It’s been 20 years since New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) authored legislation to create a nature preserve at West Meadow Beach, with a guarantee that it would not be a drain on the ongoing Brookhaven Town budget.
Englebright described a grueling and divisive battle that continued for the eight years between passage of the legislation and the eventual reclamation of the beach.
“I wanted to write state law that established, as specifically as I could at the time, the land uses going forward,” he said, adding that West Meadow Beach is now the most valuable asset Brookhaven Town owns.
Brookhaven officials agreed to take responsibility for the preserve, via a “home rule message,” to keep it a town property.
“Home rule message” is a New York State Assembly policy that, if a proposed bill will affect a municipality, before the speaker authorizes it to come out of committee, that municipality must signal its approval, Englebright said. Brookhaven Town, under then Supervisor Felix Grucci, did just that.
The legislation — A 11008-A in the Assembly and S 7829 sponsored by former New York State Senator James Lack (R) in the Senate — included a provision for a segregated account to contain rent money paid into it by the cottage-owners who continued to occupy them during the summers between 1996 and 2004.
In 1996, nearly 100 cottages were on West Meadow Beach. The legislation required all cottage owners to pay an annual rent to the West Meadow Beach Capital Restoration Fund overseen by both the Stony Brook Community Fund and Brookhaven Town.
In 2004, that fund was used to remove the cottages to make way for the preserve, as well as restoration of the beach.
The Gamecock Cottage at the end of Trustees Road, one cottage to serve as a local museum, and two cottages for security/park protection purposes were the only buildings not removed.
Meanwhile, the Stony Brook Community Fund became The Ward Melville Heritage Organization. It has since declined to handle the responsibilities spelled out in the legislation.
According to the Brookhaven Town Department of Finance, these endowment funds are kept in a bank account separate from other Brookhaven Town funds. The current balance in this account is $1.45 million, which generates approximately $2,000 in interest per year to be used at West Meadow. If this interest is not used, it reverts back as an addition to the principal of the fund.
Jack Krieger, public information officer of Brookhaven, confirmed in an email that Brookhaven has been compliant with this law since it was created.
Englebright said he feels it might be time to revisit the management of West Meadow Beach.
“It may be time for a public/private partnership vision to be pursued,” he said. “A not-for-profit operating the Nature Center in conjunction with the town [would be preferable].”
He pointed out that the practice works extremely well for organizations like the Bronx Zoo and the American Museum of Natural History.