what the numbers look like,” she said. “We need to have the hard numbers before we can make any real decisions. We will be making a presentation to the public, informing you all along the way.” She added, “It’s a pretty complicated process.”

Concluding her report, Garant announced that the village will partner with the Long Island Seaport and Eco Center to commission a whaleboat.

“It’s not a whaleboat to go fishing for whales,” she said, jokingly. “It’s a whaleboat that was famously used during the [Culper] Spy Ring … Our whaleboat will be something we can use for programming and for demonstrations down at the museum.”

Trustee reports

Snaden provided an update on the roadway obstruction at the intersection of Arlington Avenue and Route 25A. She was pleased to see that the New York State Department of Transportation had resumed construction at that site.

“You can see that a lot of work has been done,” the deputy mayor said. “Most recently, they have started the layers of paving and they are still on track to be finished with that and [have] that road open hopefully by the end of summer.”

Trustee Lauren Sheprow delivered several updates on the status of the Recreation Department. She first highlighted the close relationship the village recreation director has forged with the Port Jefferson School District.

The newest member of the board also announced a village-wide golf outing scheduled for Sept. 22. The fee for the event is $50, which will cover 18 holes of golf at the PJCC along with cart fees, green fees, food and prizes.

“We are opening up our golf outing to the entire Port Jefferson community,” Sheprow said. “That will include Port Jefferson Fire Department volunteers, Port Jefferson School District employees, Port Jefferson village employees and all the residents of Port Jefferson village.” She added, “Proof of employment is required, as is proof of residence.”

Sheprow also announced the reinstatement of the village recreation committee, which will be made up of “seven to nine village residents who can provide feedback and guidance, leading to recommendations to the board of trustees for improvements to parks, facilities and recreational programming,” the trustee said. She added that the next step is to establish a charter for the committee and explore possible candidates.

Sheprow also announced her plans to foster a closer relationship between the Village of Port Jefferson and Stony Brook University. Following conversations with the Office of Community Relations at SBU, the village government hopes to tap into resident experts and specialists in service of the village’s aims.

“The village is proposing to establish a think tank of sorts made up of researchers and scientists at Stony Brook [University] who live in Port Jefferson and who can engage and consult on the opportunities and challenges in their hometown village,” Sheprow said. “This can include marine sciences, engineering sciences, environmental sustainability, education, health and wellness, culture, society … it doesn’t stop. There are so many opportunities to bring in the knowledge of these experts.”

Kassay offered her support for this proposal, saying, “I’m looking forward to seeing all of the community members that are engaged in a lot of those initiatives, as well as the university.”

Kassay delivered a brief report, highlighting some of the environmental activities she has undertaken. She said the Conservation Advisory Council is researching municipal bamboo codes.

“This has been brought up by a few residents over the years and increasingly so more recently,” she said.

Trustee Stan Loucks used his report to recognize the Parks Department for its recent efforts to facilitate several events held throughout the village.

“The Parks Department is responsible for a lot of things in the village that a lot of us are not aware of,” he said. “They take care of every park in the village. They take care of a lot of grassy areas in the village that are not considered parks … and I think they deserve a lot of credit.” He added, “Many times you’ll see them out there with the white trucks and the blue uniforms. If you see them working, stop and say ‘Hello’ and thank them for what they do.”

To access the full meeting, visit the village’s YouTube page.

Romaine discussed ways in which local government and New York State must adapt to meet the needs of a changing environment. File photo

Town of Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) has served in elected office for decades. In Part I of this two-part series, Romaine discusses the problem of coastal erosion, innovative ideas for recycling and why you won’t see his name on a sign at a town park.

What sparked your interest in environmental protection and which issues concern you the most?

Long ago, I made a choice between my eyes and my ears, and I chose my eyes. People can argue whatever they want, but I’ve seen what this Island was. I grew up on Long Island. I’ve watched it change and I know what it needs.

The things that concern me about this Island are the threat of climate change and rising sea levels, which is why we’ve bought hundreds of acres at Mastic Beach — to convert them back to wetlands, to act as a sponge.

The week before I was elected in 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit. I went down to Mastic Beach, which was part of my original district in the ’80s. I knew the mayor and I went down with Dan Panico [R-Manorville], who was the councilman, and we took a tour.

Neighborhood Road is the road that runs east and west through Mastic Beach. Everything south of Neighborhood Road was flooded. And the other thing I remember about that disaster was the smell. With all the trees and the downed wires sparking, it smelled of sewage because all their cesspools were inundated, and it smelled of oil because they all had above-ground tanks that spilled over.

It was so devastating when I went down there. Mastic Beach has recovered since, but I will never forget the disaster that hurricane caused and the flooding that it unleashed. Marshlands act as sponges that are capable of handling a flood like that. That is why I am deeply invested in trying to buy up as much of the marshland that was built upon years ago and get rid of some of the small homes there.

The other concern is the carbon footprint we leave. I’m a big supporter of renewable energy. When I was a [county] legislator for the 1st District, I bought more land and preserved more farmland than the other 17 districts combined.

The pattern of development has been so intense that we’ve screwed up this Island by sprawl. We should have thought more carefully about the pattern of development here and what we could do in terms of public transport, in terms of public services — and we didn’t.

What is your preferred approach to the issue of eroding bluffs, a growing problem along the North Shore?

Sometimes people live along those bluffs, so you want to see what type of engineering solutions there are to secure or stabilize bluffs. I know the Village of Port Jefferson is debating what to do about the Port Jefferson Country Club because their tennis courts are going to fall in [the Long Island Sound] and then right after that, probably the clubhouse.

My view would be the same as it would be for Mastic Beach — to retreat from the bluffs. But again, sometimes you can’t do that because people live atop them, so you have to look at engineering solutions that would help stabilize the bluffs. It’s Mother Nature at work. Can man-made solutions resolve it? Sure they can … temporarily. Clearly, what should have been done is something that would have prevented building near or on the bluffs.

Can you discuss the recycling initiative that your office has undertaken?

Back in 2017, China announced its [Operation] National Sword policy. It said, “Hey, we’re not buying any more recycled goods from the United States.” Well, that created all types of problems.

Unfortunately with recycling, a lot of what needs to be recycled rests with the State of New York, and they have not been innovative. The [Department of Environmental Conservation] has chosen to be a regulator and not an innovator. Let me give you an example: glass.

Glass is one of the largest contaminants in the recycling process. To recycle, what do you need? You need a marketplace. Recycling doesn’t work if you don’t have a marketplace to reuse the goods that you’re recycling, which is why recycling has collapsed in large parts of this country.

What we’re looking for from the State of New York is called a BUD — a beneficial-use determination. We believe glass should be an aggregate used in concrete. Concrete is the most carbon-intensive production of any substance that we know. And the way you can end that is by substituting glass in that process as an aggregate, and we’ve allocated for that.

What this requires is the state DEC to give us a beneficial-use determination. Now we’ve proved that because we’ve built these huge drainage rings for our recycling center and we got state permission to use glass as the aggregate in the concrete. They are not even looking at that.

At Stony Brook University, there’s a boathouse. It’s painted blue and was built in 1989. Do you know what it was built out of? Ash. The strength of that building is stronger today than the day it was built in 1989. Guess what we do with our ash? We put it in our landfill. Yet we don’t get a beneficial-use determination to use ash in concrete, in asphalt or in other products. This would create a market for glass and ash.

Also, I’m waiting on the state legislation. I have an ally in the state Legislature — an old friend of mine, someone I served with in the [county] Legislature in the ’80s, and we still work together to this day: [Assemblyman] Steve Englebright [D-Setauket]. I’m trying to say, “Steve, what are we doing here? There’s so much we can be doing.” We need a “Bigger, Better Bottle Bill.” We need to create markets for products because if we don’t, recycling will not work and will not be effective.

If you give enough time and you watch a leaky faucet, that water one drop at a time over a long period of time will make a difference. I always remind myself of the one drop of water. Because if you keep on hammering away at it, change will come. If only incrementally, it will come for the better, for things that should come, for things that are so common sense that even the opposition can’t argue against it. And usually, the opposition tends to be monied interests that have some kind of economic benefit to them, not to the society as a whole.

How did you end up in the supervisor’s office?

I started out as a teacher. I taught for 12 years, almost all of it at Hauppauge. I was very active in the teachers union there. I was the treasurer of the teachers union on their executive committee. In fact, one of my students was Jay Schneiderman, the supervisor of Southampton [D] — I taught him seventh-grade social studies.

I was always active, kind of on the sidelines as a volunteer. In 1979, in the Town of Brookhaven — which had been under Democratic control for four years — the Republicans won everything and they needed people to go into town government. I had done a lot of work for the school district on federal and state aid, so they asked me to become a part-time federal and state aid coordinator.

I started there, and the first thing I got was a massive grant for community development. We got a huge, multimillion-dollar grant, but there were conditions on hiring staff. So they asked me to become the first commissioner on housing and community development for the town. I asked the school district to give me a leave of absence — they were very kind and gave me three in a row. And finally I told them, “Look, I’m not going to come back,” because I was into that job. I did that for five years and loved it.

All the sudden, the [county] legislative seat in which I lived had opened up and they asked me to run. Even though it was a little bit less money, I thought about it for a while and I said “yes.” I ran and was elected to the Legislature in ‘85 and then again in ‘87. I was getting ready to run again when our county clerk died. In between, I had run for Congress and did very well — I got 49.6% of the vote against an incumbent, Mr. [George] Hochbrueckner [D-NY1].

I ran for county clerk, won all 10 towns and went on to win five elections as county clerk. In that time, I had moved, the lines had changed and I got elected to the 1st Legislative District as their county legislator, which included all of eastern Brookhaven from Shoreham to where I live in Center Moriches, as well as Riverhead, Southold and Shelter Island. I loved that district and didn’t lose an election district for the four times I ran. And I was getting ready to run again when Mr. [Mark] Lesko [D], who was the [Brookhaven] supervisor, resigned midterm.

I was asked to run for supervisor and I thought long and hard about that. The major reason I did that was because I had a son [Keith] who was a town councilman and died in office. He always told me that at some point in life he wanted to be a supervisor. That motivated me to say “yes.” I wound up winning five terms as supervisor. So that’s the very short synopsis of a long story.

Brookhaven is an old township that has endured for three-and-a-half centuries. What does it mean to you to be a part of that tradition, and what do you see as your place in it?

The one thing I know about history is that people are quickly forgotten. That’s why I made sure that when I became supervisor, I said, “Other than in Town Hall, I don’t want my name on any town signs or anything.” And you will not see my name on a town park or anything because I made it clear that I’m just passing through.

I believe one of the greatest things I did was save 1,100 acres and put them in the Central Pine Barrens — 800 of which was National Grid property. The legacy that I leave will be a legacy that benefits people, but they will not know it was me.

Without remediation, the clubhouse at the Port Jefferson Country Club may fall off the bluff within years. File photo by Raymond Janis

During a public meeting at Village Hall on Monday, July 18, Mayor Margot Garant presented to the board of trustees the options for the upland projects to stabilize the East Beach Bluff.

The Port Jefferson Country Club, a village-owned property, is now at risk of losing its clubhouse as coastal erosion has withered away the bluff. Without remediation, the clubhouse is likely to fall off the cliff within years.

Proposals to address the problem have been hotly contested by the public, with one faction favoring preserving the clubhouse and the other favoring a retreat plan. During the meeting, the mayor presented the board with both options, outlining the logistics and some of the expected costs for each.

The upper wall

The first option is a 47-foot-deep steel wall between the clubhouse and the edge of the cliff. This wall would be capped by timber, which Garant said would be safer, cheaper and more aesthetically appealing than a concrete cap.

To slow further erosion, the plans include extensive revegetation of the bluff. This would also avert additional expenses related to drainage.

“When this is installed with all of that vegetation, you’re not going to need any more drainage because that wall will become a stopgap and the vegetation will just soak everything up,” Garant said.

The conceptual layout of the planned design also accommodates two regulation-size tennis courts along with three pickleball courts.

Garant said this project would be approached in two phases. The first phase involves a section of wall aimed at preserving the clubhouse, while the second involves an extension of the wall for racket sports amenities.

Still without hard figures on the expected cost of the wall, Garant recommended that the board move forward with exploring this option. “I recommend putting the upper wall out to bid and getting a hard number on that,” she said.

Managed retreat

The alternative proposal involves the demolition of the current clubhouse, immediate installation of a drainage system along the bluff, and the renovation and expansion of The Turn pub and grub facility to accommodate the existing clubhouse operations.

This retreat plan, based on an estimate provided to the mayor, would cost the village approximately $5 million to $6 million.

The board is likely several weeks away from making any decisions on this matter. 

For additional background, see The Port Times Record’s April 7 story, “On the edge: Port Jeff Village weighs the fate of country club.” 

File photo by Heidi Sutton/TBR News Media

The newly configured Port Jefferson Village Board of Trustees held its first public meeting on Tuesday, July 5.

Trustee Lauren Sheprow took her seat alongside her colleagues on the board for the first time. After completing her first full day in office, the trustee discussed ways in which she intends to familiarize herself with the mechanics of the village and learn more about the concerns of her constituents.

“I continue to take information in and I’ll continue to seek information from the residents, not because I am not campaigning anymore but because I am really interested in what they have to say,” she said. 

Sheprow will jump headfirst into her first term of office, already securing two important assignments from Mayor Margot Garant: commissioner of communications and commissioner of recreation. Outlining her rationale behind these appointments, the mayor said she intends to tap into Sheprow’s professional experience in public relations and repurpose those skills in service to the community.

“We put her to work as commissioner of communications [because] we want to put her public relations experience and career to work for us,” Garant said, adding, “And also as commissioner of recreation, so that she can help the recs department and because she was a former member of the recs committee.”

As well, Garant congratulated reelected Trustee Rebecca Kassay, who began her second term this week. 

Kassay reported that she received a request to explore code changes related to the planting of bamboo as the roots of this woody grass can cross property lines and create conflicts between neighbors.

“This would address the planting of new bamboo as well as sort of being more clear about when someone has bamboo and it starts creeping over to another property line,” she said. “This is a big issue as far as property values can go and can help prevent neighborly disputes in the future.” 

Trustee Stan Loucks delivered an extensive report on the status of the recreation department as it enters the height of its busy season. He announced that two tennis courts at the country club have been opened for pickleball and will remain minimally open throughout the summer until construction begins at the East Beach bluff.

“We anticipate that the construction of the lower wall along the bluff will be starting sometime in August or early September and if any part of this construction requires working from the top, in other words, working from those tennis courts, then we’re going to have to close those courts,” he said. Loucks added that East Beach and its parking lot will also be closed off during the construction period.

Although golf membership at the country club has exceeded 630 members this year, Loucks said there are no plans to cap membership. He advised community members that while tee times are scarce between 6 and 11 a.m., there are plenty of remaining slots available after this time frame.

Deputy Mayor Kathianne Snaden used her report to address an ongoing issue related to the recently renovated public bathrooms at Rocketship Park. According to her, the bathrooms were vandalized just four days after they were opened, prompting the board to enforce a closing time for public use of the facility.

“The conclusion we all came to was that because of the vandalism that happened four days after opening our brand new, expensive bathrooms … it is best to keep them closed at 7 p.m. and to have a sign to say that they are closed at 7 p.m. due to the vandalism that is occurring,” she said. This signage will assure that the public knows “when they’re closed and why they’re closed.”

Snaden also informed the public that the village has renewed its intermunicipal agreement with the Port Jefferson School District to allow constables on school grounds. She added that the roadway closure at the intersection of Route 25A and Arlington Avenue remains ongoing.

Garant recognized the village employees who worked to facilitate a smooth election day last month. She also acknowledged all of the candidates who ran for the village board and commended them for their continued commitment to the service of the village.

“I thank you for your involvement, for engaging, for getting out and knocking on the doors,” the mayor said. “You make a difference and we hope that you stay engaged.”

Garant also highlighted the monumental act of heroism on the part of a group of Port Jeff high school graduates. As reported on June 30 in The Port Times Record, these grads left their high school commencement ceremony to help extinguish a fire on Arlington Avenue.

“Brave is not even the word,” Garant said. “Community service is an understatement. … This really says what Port Jefferson is all about.” She added, “The fact that we do have a fire department that helps train our kids and that they are ready to serve under any circumstances is just absolutely amazing and encouraging and amazing to me.”

Melissa Cohen with her children Andrew and Alice Turner. Photo courtesy of Alan Turner

Port Jefferson will likely be greener at this time next year, thanks to the efforts of 59 first graders at Edna Louise Spear Elementary School, their families and village trustees.

As a part of what Trustee Rebecca Kassay hopes will be an annual tradition, first graders will hear a talk in their class this Friday, April 29, on National Arbor Day, by Heather Lynch, IACS endowed chair of Ecology & Evolution at Stony Brook University. At that point, the students will also get coupons for free saplings of white oak, red spruce or winterberry shrubs.

The students and their families can plant the trees or shrubs in their backyards if they have space and clearance or at the Port Jefferson Country Club. The trees planted at the country club will not interfere with any golf games or other activities.

“We want to help foster that relationship between our young, upcoming stewards of Port Jefferson and the natural environment,” said Kassay, who spearheaded the project.

Planting trees will help offset losses incurred during storms and as some of the older trees die.

While sharing games like bird bingo, Lynch also hopes to speak with first graders about the role that native plants can play on Long Island.

“Planting trees is like a gift to their future selves,” said Lynch, who also described the effort as “paying it forward.” She hopes first graders see the role they play in Port Jefferson history by planting trees that will grow as they do and that will become a part of their enduring legacy.

While first grade students will receive saplings for free as a part of the project, Port Jefferson residents can also buy them for $1 at the farmers market on Sunday, May 8, while supplies last.

Kassay is describing the purchase for residents as a “dollar and a dream.”

Planting these trees will strengthen the ecology of the area, providing homes and food sources for local birds and insects and reducing runoff, Lynch added.

The trustees will invite the first graders, as well as community members, to help plant the tree nursery at the country club on Thursday, May 5, between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., with a rain date of May 6. Residents can park at the country club and follow signage from The Turn restaurant to the tree nursery beyond the driving range. 

Family response

For several families in Port Jefferson, this kind of effort validates their commitment and interest in the village.

Nadine and Richard Wilches moved to Port Jefferson last year with their 9-year old son Lucas and their 7-year old daughter Cecilia.

“One of the reasons we moved to Port Jefferson is to experience a closer-knit community that includes taking care of the environment,” Nadine Wilches said. “Planting this tree will be a learning experience.”

Cecilia, who is in first grade at Edna Louise Spear school, shared some of her awareness of trees.

Without trees, “there would be no air,” Cecilia said. “The tree eats carbon dioxide. We eat the opposite, which is air, so the tree does the opposite.”

Cecilia has learned some of what she knows about trees from the work her brother Lucas is doing on photosynthesis in his class.

Lucas was born on Earth Day and also appreciates the connection to preserving the planet, the mother said.

Wilches added that the family tries to be cautious about their carbon footprint and has a hybrid car and an electric car.

She appreciates that the school and the village are “reinforcing our home values around the environment.” 

If Cecilia could ask a tree a question, she would want to know if it hurts a tree when it loses its leaves.

First grader Andrew Turner appreciates how trees provide a home for animals. He will join the group planting saplings at the country club, and wants to know how long it takes a tree to grow.

Andrew, who likes woodpeckers and who currently wants to be a paleontologist like his father, Alan Turner at Stony Brook University, enjoys jumping in leaf piles in the fall.

“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, and the second best time is today.”

— Rebecca Kassay

Andrew’s mother Melissa Cohen, who is a graduate program coordinator in Ecology & Evolution at Stony Brook University, said she appreciates how this effort will help children in the school develop an understanding of trees and the benefits they bring to the community.

Longer term, Lynch, Kassay and others hope the first graders who participate in this effort develop a connection to the trees they plant.

“We envision these kids growing up with their trees,” Lynch said. “It would be amazing if the kids could all take pictures with their trees now and we can [see] them taking pictures when they graduate high school as a rite of passage.”

Kassay said these trees offer numerous benefits, including lowering heating costs from the shade they produce, increasing property values and stabilizing the soil by soaking up runoff from storms.

“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, and the second best time is today,” Kassay said.

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.”

The Port Jefferson Country Club at the edge. Photo from Village of Port Jefferson

It’s been a long and harrowing timeline of events for local officials and residents who use East Beach and the surrounding country club.

For years now, the village has been preparing for this moment, where the tennis courts and Port Jefferson Country Club have seemingly moved to the edge of the cliff overlooking the beach thanks to climate change and the ever-increasing erosion.

To the naked eye, one can see a gazebo in photos hanging by a thread. The tennis courts will be next. Eventually, if nothing is done, the club could potentially collapse into the harbor and have devastating impacts on the local environment. Over the course of several months, Mayor Margot Garant, village administrator Joe Palumbo and the village trustees have been anticipating this moment where something needs to be done now.

“We lost so much material,” Garant said. “The deck is approximately 30 feet from the bluff line … the gazebo isn’t there anymore. We’re getting very, very close to the bluff.”

Because the tennis courts are so close to the edge now, tennis at the country club had to be canceled for this season.

A view of the eroding bluff. Photo from Village of Port Jefferson

The backstory

In February, a representative from CGI Engineering, Varoujan Hagopian, presented to the board what could happen with three different options on the table: build a wall at the bottom of the bluff; renovate the building and surrounding areas upland; or do nothing at all.

Hagopian said that many clients he works with on the Eastern Seaboard are experiencing the same, or similar issues. “If you do nothing, this kind of erosion will continue,” he said. “I estimate the building will be totally damaged or gone in three to five years. I’m not trying to scare you, but these are realistic calculations.”

Hagopian added that although the building might be gone, that means it will impact the road and East Beach as a whole. The erosion won’t stop at the club.

Two weeks later at the March 3 work session, the board listened in to Garant’s presentation on the bluff, where she gave a detailed history of just how much East Beach has been through over the last decade.

The restoration project began in 2010, with engineering group GEI working on several projects that included the sea wall restoration, the west end wall extension, a ramp installation, a large jetty project and sand dredging, which was finally completed in 2021.

Garant said that the village and its surrounding beaches have seen devastating effects of different storms throughout the years, including Irene, Sandy and more recently, Isaiah back in September.

Aerial shot of Port Jefferson Country Club. Photo from Village of Port Jefferson

Finding funding

Meanwhile, Palumbo has been working with the DEC and with FEMA applications to try to get some federal funding — a feat that takes a lot of time and a lot of patience.

The East Beach Bluff Stabilization Phase I project’s DEC permit was originally filed in 2016, finally being awarded in June 2021, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ approval being obtained in September.

The DEC approved plans call for 454 linear feet of steel wall and rock revetment with tiebacks to stabilize the lower bluff and bolstering the “groin” to prevent further erosion into the roadway, according to a February presentation.

A significant expense of the entire project is the replanting of the entire flank of the hill which includes core logs, erosion control blankets, wood terracing, soil anchors and tens of thousands of native plants, including woody plants, beach and switch grasses.

The comprehensive project and detailed drawings were put out for competitive bidding. Twelve bids came in ranging from $4.8 million to $6.2 million. Funding the project will require a bond initiative, which will have an impact of increasing the typical household tax bill by approximately $147 per annum over the 15-year term if no other sources of funding are available or if no other budgetary changes are made.

The final awarded bid for the lower wall project ended up being $4.3 million. But when it comes to federal funding, the village is competing with other locations which have had their share of issues with Mother Nature.

“We were denied the application for the reimbursement of the bluff, they claimed, in short, that it was an existing condition,” Palumbo said. 

“We’re appealing that because we know it’s a preexisting condition and it’s going to be a condition that will continue to occur if our measures aren’t taken to the bluff.” 

The village has recently enlisted the assistance of Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-NY1), who is offering his full support to the appeal to FEMA and helping to seek other funding sources. 

Palumbo added that he has been in talks with decision makers with FEMA weekly, and has been scouring to find other types of funding that could help offset the cost.

“This is probably one of the most expensive projects any municipality on Long Island has ever had to deal with,” Garant said. “This is a severe erosion issue and it’s not going away. We might lose a lot more than we already have lost if we don’t act quickly.” 

For more information, including the plans to stabilize and restore the bluff, visit the website portjeff.com/eastbeachbluff. 

Photo by Kimberly Brown

Staying active has been hard enough during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most indoor sports still have restrictions or are closed entirely, making it difficult for Long Islanders to keep them-selves occupied while living life under pandemic rules.

Yet luckily for some, there is one sport that has not let anyone down in 2020 — golf.

While other activities were cancelled throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, golf courses like this one at the Port Jefferson Country Club became a popular pastime. Photo by Kimberly Brown

As the virus pandemic hit Long Island in March, golf became one of the most popular outdoor sports to play throughout last year. It is one of the few activities where contact is either extremely limited, or even nonexistent, as it can even be played alone.

General manager of the Port Jefferson Country Club, Brian Macmillan, explained how his business has done ex-ceedingly well given the circumstances.

“We saw a great increase in membership and play,” he said. “With many off of work or not losing time in their day-from-work travel, more people were on the course. It seemed to be the only safe activity for anyone to do.”

But the pandemic has created minor setbacks for some golf courses like PJCC. The shortage of cleaning supplies stunted the business for only a short time, but what became a bigger issue was the shutdown of production from golf companies.

“Keeping up with golf balls and gloves was an issue that hit later in the year,” Macmillan said. “The golf compa-nies shut down production for a period while product was in the highest demand ever. Getting products in the door was tough, but we found ways to use different companies to get our members what they needed.”

Besides the increased play, there were many positive attributes to come out of the pandemic. For example, the Wil-low Creek Golf & Country Club in Mount Sinai said COVID brought their members closer together as they com-bated the new mandates New York State implemented.

Photo by Kimberly Brown

“The challenges of 2020 triggered changes in how we operate on a day-to-day basis,” Robin Rasch, general manager of Willow Creek, said. “This strengthened our team here as we continue to evolve and adapt to COVID mandates.”

Without consistent loyalty from golf members, country clubs would have had a difficult time surviving. Thankfully, the businesses have been able to thrive while simultaneously bringing golf lovers together, at a safe distance of course.

“Eventually, golfers came to understand that being on the golf course was a safer place to enjoy the outdoors — the game of golf — and connect in a safer manner with friends,” Rasch said.