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Port Jefferson Power Station

Guiding the incorporation movement, in part, was a desire to extract value from the Port Jefferson Power Station, pictured above. File photo by Lee Lutz

On a snowy day, Dec. 7, 1962, Port Jefferson residents voted 689-361 to incorporate as a village. After court challenges, the vote was made official in April 1963. 

But how did this vote affect public education in the village? Through the lens of the incorporation movement, village residents can better understand the local issues of their time.

In an exclusive interview, state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) for Assembly District 4, which includes Port Jefferson, explores some of these themes.

A vision for better schools

Decades before incorporation, the educational landscape was quite different than it is today. Contrasting the great variety of school districts along the North Shore, residents once belonged to one central school district, the epicenter of which was Port Jefferson. 

By the early 1930s, Port Jeff High School was accepting students as far west as Stony Brook and parts of Smithtown and as far east as Wading River and Yaphank.

But in the spirit of local control characteristic of the times, that central school district began to unravel. Fragments of the district started to break away, forming districts of their own, guaranteeing greater control. 

Fearing dissolution of their school district, local residents considered incorporating to counteract the trend of declining student enrollment. “They were motivated to make sure that the school district was not further depleted by actions beyond their control,” Englebright said. “There was a good deal of emotion in that incorporation involving the school district and the concerns of parents for the well-being of their children.”

Englebright regards the desire for quality public schools as one of the principal factors driving the incorporation movement. He added that proponents of incorporating viewed education as a priority for the Port Jefferson community.

This, the assemblyman maintains, holds true even today. “The reality is the parents and the community of Port Jefferson care deeply about their school district and their children,” he said. “They don’t want to lose that brand of excellence and the well-being of that school district, which has always been a superb place for education.” 

Extracting value

A power plant was located at the water’s edge of Port Jefferson Harbor. Contained within that plant, locals saw a promise for better schools, according to Englebright.

“I don’t think it was a singular motive on the part of Port Jefferson to capture the tax base of the power plant, but it certainly was seen as important to maintain the infrastructure of the schools in Port Jefferson,” the assemblyman said. 

Port Jefferson has enjoyed a largely subsidized school district for over half a century thanks to the power station. But as the world comes to grips with the danger of combustible energy sources, so is the village affected and, by extension, the local school district.

“The changing technology of energy production has been very much a part of the people’s consciousness, particularly the leadership of the school board and the village board,” Englebright said.

Despite its pivotal place in the cause to incorporate, the long-term future of the Port Jefferson Power Station, which is operated by National Grid USA, is undecided. The village government is already seeing declining subsidies from Long Island Power Authority, which supervises transmission and delivery functions. Whether the plant goes dark in the coming years remains an open question.

Englebright acknowledges this uncertainty and its impact on certain public school districts on Long Island. For him, the trends in New York state and around the globe point to a phasing out of combustion energy.

“The trend is to move away from combustion as the source of energy,” he said. “I do believe that it is likely that the plant … will prove to be less used going forward. The question of when that will happen, I can’t tell, but that is certainly the trend.”

Despite a cloud of uncertainty over this tax-generating facility, Englebright sees opportunities for community adaptation. Though the power plant may someday shut down, he foresees Port Jeff emerging as a local leader in renewable energy, becoming a central hub for offshore wind.

“I have been very much involved with helping to advance offshore wind and, at the same time, to guide and nurture a relationship between a power-generating site that has been a part of our region for half a century now and more, and to the extent possible enable a sort of gas pedal and clutch transition to occur,” the assemblyman said.

Even in the face of possibly losing a significant tax base, village residents can be reassured that the transition of its energy economy is already underway. 

Incorporation in context

Port Jefferson School District is nearing a public referendum scheduled for Monday, Dec. 12. This referendum, totaling approximately $25 million, may decide the future of facilities in buildings across the district, and possibly its long-term fate.

Englebright has expressed support for the facilities improvements, citing that they will be necessary to maintain a proper educational venue for future generations of students. [See story, “Capital bonds: PJSD nears historic referendum over school infrastructure.”] 

Compounding an already complex issue, PJSD, like many others throughout the area, is also experiencing a decline of student enrollment. “There’s no easy answer here, not just for Port Jefferson but for many school districts,” the assemblyman said. “The incoming population of youngsters entering first grade is significantly less than what the schools they are entering were built to accommodate.”

In the face of declining student populations, some are even suggesting the remerging of Port Jefferson with the Three Village School District, which broke away from Port Jeff in 1966, four years after the vote to incorporate.

Despite these calls, Englebright feels the overriding spirit of local control remains preeminent. If the community favors keeping its school district intact, the state assemblyman recommends making the proper investment in its facilities.

“At the moment, I just don’t see [merging with another school district] as a popular idea because people within their communities identify their sense of place through a mechanism of community and neighborhood identity, which is their schools,” he said. “It behooves the well-being of the children and the quality of the school district … to make the investments to keep that infrastructure in a condition that meets or exceeds all appropriate standards.”

Revisiting the village’s incorporation, we find that the issues of today are not unique to our time. Questions surrounding school infrastructure, energy subsidies and student enrollment have puzzled generations of Port Jeff residents. While these issues may seem problematic, public dialogue and an open confrontation with local history may offer a pathway to brighter days ahead.


This story is part of a continuing series on the incorporation of Port Jefferson.

State Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson). File photo

New York state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) wants to make it more difficult for LIPA to increase rates for its customers.

LaValle and Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) introduced the Long Island Power Authority Rate Reform Act in January, a bill drafted to require the not-for-profit public utility’s board of trustees to “protect the economic interests of its ratepayers and the service area,” in addition to the interests of the utility company when considering a rate increase proposal, according to a joint press release from the lawmakers. The bill would also prevent LIPA from increasing rates to offset revenue losses associated with energy conservation efforts, like the installation of energy-efficient appliances and lightbulbs. If passed, it would be mandated the board hold public hearings within each county overseen by LIPA prior to finalizing rate plans.

Currently, LIPA’s board is required to consider three criteria when a rate increase is proposed by the State Department of Public Service: sound fiscal operating practices, existing contractual obligations and safe and adequate service, according to the press release.

“While we have been working to keep Long Island affordable by implementing measures like the 2 percent property tax cap, LIPA approved the largest rate increase in its history,” LaValle said in a statement, citing a three-year rate increase approved by the board in 2015. “This measure will enable more community input by mandating a public hearing when considering rate changes. In addition, this legislation would provide the trustees with the tools necessary to reject rate increases that would cause additional financial burdens on Long Islanders.”

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) and Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant each voiced support for LaValle’s bill.

“The record amount of investment in reliability, customer service and clean energy all come at a time when electric rates have remained roughly flat for decade,” LIPA Trustee Tom McAteer said in a statement through spokesman Sid Nathan. “Customer satisfaction is significantly higher and customers see PSEG Long Island crews tree-trimming and storm-hardening the electric grid throughout the year. Those are the facts. Not opinion. The Reform Act is working for our customers.”

The LIPA Reform Act was enacted in 2013 to revamp the utility’s operations, including empowering the board to decide on proposed rate increases. PSEG Long Island — which operates LIPA’s distribution systems — Media Relations Specialist Elizabeth Flagler said in a statement the company is reviewing the legislation and will be monitoring its status.

The proposed legislation comes as municipalities continue settlement discussions pertaining to lawsuits filed by Port Jeff Village and Port Jefferson School District — both in LaValle’s home district — in addition to the Town of Huntington and Northport-East Northport School District against LIPA to prevent the utility’s challenges to property value assessments at the Port Jeff and Northport plants. The result of the lawsuits could have a dramatic impact on Port Jeff Village and its school district, as both entities receive substantial property tax revenue as a host community of a LIPA power plant.

The Port Jeff plant is currently used about 11 percent of the time, during periods of peak energy generation demand, an argument LIPA has used against the village’s public pleas to repower its plant and give LIPA more bang for its tax-assessment buck. A 2017 LIPA study predicted by 2030 the Port Jeff plant might only be needed about 6 percent of the year, thanks in part to the emergence energy efficient household appliances. In August 2016 New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) mandated that 50 percent of the state’s electricity come from renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, by 2030.

Bruce Blower, a spokesman for LaValle, did not respond to an email asking if the proposed legislation was drafted with the lawsuits in mind, or if a settlement was imminent. Both the senate and assembly versions of the bill are in committee and would require passage by both houses and a signature from Cuomo prior to becoming law.

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Extreme low temperatures caused enough demand to require use of the Port Jefferson Power Station. File photo by Erika Karp

In Port Jefferson, the stacks are impossible to miss. They stick up in the sky, visible from Setauket and Port Jefferson Station when not in use. However, when electricity demand spikes, the billowing, white steam coming from the red-and-white, candy-striped stacks of the Port Jefferson Power Station is a sight to behold.

With the emergence of energy-efficient appliances and a general societal shift toward being “green conscious,” the power station is only activated in times of peak electricity demand these days, like when temperatures and wind chills start flirting with zero. From late December into early January, the New York office of the National Weather Service reported that for 13 straight days, ending Jan. 9, the maximum temperature at Long Island MacArthur Airport in Islip failed to exceed 32 F. It was the second longest period of below-freezing temperatures reported at the airport since 1963.

As a result of an Island-wide rush to crank up thermostats everyday from Dec. 27 through Jan. 10, the steam-powered electrical generation station was ready to go, serving as an addendum to the Island’s regularly used energy production. In 2017, the Port Jeff plant was operated for 1,698 hours through November, with an additional 260 hours of run time needed in December, according to Sid Nathan, director of public information for the Long Island Power Authority, which oversees operation of the station.

When running, its two steam units produce the white clouds or water vapor, which is a byproduct of burning oil or gas. As the vapor exits the stacks, contact with colder air causes condensation of the water vapor, producing the cloudlike white color. The two steam units ran for 1,958 hours in 2017, the equivalent of running for 41 days, or 11 percent of the year, Nathan said. The power station has the ability to generate about 400 megawatts of power.

The historic stretch of cold temperatures definitely generated an unusually high energy demand at the station, according to Nathan.

“Generally, on a typical 35 degree day, PSEG Long Island would not expect to dispatch the Port Jefferson plant,” he said.

For those concerned about the white steam yielded by the energy generation process, Nathan said the station is not producing more or different steam than normal and that the byproduct is more visible at extremely low ambient temperatures.

“There is no cause for concern,” Nathan said.

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) said the white smoke is mostly steam that could potentially contain particulates other than steam, and he reiterated residents shouldn’t be overly concerned. Although Englebright did say it would be “prudent to try to separate yourself from the atmospherics of the plant.”

As a North Shore resident and chair of the Assembly Committee on Environmental Conservation, Englebright said he was thankful the plant was ready to roll when needed most.

“Yes, during most of the year they are not in use,” Englebright said, of the stacks. “But when we really need it, it’s there. And we really needed it just in this cold spell and it went into high operation. Thank God it was there.”