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Smithtown United Civic Association

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Smithtown school district's administrative Joseph M. Barton building on New York Avenue. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Tim Small

The Town of Smithtown has begun efforts to expand its town hall. Specifically, conceptual plans are being developed to add wings to the existing building. Most recently, the town sought appraisals for four satellite, or annexed, buildings as a first step in consolidation. No doubt consolidation of office space will increase efficiency and improve external user’s interaction (regarding “one stop” vs. being shuffled from one building to another). A vacated annexed building can consequently be used for redevelopment (e.g., further redevelopment of old Nassau Suffolk Lumber property), transit-oriented development (e.g., Long Island Rail Road adjacent apartments) or parking.

The Smithtown United Civic Association supports efforts and has advocated for consolidation and resulting efficiency for some time, but expansion of the existing town hall is not the only option. Specifically, utilization of the existing New York Avenue School must be formally explored. Proper business cases must be developed, become completely transparent and the best option for Town of Smithtown taxpayers (e.g., town vs. school tax) selected.

The Smithtown school district can function without the New York Avenue School building, as best evidenced by its recent attempt to sell the property. Not much has changed, except the school board membership. The school district had only informal discussions with the then town leadership, and as legend goes, was told to seek dense redevelopment. The bid by Southern Land Development was met with very strong opposition, forcing it to withdraw its bid offering. Leadership was embarrassed, in a he said, she said situation between town leadership and the school district. Consequently, no trust and no open communication has subsequently transpired, only legal posturing.

Clearly, an opportunity for the school district to reduce operating expenses exists, especially valuable during times of declining enrollment, increased labor costs, reduced state aid and increasing taxes. Yes, school district relocation costs must be understood and properly funded in the process. Clearly, an opportunity for town consolidation exists, arguably enabling redevelopment and launching the long overdue downtown revitalization. Yes, the New York Avenue building needs some remediation work, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that people are currently occupying the building. We need to call upon our elected officials and school board to seriously consider this option.

The school building, also known as the Joseph M. Barton building, sits on 13 acres, was built in 1924, and is about 76,000 square feet in size. It was built as a secondary school, used as a junior high school and became the district’s administrative offices in 1986. Today it serves its function as the district’s central office, adult education programs and board of education meetings. The site also includes athletic fields used by many, such as the Smithtown Kickers Soccer Club. The grounds are the last available green space within the downtown business district. It sure seems like a great opportunity exists to repurpose this historic building, while preserving open green space.

The concept of a town buying a school building is not new to Long Island. We need only to look to our neighbors in the towns of Huntington, Islip or Babylon. As an example, the Huntington Union Free School District sold its building on Main Street in 1978 to the Town of Huntington for $1.

Before moving forward we need transparent business cases developed for each option so that the right decision for a Town of Smithtown taxpayer is selected. We need to hold all of our elected officials accountable. The Smithtown United Civic Association is committed to creating the necessary visibility, driving accountability and facilitating the necessary dialogue. Maybe we need to start by getting everyone in the same room. Any objection from either town or school board?

We live in a wonderful community. We love our schools, local businesses and our beautiful homes. Please help and show support by attending town board meetings. If you can’t go, call or write our council members and let them know you share the Smithtown United Civic Association vision. We need to explore the New York Avenue School purchase and preservation of the last available green space in downtown Smithtown. Together let’s make Smithtown an even better place to live.

Tim Small is president of the Smithtown United Civic Association.

Smithtown United Civic Association calls for further review; town promises to consider environmental study

The approximate location for a proposed 120-foot cellphone tower at 300 West Main Street. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

A proposal for a 120-foot cellphone tower off West Main Street in Smithtown is getting bad reception from some residents.

The antenna, proposed by Deer Park-based Elite Towers, would be installed at 300 West Main St., behind the Mobile gas station across from a Stop & Shop plaza. Elite Tower said its aim is to strengthen the service for AT&T and Verizon customers in the town.

The company claims the tower, for which a special permit application was originally filed in 2015, would help eliminate a cellular “dead zone” in the vicinity, where weak signals are expected and phone calls are considered dangerously unreliable, according to its proposal. Any calls made to 911 and other emergency responders have run the risk of being bounced across the Long Island Sound and being rerouted to Connecticut.

Greg Alvarez, an attorney representing Elite Towers, asked town council members to approve a special exception permit to place a public telecommunications facility on the site at the Jan. 25 town board meeting. Alvarez said that in the future, the pole could also be utilized by other mobile carriers. Following the presentation, members from Smithtown United Civic Association called for a further review of the cellphone tower.

We have to acknowledge there’s clearly a gap in cellphone coverage in the area, but we’re just questioning the magnitude of what they’re looking to construct.”
— Tim Small

“We have significant concerns about the impact on the character of the town,” civic president Tim Small said, after a meeting with Alvarez and Elite Towers Feb. 27.

Small said reducing the overall height of the cellphone tower was among the main topics of discussion, but did not debate the need for one.

“This is such a huge structure,” he said. “We have to acknowledge there’s clearly a gap in cellphone coverage in the area, but we’re just questioning the magnitude of what they’re looking to construct. Why not cut it down from 120 feet to 60 feet?”

Small said he understands that the taller the tower is, the better the cell service is in “dark spots” in town. But the civic president  believes the centralized technology they’re using can and should be reduced to minimize the impact.

“We had some questions concerning density and some of the numbers they’re using for impacted customers and areas that they couldn’t answer,” he said. “So they’re going to go back and look at some of their analysis, how it was done, so they can better communicate to us how those numbers were created.

Elite Towers shared graphical displays alleging that the 120-foot tower would benefit approximately 9,000 customers and more than 500 area businesses, according to Small.

“There’s still a lot more work that needs to be done here before it’s approved,” he said. “We’re still opposed to the tower as it currently stands.”

During a Feb. 22 town board meeting, Smithtown resident Jonathan Arzt said he was worried the structure would become the first thing people see when entering town.

“My opinion is that Smithtown should not look more like an industrial park,” Arzt said. “We want to attract visitors and new residents here but I don’t think a 120-foot cell tower is the kind of revitalization vision that we have for this town in the future.”

Al Gengler, of St. James, said he lives down the road from a cell tower in Head of the Harbor and, yet, his cell signal is weak when he’s inside his house.

My opinion is that Smithtown should not look more like an industrial park.”
— Jonathan Arzt

“I think a lot of people have the wool being pulled over their eyes that this is the answer — I don’t think it’s the answer,” Gengler said. “You can go lots of places and there could be a gigantic tower, but if you’re in the valley, you’re not going to get a signal.”

He asked the town board to provide data backing up the tower’s effectiveness.

“I don’t know where to get that information as it’s not readily available online,” Gengler said. “It would be nice to be able to look at that data and the specifics, rather than [rely] on hearsay.”

Following the meeting, Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) said that an environmental impact survey will be conducted “to determine if there will be any negative effects of the cell tower on the health of both our residents and the wildlife.” He further added that, “The attorney for the company has asked us to give them a month before we vote on the impact survey.”

The town has also received calls from other companies with alternative solutions to improving cellphone service that, they claim has no impact on the environment, according to town spokeswoman Nicole Garguilo. She said the town board will hear all parties and explore all options they are presented with.

One Smithtown resident, Diane Caroll, voiced her support of the proposed tower during the meeting, saying she’s had enough of living in a town where she can’t get cell service.

Corey Geske, of Smithtown, said it would “represent a death knell” for the area, in an email read to the board. He raised concerns over potential cancer risks from living near transmission tower sites and high-tension wires, urging the board to vote against it.

“To approve such a tower across from Stop & Shop, a chief destination for Kings Park and Smithtown residents when shopping for a loaf of bread, is to put the general population at risk for their health,” Geske wrote.

Smithtown United Civic Association member Mark Mancini. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

By Sara-Megan Walsh

A conceptual plan for revitalizing downtown Smithtown has community support, but faces a number of serious challenges.

Smithtown United Civic Association debuted its proposal for western Main Street’s revitalization Jan. 25 before the Smithtown Town Board to find solid community backing. Yet, elected officials and business leaders note there are serious challenges to its implementation.

Mark Mancini, a Smithtown resident and architect, presented Smithtown United’s conceptual design for Main Street which focuses on the preservation of the Smithtown school district’s New York Avenue administrative building and its fields. Public outcry halted plans to demolish the building for a 251-unit apartment complex in 2017.

“It became pretty clear that we have to take steps first as a community to make something happen on Main Street that we all can deal with,” Mancini said. “We are going to develop no matter what you might think or what you may want. Everything changes.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) assigned $20 million from the state budget for the installation of sewer mains in Smithtown, which Mancini said brings opportunity for development that residents need to have their say.

The first step in the civic association’s plan is to preserve the New York Avenue building and its property as open green space.

“I consider it a diamond in the rough in the Smithtown downtown Main Street area,” said Bob Hughes, one of the 10 members of Smithtown United. “I would like to see it as a downtown central park, to make it a destination.”

Pasquale LaManna, president of the Smithtown Kickers Soccer Club board, said he backed the proposal as it preserves the fields for recreational use. LaManna said the Smithtown Kickers is the third largest soccer club on Long Island with more than 2,000 children who play at New York Avenue.

“It’s extremely vital for us to have the green space,” he said.

Smithtown United calls for Smithtown elected officials to purchase the New York Avenue building from the Smithtown school district and use it to consolidate all town departments and services in one location.

Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) said negotiations between the town and school district over the potential sale of the New York Avenue property had broken down in late 2017, after an appraisal determined a fair market price would be $6.8 million. The supervisor was hopeful that these negotiations could be picked up in the future.

“If the community in that area is amicable to having those discussions about developing the property, I think the school board would get back engaged,” Wehrheim said.

Other key components of the revitalization plan call for the construction of mixed-use retail stores with apartments above on the south side of Main Street with transit-oriented housing alongside the Smithtown Long Island Rail Road station.

Jack Kulka, a real estate developer and founder of Hauppauge Industrial Association, strongly supported the construction of apartments in a new “mixed imaginative zoning” code.

“If you are serious about revitalizing downtown Smithtown, you are going to have to increase the density of population in downtown Smithtown,” he said. “You need to have creativity. I think the concept, which is very important, of having residential next to the train station … has to come to Smithtown.”

Kulka stressed that Smithtown United’s plan would not work if town officials didn’t utilize the $20 million set aside by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to install sewers in Smithtown. Wehrheim agreed on the importance of sewers, stating that it is moving forward, but said he has also scheduled meetings with different developers in February.

“I have meetings set up with a couple developers, whose names I cannot divulge, to see if there are other developers that now have an interest in looking at the conceptual plan Smithtown United drew up and see if it’s feasible to embark on a project,” Wehrheim said. “That’s the first step.”

William Capurso and Kerry Maher-Weisse started up the Community Association of Greater St. James in December 2016. Photos from Kerry Maher-Weisse

The hotly contested 2017 Smithtown election not only pushed forward several political issues but resulted in the birth of new civic organizations across the town.

Both the Community Association of Greater St. James and Smithtown United Civic Association have emerged and risen up over the last year, becoming fountains of energy and new ideas with the aim of transforming their downtowns and the greater Town of Smithtown into a better place for residents and businesses alike.

Civic associations “play an important role,” Smithtown’s Supervisor-elect Ed Wehrheim (R) said. “This way before the town board makes a decision on the economic developments or otherwise, we have a sense of what the community wants, who are the taxpaying residents of this town, and what’s acceptable.”

Lifelong St. James resident Kerry Maher-Weisse, director of St. James Funeral Home, said she approached co-founder William Capurso with the idea of creating what became the Community Association of Greater St. James at a St. James Chamber of Commerce meeting in late 2016.

“I asked him, ‘Do you want to do something? I have visions for St. James. Do you want to jump on this? I would love to have you,’” Maher-Weisse said.   

The St. James civic association celebrated its one-year anniversary Dec. 16 with more than 270 family memberships behind it, according to Maher-Weisse, who serves as its president.

I commend Kerry Maher-Weisse for spearheading a group of residents to form the Community Association of Greater St. James.”

— Rob Trotta

“I commend Kerry Maher-Weisse for spearheading a group of residents to form the Community Association of Greater St. James,” said Suffolk Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), who has attended several of the group’s events. “I think it is great that they have solicited input from the residents and business owners, and have accomplished a lot in a short period of time. Their Summer Nights were a big success. I really feel they have gotten off to a great start and will have a very positive impact on the St. James community.”

The civic organization has initiated the St. James Farmers Market, which now runs on Saturdays from May to the end of October at the St. James Lutheran Church located on 2nd Avenue. Residents came together for the Summer Nights series on Lake Avenue that featured live bands, entertainment, food, art and crafts, and vendors to pack the downtown area. In the fall, the association hosted antique car shows to build on camaraderie built up over the summerS

“I think they have great ideas,” Smithtown Councilwoman Lynne Nowick (R), also a St. James resident, said. “The town, particularly St. James, has been asleep for a while and they are waking it up.”

Maher-Weisse said the goal of the fledgling civic association isn’t just to build community, but to bring attention to key quality-of-life issues.

“We have so many great resources in St. James but some things are lacking, that I made politicians aware of,” she said. “We have to take action. That’s why making the civic association was so important both politically and eventwise to take action and start getting grant money.”

Within a year, the civic association’s president believes their activism is having an impact. Town of Smithtown officials approved funds to install new equipment at Gibbs Pond Park and Gaynor Park, both in St. James, at their Oct. 10 town board meeting. It’s the first time in more than 35 years, according to Maher-Weisse, some of the parks have seen major upgrades.

“I’m glad we made the politicians open their eyes to say, ‘St. James is here and we want our tax dollars to be used wisely and spruce up the things that need some attention,’” she said.

The Community Association of Greater St. James is not alone in its desire to draw attention to a downtown area. A smaller group of residents came together in the western part of Smithtown as the Smithtown United Civic Association, unveiling in October a detailed conception plan for what Smithtown’s Main Street revitalization should look like.

Timothy Small, president of Smithtown United and a retired engineer, said the organization’s goal is to give local residents a voice in the future of their town. It was formed in response to two events: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) allocating $20 million for sewers in Smithtown and the proposed sale of the Smithtown school district’s administrative headquarters on New York Avenue.

. We in town government serve the people. We want to know and we want to hear from them.

— Ed Wehrheim

“If you look at the downtown areas of Smithtown, Kings Park and St. James, they are tired looking,” Smalls said to TBR News Media in October. “There’s a lot of vacant shops and properties. We live in a wonderful town. The schools are wonderful, we love our homes, but it’s our downtown business districts that are deeply suffering.”

The Smithtown civic association leader said their conceptual revitalization plan was put together after the group spent approximately six months assessing community needs and drawing inspiration from surrounding towns, such as Huntington and Patchogue, for what they would like to see in Smithtown. The proposed design was unveiled on Facebook for public feedback, input and criticism.

Wehrheim said he spoke with Small Dec. 19 regarding the civic association’s desire to publicly present the plan at an upcoming town board meeting, possibly Jan. 25, 2018.

“I think they are having a positive impact,” the supervisor-elect said. “At least we have a sense of what they want and what they would prefer not to have near their residential community. We in town government serve the people. We want to know and we want to hear from them.”

A third organization, Nesconset Civic Association, was announced as newly formed at the Nov. 7 Smithtown Town Board meeting by Nesconset resident Peter Hanson, but was still establishing its goals. We look forward to seeing what changes take place in Nesconset in 2018.

Smithtown United Civic Association published the above master plan aimed at revitalizing Main Street and the downtown area on its Facebook page Oct. 6. Photo from Smithtown United Civic Association

A small group of Smithtown citizens have come together to draft and present a plan they hope may lead to big changes for Main Street.

The Smithtown United Civic Association unveiled a detailed conceptual plan for downtown revitalization Oct. 6 on its Facebook page. The group is asking residents to review the proposal and provide feedback via social media before they present it to town officials.

Timothy Small, president of Smithtown United, said the organization’s goal is to give local residents a voice in the future of their town. It was formed when Smithtown residents came together earlier this year after two events: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) allocated $20 million for sewers in Smithtown and the proposed sale of Smithtown school district administration headquarters on New York Avenue to the town for a sewer treatment plant to support a condominium development. Small said the two events set in motion real opportunity for revitalization of the town.

“If you look at the downtown areas of Smithtown, Kings Park and St. James, they are tired looking,” he said. “There’s a lot of vacant shops and properties. We live in a wonderful town. The schools are wonderful, we love our homes, but it’s our downtown business districts that are deeply suffering.”

Small, a retired engineer who held an executive position at a utility company, said for approximately six months the group assessed the community needs and drew inspiration from surrounding towns including Huntington, Patchogue, Sayville, Bay Shore, Farmingdale and Babylon for changes they’d like to see in Smithtown.

Smithtown United’s plan for the western downtown area focuses on several key points including consolidation of the town offices into the New York Avenue school building and retaining the sports field behind it for public use.

“It’s the last green space that remains in all of downtown,” Small said. “I would consider that an anchor for the western edge of redevelopment. It would be tragic to see that property lost to dense development.”

The civic supports the town’s acquisition of the property in exchange for selling off its other buildings scattered across the business district, but discussions of the deal have been tabled by the Smithtown school officials. The plan also proposes several existing downtown storefronts be made into two-story, mixed-use buildings with retail on the first floor and apartments above. These housing options, according to Small, would be attractive to young adults and senior citizens. Behind the existing New York Avenue school district property, the plan calls for construction of a new sports and community center.

“We need a place for our kids to go in the evening,” Small said. “There needs to be a community space for our residents and young adults.”

The conceptual design also calls for several changes to Smithtown’s existing roadways, including a rotary at the intersection of Main Street and New York Avenue and rerouting Edgewater Avenue to run parallel to Main Street. This would cause Edgewater Avenue to empty onto Maple Avenue, and there would be a new set of village townhouses built on the southwest corner of the new intersection.

To further increase available housing, the proposed plan suggests the construction of three-story, transit-oriented housing near the Long Island Rail Road train station and municipal parking lots.

Initial feedback on the plan from residents on the civic’s Facebook page has been a mix of positive and negative, along with offers to help refine it. Supporters have praised the organization for taking action, while critics expressed traffic concerns.

“Main Street is already undersized for what it is used for,” said John McCormick, 29, of Smithtown. “[The] parking does not look to be sufficient for customers of the first-floor shops and people renting out upstairs apartments.”

McCormick, a young homeowner, feared adding townhouses and apartments would change the character of the local community and the plan’s possible impact on the school district.

Smithtown resident Michael Tarquinio, 20, said the plan was a step in the right direction but needed to be more innovative.

“They need to stop thinking with a Robert Moses mind-set,” Tarquinio said, who is studying environmental science at the University of Maine. “I’m all for it, but you can’t wipe out your heritage and start fresh. You need to know where you came from to know where you are going.”

He said he believes successful downtown revitalization will require the civic to work with town, county and state officials to improve roadways and mass transportation options to reduce traffic.

Small said he agreed the proposed overhaul of both the business and residential space in downtown Smithtown required cooperation at several levels of government. It would only be possible if sewers can be brought to the downtown area.

“Anyone who is going to invest money into redevelopment won’t unless there is adequate sanitary sewer conditions,” Small said. “It’s essential.”

The civic group has tentative plans to present its proposal to Smithtown officials at the Oct. 26 town board meeting at 7 p.m. at town hall.