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Stony Brook Harbor

The Flowerfield Fairgrounds in St. James. File photo by Heidi Sutton
By Samantha Rutt

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation recently advised the Town of Smithtown of its consideration to acquire Flowerfield Fairgrounds, a St. James community staple. Town Supervisor Edward Wehrheim (R) has stated no objection to NYSDEC acquiring the property.

Community residents strongly feel the importance of protecting this rural area from overdevelopment. The potential state acquisition signifies a breakthrough in the longstanding controversy over a proposal for sprawling commercial development on-site.

“This is a huge step forward in the fight to preserve Flowerfield Fairgrounds for future generations,” Judith Ogden, a Village of Head of the Harbor trustee and spokesperson for the Saint James-Head of the Harbor Neighborhood Preservation Coalition, said in a statement.

NYSDEC proposed using the Environmental Protection Fund to obtain the property. 

“New York State is committed to the conservation and protection of the state’s natural resources and recognizes the significant conservation values of the Gyrodyne property,” a NYSDEC official said. “The Environmental Protection Fund is one of the sources used to acquire lands identified as conservation priorities in the New York State Open Space Plan.” 

The Flowerfield property would then be used for open space preservation and conservation, potentially including active-use recreation amenities such as biking and walking trails.

“I am certainly happy about this development,” said Joe Bollhofer, also a member of the coalition. “We’ve been working on this for almost three years now.”

If not acquired by NYSDEC, the property has been proposed to facilitate a multistory, 125-room hotel, 175,000 square feet of office space, 250 assisted living housing units, a 7-acre sewage treatment plant and parking for more than 2,000 vehicles. 

The development plan was initially proposed by St. James-based Gyrodyne, a real estate investment trust firm that owns, leases and manages commercial properties along the Eastern Seaboard.

The state’s interest in preserving the land comes from discussions between NYSDEC, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D), former New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) and the Peconic Land Trust.

“The state has a tremendous interest in what happens to Stony Brook Harbor,” Englebright said. “The state owns 90% of the bottom” of Stony Brook Harbor.

“The water chemistry of the harbor is pristine right now, or nearly, so it will not be if they build what they have proposed for the Flowerfield property,” Englebright added. “It’s really a matter of protecting the state’s interest and the community’s interest.”

Interactions between the state and town regarding state efforts to preserve the open space portion of the site occurred several months after the Town of Smithtown rejected a controversial proposal to develop a congregate-care facility on nearby Bull Run Farm, citing the desire to protect the area’s rural character.

“Part of comprehensive planning in a community is thinking about how you’re going to develop space so that it works and you protect the integrity of the community,” Ogden said. “So if we look at that area, we don’t need to add more traffic volumes.”

The agreement between the state and town comes as the legal challenge brought upon by the Village of Head of the Harbor and nearby property owners opposing preliminary approval of the controversial plan remains tied up in the state Supreme Court. “Unfortunately, there are other issues involved here — environmental, et cetera,” Bollhofer noted.

Local residents have contributed generously to fund the coalition’s lawsuit to block Gyrodyne’s development plans from moving forward. In a press release in April 2021, Gyrodyne announced that it planned to sell the property and would consider offers for portions of the property or the entire site.

“There’s a lot of water under the bridge here,” Bollhofer said. “And we’re finally having some kind of movement from the state,” adding, “We don’t know if there’ll be other organizations that are going to be involved in helping to manage the property if it is purchased. But there are 48 acres, there’s still open space. … That’s really what we’re concentrating on right now.”

According to a recent statement by a NYSDEC representative, “The DEC has been involved in preliminary discussions with stakeholders regarding the property’s future conservation.”

Stony Brook Harbor. Photo by Elyse Buchman

Save the date! The Village of Nissequogue and The Friends of Stony Brook Harbor, a coalition of neighbors from Head of the Harbor, Nissequogue and Stony Brook, will host Happy Harbor Day to raise awareness of the beautiful, yet fragile Stony Brook Harbor.

The free event, which will be held at 555 Long Beach Road just past the boat launch at Long Beach in Nissequogue on Saturday, Sept. 23, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., marks the return of Harbor Day after a 15-year absence. An opening blessing will be offered by the Setalcott Indian Nation.

“Stony Brook Harbor is the last pristine harbor along the entire North Shore,” said Nissequogue Mayor Richard Smith. “Bringing back our Harbor Day celebration seemed like the perfect way to foster community awareness that this remarkable resource is fragile and requires all of us to protect it.”

In addition to a variety of environmental and marine science experts who will make presentations, there will be aquarium touch-tanks for young attendees as well as carnival games and activities all with a nautical theme. Build a habitat for a bird, squirrel or bat with Habitat with Humanity, meet the Harbor Master and tour the new patrol boat.  Two bands will perform, The Mondays, and The Royal Yard, which specializes in songs called “sea shanties” and food trucks will be on hand.

Some of the guest speakers will be John Turner of Four Harbors Audubon Society, Dr. Jeffrey Levinton of Stony Brook University, Dr. Malcom Bowman of Stony Brook University and Anna McCarroll of The Stony Brook Yacht Club Mariculture Program.

A community-wide art contest, open to all kids, kindergarten to 12th grade, will also be a feature of Harbor Day. The theme of the competition is “save our happy harbor.”  Entries must be brouth to the Harbor Day art tent by 11:30 p.m. Top winners in three categories — grades K-5, 6-8 and 9-12 — will receive a ribbon and a $50 Amazon gift card and have their artwork on display on the Nissequogue Village website.

 “In order to create a drawing or painting the artist must really study their subject,” said Mayor Smith. “An art contest not only creates an exciting opportunity for young people to participate in Harbor Day, but it also ensures they will forever appreciate and respect Stony Brook Harbor.”

Concluding the day will be the presentation of the Dr. Larry Swanson Environmental Award to former Assemblyman Steve Englebright.

Even intermission promises to be fun and rewarding. “Come intermission you’ll find me atop the dunk tank,” said Mayor Smith. “I expect that ‘dunk the mayor’ will be a tremendous fund raiser for the event. I’m happy to get wet for this great cause.”

For more information on the event, call Nissequogue Village Hall at 631-862-7400.

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File photo

Suffolk County Police Homicide Squad Detectives are investigating an incident during which a man was
found dead inside his vehicle after it was located in the water in Stony Brook on Sept. 1.

Sixth Precinct police officers responded to a 911 call of a vehicle in the water off Stony Brook Fishing Dock, located on Shore Road, at approximately 10:15 p.m. The vehicle, a 2005 Lexus, was pulled from the water, and the body of a 30-year-old Setauket man was found inside. The man was pronounced dead at the scene.

Detectives are asking anyone with information to call the Homicide Squad at 631-852-6392.

Photo by Carl Safina

MOONBEAMS OVER CRANES NECK

Carl Safina of Setauket captured this incredible sight during a visit to Stony Brook Harbor on May 4. He writes, “The moon was full but the sky was overcast. The combination created something I’ve never seen before: moonbeams coming spectacularly through clouds.”

Send your photo of the week to [email protected]

File photo

Suffolk County Police Homicide Squad detectives are investigating the death of a woman who was
found in her car in the water in Stony Brook on March 26.

Sixth Precinct police officers responded to Stony Brook Boat Ramp, located on Shore Road, after a 911
caller reported a vehicle in the water at approximately 6:45 a.m. Officers located Harriet Farish inside a
2020 Kia Telluride in the water. Farish, 76, of Stony Brook, was pronounced dead at the scene.

Detectives are asking anyone with information on the incident to call the Homicide Squad at 631-852-
6392.

WINTER SUNSETS RULE

William Honor snapped this stunning photo of Stony Brook Harbor at sunset on Jan. 30. Did you know that sunsets are actually more vivid in the winter? It’s all science! The Earth spins closer to the sun in winter, and the angle the sun takes setting makes sunset colors last a bit longer. Humidity is also lower in the winter, and the air is cleaner, causing purer colors to be splashed across the sky.

Send your Photo of the Week to [email protected]

COVEN SIGHTING

Philip Doesschate captured this rare sighting of a coven of witches making a quick getaway on paddleboards and kayaks in Stony Brook Harbor on Oct. 29 after they misplaced their brooms. The well-received event was actually Stony Brook Harbor Kayak and Paddleboard Rentals’ first annual Witches Sunset Paddle in celebration of Halloween.

Send your Photo of the Week to [email protected]

 

Stony Brook Harbor. Photo by Elyse Buchman

By John L. Turner

It was on a rising tide in mid-afternoon, on an 82-degree late summer day, that I slipped into the opening of the kayak, placed my feet on the rudder controls and pushed off the gently sloping bank in the southern reaches of Stony Brook Harbor, not too far from the famous Hercules Pavilion positioned along the harbor’s edge. 

Stony Brook Harbor. Photo by John Turner

Even in shallow, foot-deep water I was easily able to ply the kayak along the shoreline. The first view that drew my attention were nine bright white, long-necked wading birds. Egrets they were, both the larger American Egret and the more diminutive Snowy Egret feeding in the shallow water of the creek that spills from the Stony Brook Grist Mill. Their likely targets were small, two-inch long baitfish, schools of which I would repeatedly see in the hours ahead as I explored the harbor. 

Within a couple of minutes I had plied across a deeper channel running alongside Youngs Island and moments later alongside one of the many marsh islands found within the harbor.   

For the next four hours I explored the many gifts Stony Brook Harbor had to offer — red beard sponges, several species of floating seaweeds, fiddler crabs scuttling across sand flats, baby horseshoe crab molts, the aforementioned baitfish and their pursuers — baby bluefish known as snappers, snapping the placid tension of the water surface — countless shells, and, of course, the birds: Double-crested Cormorants (many, comically, with their wings outstretched, drying in the sun); more long-necked and long-legged wading birds; a small plover pulling on a long red worm; the plaintive, three part call of Greater Yellowlegs; the ubiquitous gulls; and an adult Bald Eagle, dominating the sky over the southern edge of the harbor. 

Like tiny sailboats, many bird feathers floated over the placid surface of the water during the visit, a tell-tale sign that late summer is a time for many birds to molt by replacing older worn out feathers with new ones.  

That small plover was not a Piping Plover but its darker colored cousin — the Semipalmated Plover, so named because its feet are partially webbed. A handsome bird the color of chocolate on the top of its head and back, a bright white belly, breast, and throat offset by a black chest band and line through the eye, and an orange bill and yellow-orange legs, the Semipalmated Plover breeds in the far north; this bird probably flew south from Labrador, Nova Scotia, or Northern Quebec, but perhaps even further north in its breeding range above the Arctic Circle, to make its way to Stony Brook Harbor on its much longer journey to the Caribbean or South America.

The same is true for the Greater Yellowlegs, a slightly larger shorebird with a salt-and-pepper plumage with, you guessed it! — bright yellow legs. The plover was feeding in a sand/mud flat and the three yellowlegs in very shallow water adjacent to the flat. Suddenly, the yellowlegs exploded into the air, winging away rapidly, apparently due to some danger they could (but I could not) perceive. Their emphatic calls rung out over the water, harkening to more desolate and windy places. 

This little shorebird vignette in the harbor illustrates and underscores the value it and countless other coastal embayments on the East Coast play as critical way stations for migrating shorebirds that stitch together the Northern and Southern  hemispheres. These are like the highway rest stops we use while traveling, providing opportunities for these long distance migrants to feed and rest.   

Ribbed mussels along the harbor. Photo by John Turner

As I turned south into the more open waters at the southern end of the harbor I slid by a long muddy embankment, the leading edge of a salt marsh, when two objects caught my eye — many clumps of Ribbed Mussels and dozens of Cordgrass or Spartina plants in full bloom.   

Ribbed mussels are less well-known and appreciated than the edible Blue Mussel since, unlike the latter species, they are not harvested for food. Nevertheless, they are very important to the healthy functioning of tidal wetlands. So named because of the numerous parallel ribbed lines that run the length of its shell, this species grows in bunches in the mud, often tangled in the roots of Cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), with which they have a “mutualistic” or mutually beneficial relationship.  The mussels benefit from anchoring their shells, through the use of byssal threads, to the roots of Spartina and also benefit from the density of the plant shoots that makes it harder for predators, like crabs, to gain access.

The plant benefits by the waste products excreted from the mussel as it is high in nitrogen which acts as a plant fertilizer. The material also helps to build the marsh — filtering tiny organic particles out of the water column and depositing it on the marsh. Because of these important services the Ribbed mussel is referred to as an “ecosystem engineer.”   

Cordgrass in bloom along Stony Brook Harbor. Photo by John Turner

Cordgrass is the most recognizable plant of the marsh. It dominates the view of much of the harbor and along the lower elevations of the tidal marsh, with its sister species Salt Hay (Spartina patens), occurring in the higher portions. These are two of only a small number of plants that can tolerate the presence of salt and its desiccating qualities; they do this by extruding the salt from pores in the surface of the frond; take a close-up view and you can often see the salt crystals sparkling along the stems of the plant. 

Cordgrass is wind pollinated and not surprisingly, therefore, their interesting one-sided flowers aren’t showy nor do they exude nectar in an effort to lure pollinating insects. The winds care not for such things. Still, they are beautiful and arresting as the hundreds of flowers on each stalk move in the slightest breeze.  

Unfortunately, a storm cloud has appeared over the harbor that would likely compromise its beauty and ecological quality. This “cloud” is in the form of two large docks proposed on properties located in the harbor’s shallow southern end in the Village of Nissequogue. 

Despite the fact there are two commercial marinas in the northern reaches of the harbor at which a boat can be stored or the fact each property owner currently has access to launch kayaks or canoes from the shore, these residents are seeking approval to install monstrously long docks that would jut well out into the water. One is more than two hundred feet long.  

The proposed site for one of the docks. Photo by John Turner

Installing the dock pilings would be disruptive to the harbor bottom, cause turbidity and sedimentation problems, affecting wetland dependent wildlife such as diamondback terrapins (I saw a dozen terrapins floating and swimming in the southern portion of the bay on the kayak visit and fifteen from a vantage point onshore at Cordwood Park about a month earlier). 

Turbidity problems and disruption to the harbor bottom by “prop scouring” will occur each and every time boats are run out on low tide. Further, the docks will make it more difficult for you and I to walk along the shoreline as is our legal right “to pass and repass” along the shoreline as guaranteed by the Public Trust Doctrine and did I mention the ugliness and visual blight caused by the docks at a site landscape painters find inspiration? 

Perhaps of greater concern is the precedence that approval of these two docks could establish. If these are approved, what’s to stop the harbor’s “death-by-a-thousand-cuts” as several dozen other property owners ringing the harbor, through time, request the same? 

And is it reasonable to assume that, as the years roll by, these owners clamor for the very shallow southern reaches of the harbor to be dredged to ease navigation and better accommodate their boats?  Yes, it is. 

For the sake of this most special and unique place the request for these mega docks must be denied. The public interest in, and use of, Stony Brook Harbor and recognition of the significant ecological value of the harbor dictate against approval and must prevail. Will public officials heed the call?   

A resident of Setauket, John Turner is conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society, author of “Exploring the Other Island: A Seasonal Nature Guide to Long Island” and president of Alula Birding & Natural History Tours

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‘Beween Stony Brook Harbor Tides’

If you wish to learn more about the human and natural history of Stony Brook Harbor, I encourage you to read “Between Stony Brook Harbor Tides — The Natural History of a Long Island Pocket Bay” authored by Larry Swanson and Malcolm Bowman, two professors who taught at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. The book provides an overview of the natural conditions that shape the harbor, the human imprint on the harbor, and the many species of wildlife that call it home. It is a most worthwhile read.  

— John Turner

 

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Elected officials, Ward Melville Heritage Organization board members and philanthropists Harlan and Olivia Fischer announced the restoration of Stony Brook’s Hercules. Photo from WMHO;

A Long Island landmark is looking more vibrant.

The Hercules figurehead near Stony Brook Harbor. Photo by Rita J. Egan

The Ward Melville Heritage Organization debuted the restored Hercules figurehead at a press conference on Oct. 14. Recently, philanthropists Harlan and Olivia Fischer, of Head of the Harbor, noticed the figurehead needed restoration and decided to sponsor its renovation. 

WMHO board members thanked the Fischers and the work crew from ART of NYC & Long Island who restored the piece located in the Hercules Pavilion overlooking Stony Brook Harbor, across from the Village Center. The Holbrook-based company was retained for the restoration, which included cleaning, sanding and replastering before repairing, painting and varnishing the landmark.

Richard Rugen, WMHO chairman, said, “It’s a work in progress, but [the Fischers] are actually going to take care of the rest of the pavilion as well.”

Additional work will be done on the weather-beaten pavilion in the near future, including roof work and painting.

Harlan Fischer, president of Branch Financial Services, moved his offices from Smithtown to Setauket in 2020. Every day he passes through the village on his way to work and back, he said, and appreciates how lovely Stony Brook village is. He asked WMHO president Gloria Rocchio if she thought the renovation would be a worthwhile project, and she agreed.

“When we make contributions to places, we like to see the results of it,” he said. The Fischers are also donors to The Jazz Loft and sponsor a monthly concert series at the music venue and museum.

The full-color Hercules carving, located in Stony Brook since 1951, features the head and shoulders of the Greek demigod — known for his exceptional strength — draped in a lion’s skin. The bust was once the USS Ohio’s figurehead. The ship was the first to be launched from the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1820.

Rugen said the figurehead was saved when the ship was decommissioned, destroyed and sunk in Greenport Harbor in 1884. It was bought by the Aldrich family of Aquebogue for $10 at the time, and from the late 1800s until the early 1950s it sat at the Canoe Place Inn in Hampton Bays after the owner, Miles Carpenter, purchased it for $15. Ward Melville bought it from the inn to be placed in Stony Brook.

Brenda Sinclair Berntson, president of Hampton Bays Historical Society, said when Hercules was located at the inn, it was popular for young women to kiss his forehead, believing that the person would be married within the year.

She said the figurehead wasn’t in the best condition, rotting and termite-ridden when it was brought to Stony Brook.

“We’re very glad that Ward Melville had the foresight and saved it,” she said.

Danielle Parisi, business development manager of ART of NYC & Long Island, said as someone who grew up and still lives in Stony Brook, it was an honor to work on the project. Parisi’s co-worker, art restorer Jessie Kefalas, said in walking by the figurehead in the past it was obvious something needed to be done. There was significant damage including the rotting of the chest of Hercules, which is constructed of plaster and wood.

Town of Brookhaven Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich (D-Stony Brook) was also in attendance and commented on the efforts.

“We’ve seen projects like this before, and so often it’s because of the community spirit of  ordinary residents who love where they live or business people who reinvest in their community,” he said.

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) called WMHO “one of the custodians of our heritage.”

He added that places such as the pavilion are in danger due to rising sea levels brought on by climate change, and the spot around the structure has experienced flooding after significant rain events. In the future, he said, the Hercules Pavilion could possibly be raised to protect it further, and when such a plan comes to fruition he pledged a $125,000 matching state grant to help with the costs.