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Suffolk County

File photo/TBR News Media

By Warren Strugatch  

Twenty years ago almost to the day, I met Lee Koppelman, widely regarded as Long Island’s planning czar. Koppelman at the time was well into his four-decade run at the Long Island Regional Planning Board. I was two years into my own tenure as Long Island business columnist at The New York Times. I came to cover the planning board’s April 2002 meeting simply because Lee had gotten both Nassau and Suffolk county executives — Tom Suozzi and Robert Gaffney at the time — to share a podium.

Warren Strugatch was a business columnist for The New York Times when he first met Lee Koppelman

Koppelman told me: “If the two county executives are really going to work together, it augurs well not just for good governance but for good planning. It raises the possibility that we will be able to tear down the imaginary Berlin Wall that divides the Island at Route 110.”

The potential breakthrough never happened. I didn’t think Koppelman thought it would. The interview comment however was classic Koppelman: insightful, erudite, flinty, yet optimistic.

Long-time Setauket resident Lee Edward Koppelman died March 21, two months shy of his 95th birthday. Up until recently, he was still going to work, teaching Public Policy classes at Stony Brook University, after a lifetime of public service.

Koppelman made his name in planning by advocating open space preservation, water quality protection, coastal zone management, and other efforts to balance quality of life with sustainable economic growth, affordable housing, and other quality of life goals. He also mentored three generations of planners, who continue his legacy.

Koppelman’s resume featured long stints as Suffolk County planning director, Regional Planning Board executive director, and director of Stony Brook University’s Center for Regional Policy Studies.

In Suffolk, he bolstered low-density development patterns, strategically expanded roadways, preserved open spaces and protected water supplies. His advocacy helped Suffolk maintain its rural nature even as Nassau grew more congested. Recognizing the need for well-planned development, he helped launch the Hauppauge Industrial Park, Ronkonkoma’s industrial center, and the county court complex in Central Islip.

He also helped extend the Long Island Expressway and Sunrise Highway eastward into the Hamptons, continuing the infrastructure expansion initiated by Robert Moses, variously a mentor, ally, and sharp-elbowed opponent. Later in life, Koppelman enjoyed referencing a letter from Moses which opened: “Dear Knucklehead.”  

Koppelman’s non-salaried regional planning board role was mostly advisory. He was however compensated for numerous studies. He also labored over and drafted four master plans for Long Island, producing enough volumes to line several bookshelves. His 1970 plan alone comprised 60 volumes. Even he laughed at the implausibility of reading them all.

Koppelman is the author or co-author of more than 20 books, including Urban Planning and Design Criteria (Van Nostran Reinhold, 1982), a widely used grad school text. Many of his grad students and protegees have gone on to influential careers themselves.

Over the years, I interviewed Koppelman many times. Lee always made time available, briefed me on the issues, and occasionally needled me with a smile. He displayed an impeccable command of facts. Decades after a discussion he could recite the evidence cited by both sides.

Lee Koppelman was born May 19, 1927, in Manhattan. Raised in Astoria by parents who owned small floral wholesale businesses, Lee joined the Navy in 1945. He returned to start a landscape architecture business; earned an undergrad degree in electrical engineering from City College (1950) and a master’s from Pratt (1964); and a Ph.D. in public administration from New York University (1970).

Lee entered urban planning during the late 1950s when, as president of the Hauppauge Civic Association, he devised a plan that sought to balance economic Lee with sustainable land use management principles. Soon thereafter, Suffolk County executive John V. Klein hired him as director of the Suffolk County Planning Department, where he stayed from 1960 through 1988.  He was named executive director of what was then the Nassau-Suffolk County Regional Planning Board in 1965, making him effectively the region’s planning czar — even if precious little regional planning took place.

Also in 1965, Koppelman joined Stony Brook University as adjunct professor in the marine sciences department. He was named director of the university’s Center for Regional Policy Studies in 1988 and taught classes until September of last year.

Last year, I called Lee seeking his signature on a petition opposing the Gyrodyne company’s development plans for Flowerfield in St. James. My old friend voiced strong opposition to the project but couldn’t sign the petition. I told him I understood. His last words to me were: “Warren, you were always on the side of the angels.”

  Lee Edward Koppelman, may you rest in peace.

 Warren Strugatch is a journalist, consultant, and civic advocate in Stony Brook.  

Lee Koppelman, sitting, in April 2018, was presented with a replica of the sign that marks a nature preserve dedicated in his honor by former Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright, state Assemblyman Steve Englebright and Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine. Photo from 2018 by Alex Petroski

After the passing of Lee Koppelman, Suffolk County’s first regional planning board director, he is remembered fondly by those who knew him and his considerable work.

File photo/TBR News Media

Koppelman, of South Setauket, died on March 21, at age 94, at Stony Brook University Hospital.

“Lee Koppelman was a true pioneer whose comprehensive vision for sustainable development on Long Island was well ahead of his time and laid the foundation for countless initiatives we are still pursuing to this day,” said County Executive Steve Bellone (D) in a statement. “Lee’s push, against political backlash, to preserve open space, manage coastal erosion and improve water quality has had a lasting impact that spans generations.”

Bellone added, “As a county, we continue to pull his ideas ‘off the drawing board,’ with more than 20,000 acres of open space and farmland being preserved, as well as continued investments into downtown sewering, water quality improvements and public transit corridors.”

Before his illustrious career, Koppelman was born in Harlem on May 19, 1927. He grew up in Astoria and graduated from Bryant High School in Queens. His parents owned greenhouses in addition to a flower shop in Manhattan.

Koppelman was a Navy veteran who joined in 1945. He held a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from City College of New York and a master’s degree from Pratt Institute. He also earned a doctorate in public administration from New York University.

After he was married, Koppelman and his wife, Connie, moved to Hauppauge, where the planner, then president of the Hauppauge Civic Association, would play an instrumental role in the development of the Hauppauge Industrial Park.

In 1960 the Koppelmans moved to Smithtown and in the late 1980s to East Setauket. In 2014, he and his wife moved to Jefferson Ferry’s independent living in South Setauket. According to his son Keith, Koppelman designed and built his homes in Hauppauge, Smithtown and East Setauket. 

Koppelman served as the first Suffolk County regional planning board director for 28 years, from 1960 to 1988, and also served as the executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk Regional Planning Board from 1965 to 2006. He was an early advocate for preserving open space and was responsible for drawing up Suffolk’s first comprehensive master plan in 1970.

In an article by historian Noel Gish posted to the Stony Brook University website, he described Koppelman as “a planning gymnast, contorting and twisting his way through the development of the post-World War II period on Long Island.”

In addition to his accomplishments in his planning career, Koppelman was a professor emeritus at Stony Brook University, where he taught until last semester, according to his son. In 1988, he was appointed director of the Center for Regional Policy Studies at the school. The center handles research projects including governmental productivity, strategic economic planning and environmental planning.

“Lee Koppelman was a true pioneer whose comprehensive vision for sustainable development on Long Island was well ahead of his time and laid the foundation for countless initiatives we are still pursuing to this day.”

— Steve Bellone

According to his profile on the university’s website, his focus was “the environmental policy aspects of regional planning and has been specifically directed toward coastal zone management.”

Among his accomplishments listed on the SBU website, he was project manager for research “including coastal regional planning, comprehensive water management, shoreline erosion practices and related studies.” He was also involved “in the development of synthesis techniques for relating coastal zone science into the regional planning process.”

Leonie Huddy, distinguished professor and chair of the Department of Political Science, said Koppelman was “a leading member of the Stony Brook Political Science Department for over five decades and trained generations of local and regional leaders and policy analysts. He will be sorely missed.”

Koppelman also served as executive director of the Long Island Regional Planning Board and was chairman emeritus of the Town of Brookhaven Open Space and Farmland Acquisition Advisory Committee.

A 46-acre parcel of woodlands near the Stony Brook campus was named after him during a ceremony in April of 2018. Now known as Lee E. Koppelman Nature Preserve, the property east of Nicolls Road and south of the university has been owned by the Town of Brookhaven for nearly 50 years and was used as passive open space.

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), who was a county legislator in the 1980s, said in a phone interview he worked closely with Koppelman during his time in the Legislature working on open space acquisitions in Suffolk County. Romaine was able to get one of the largest acquisitions with the former Havens Estate in Center Moriches. The acquisition included 263 acres of land, now known as Terrell River County Park, that sits from Montauk Highway south to Moriches Bay. He also worked with Koppelman on other acquisitions.

In later years, Koppelman hired Romaine, a former full-time teacher, to teach a graduate course at SBU in 2005. He described Koppelman as gifted and intelligent. He said the two may not have always agreed on matters, “but I always thought his heart was in the right place.”

“I thought he was a visionary, and people say, ‘Well, what does it mean to be a visionary or to have vision,” Romaine said. “Well, vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others. He made quite visible to us the possibility of things that we should be working on as a county in terms of farmland acquisition, preservation, where development should take place.”

Romaine said he counts himself among others who “are beginning to see that his vision was for the, most part, the correct vision for the future of Long Island, and we regret those things where past leaders did not have the same vision — it was invisible to them to see what he was saying, what his vision was.”

The town supervisor said many would visit Koppelman’s office at SBU to seek advice.

Lee Koppelman in a recent photo from Jefferson Ferry where he lived.

“He was a guy with a tremendous amount of knowledge,” Romaine said. “He will be missed for a long time, and his contributions will go on long after his passing, so I have nothing but absolute praise for Lee Koppelman and his efforts to make sure that Long Island was somewhat more rational than it is today.”

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) said Koppelman was a superb administrator who knew how to surround himself with expert master planners. He said Koppelman and the planners “reflected a sense of mission and a sense of strength,” and he leaves behind a great legacy.

“In the years in which sprawl was a menace, every morning, there was Lee Koppelman and his cadre of top-flight planners who offered another vision for Long Island and made a difference, and enabled us to really bring thought into the experience of what appeared to be a daily exercise in chaos on the roadways and in the hallways where approvals for construction were being granted,” Englebright said. “He was a breath of fresh air.”

Englebright said Koppelman’s legacy will continue.

“The expectation, which is really built on of his legacy, is that we will plan, we will reason and we will make thoughtful decisions regarding our land use and natural resource uses,” Englebright said.

Koppelman is survived by his wife, Connie; four children Lesli, Claudia, Laurel and Keith; and three grandchildren Ezra, Ora and Dara. A funeral was held Thursday, March 24, at Shalom Memorial Chapels in Smithtown.

“We shared our father’s time and attention with the entire community of Long Island,” Keith Koppelman said in an email. “We have always been and will remain incredibly proud of him. Working for a rational future for Long Island did take him away from us at times, but now we have reminders of him everywhere we travel on the Island.”

File photo

During the most recent Village of Port Jefferson Board of Trustees meeting, a representative from Suffolk County Police gave an update to residents about what has been happening locally and across the county with crime.

On Monday, March 7, chief of constables Fred Leute joined the officer clarifying statistics from Feb. 7 through March 7 comparing 2021 to this year. The officer noted that across Long Island, catalytic converter thefts have skyrocketed, as well as car thefts.

“Please lock your cars,” Leute said. “A continual problem across Suffolk County and across New York State are people targeting residential areas, checking doorknobs on cars and taking what is inside.”

Both Leute and the officer agreed that keeping a close watch on one’s personal vehicle is important, especially if the car has a garage opener. “If you have a garage opener and they break into your car, then they have access to your home and you,” Leute said. 

The police representative added that across the county, they are seeing an uptick in people leaving their keys in a running car, allowing people easy access to the vehicle.

“Don’t leave the keys in your car,” she said. “We’re seeing an uptick in people leaving their cars running at locations such as gas stations and 7/11’s with people hopping in and going for a joy ride.”

More locally, Leute mentioned calls about vehicles illegally parking in handicap spots down Main Street, particularly in the spot on the corner next to Starbucks. 

The officer added that in the past year, there has been an uptick in general calls for service, but a decline in assaults (zero in this time period). She reported there is an active investigation on one burglary, one criminal mischief charge and one larceny that was cleared by an arrest. 

She added that ambulance calls have gone up slightly, with one overdose ambulance call during this time period. She was happy to report that motor vehicle accidents have decreased significantly from 15 to just one. 

Recent shooting

Residents at the meeting were concerned over events that occurred early Monday morning Down Port.

“We did have a shooting occur just two buildings over [from Village Hall] over by the town parking lot across from SaGhar restaurant,” the officer reported.

While details were unavailable due to the active investigation, she said that the village cameras have been instrumental in helping and that she was, “pleased to tell you we have a suspect identified and we are currently seeking that suspect.”

Catalytic converters in cars have been stolen across the country. Stock photo

By Raymond Janis

A wave of catalytic converter theft is sweeping through Suffolk County.

“If they grab two a night, that’s a nice living on the theft market. It’s becoming very popular across the country.”

Bobby Lemmo

A catalytic converter is a valuable auto part attached near the engine of a motor vehicle. It converts harmful toxins generated by a vehicle’s exhaust system into less hazardous gasses. 

“There has been an uptick in the theft of catalytic converters from vehicles in recent months,” said a spokesperson for the Suffolk County Police Department in an email statement. “The department made several arrests of individuals stealing catalytic converters in 2021 and most recently arrested a Medford man for stealing a catalytic converter from a Toyota in Bellport on Jan. 4.”

The catalytic converter contains precious metals such as platinum, zirconium, rhodium and palladium. Given its accessible location underneath the chassis, the catalytic converter has become an attractive target for thieves.  

“Most catalytic converters are made with a ceramic honeycomb substrate infused with platinum, zirconium and some other metals depending on the model,” said Bobby Lemmo, certified automotive technician and resident of Smithtown, in a phone interview. “These are very rare and very expensive metals. A replacement from a manufacturer runs anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000. On the junkyard market, the ones that they’re stealing sell between $200 and $600.”

Compared with other auto theft crimes, catalytic converter theft is relatively low risk and simple yet highly profitable. Using basic tools that can be found in a hardware store, a catalytic converter can be stolen within minutes. According to Lemmo, criminals can support a stable livelihood by stealing just a few of these converters per week.

“They target certain cars that they know, where the position of [the catalytic converter] is easy to get to. It literally takes a minute,” he said. “If they grab two a night, that’s a nice living on the theft market. It’s becoming very popular across the country.”

Recent supply chain shortages and scarce resources have also fed this spike in catalytic converter theft.

“They used to be readily available, but they’re tougher and tougher to get. They’re just not around now,” Lemmo said. “It’s affecting theft insurance, too. People are putting theft insurance on a car that they normally wouldn’t.”

According to a 2021 report by the National Insurance Crime Bureau, the national rate of catalytic converter theft has “skyrocketed” throughout the pandemic. Additionally, as the value of the precious metals within the converters has increased, the theft rate has kept pace. Lemmo, whose business is based in Queens, said that he replaces stolen catalytic converters regularly.

“I don’t know how many we have replaced in the past year, but I would say a car every one or two weeks and mostly four-cylinder cars because they’re just easier to get to,” he said. “And that’s just us. We’re one small shop.”

Some vehicles are at greater risk than others. According to Lemmo, the Honda CR-V is the most popular model for theft.

“The Honda CR-V is probably number one,” he said. “It’s high enough off the ground that they don’t even need a jack. They can lay right on the floor to take it.”

The proliferation of catalytic converter thefts has prompted some public officials to propose stricter penalties for thieves and purchasers. New York State Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island) spotted this trend in her district that covers the north of the island and parts of southern Brooklyn. Her proposed bill would impose greater restrictions on the purchase, sale and possession of stolen catalytic converters.

“We started noticing an increase in catalytic converter thefts in Staten Island about a year ago,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s an increasing problem not just here but all around the state. Working with one of my assembly colleagues, we’re looking to crack down on it by making the dealerships more responsible for the sale and resale of catalytic converters.”

Savino said that while it is illegal to steal a catalytic converter, her proposed legislation would make the crime less profitable. Her bill places harsher penalties on resale vendors, those who purchase the stolen converters cheaply and resell them at a premium.

“If someone steals a catalytic converter, there’s only one thing they’re doing with it,” Savino said. “They’re taking it to a chop shop, a salvage store or an auto dealer and they’re reselling it. We’re making them responsible for the product they are reselling.”

Other than stricter penalties, Lemmo believes manufacturers could alleviate the problem by serializing the converters. Serial numbers could both disrupt the resale marketplace and make the parts traceable, so that victims of this theft may have their stolen converters returned to them.

“For some of the newer cars, they have already gotten to the point of serializing them,” Lemmo said. “Possibly it could come back or, if anything, it will discourage them from taking it. Technically, it’s against the law for a scrap metal dealer to recycle one with a serial number.”

While Savino supports the issuance of serial numbers for new catalytic converters, she acknowledges the difficulty of targeting manufacturers through statewide legislation. 

“It’s not out of the realm of possibility, but making manufacturers do something when they are not in the state of New York is just one more layer that would make it more difficult to enforce,” the state senator said. “It’s always easier to enact legislation that you can enforce within the four walls of your own state. When you’re doing something that affects products that are possibly manufactured overseas, it’s harder.” 

For those concerned about the vulnerability of their car’s catalytic converter, the NICB recommends that vehicle owners install a catalytic converter anti-theft device, available from various manufacturers; park in a garage or well-lit area; and plant motion sensor lights to deter potential thieves.

Gov. Kathy Hochul. File photo by Julianne Mosher

After bipartisan backlash from Long Island officials, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) has dropped her budget proposal that would require local governments to expand legalizing accessory apartments.

“I have heard real concerns about the proposed approach on accessory dwelling units,” Hochul said in a statement. “I understand that my colleagues in the state senate believe a different set of tools is needed, even if they agree with the goal of supporting the growth of this kind of housing.”

The plan stated that, to increase affordable housing across the state, dwellings would be allowed to convert garages, basements and backyard units as apartments. Both Democrat and Republican lawmakers from the town, county, state and federal levels all said this could hurt Long Island, and essentially eliminate single-family zoning.

“I am submitting a 30-day amendment to my budget legislation that removes requirements on localities in order to facilitate a conversation about how we build consensus around solutions,” she added.

The plan was introduced in January during the State of the State. Congressman Tom Suozzi (D-NY3) was one of the first to call the governor out on it, which then resulted in Brookhaven, Smithtown and Huntington towns to voice their concerns.

“One small victory, but many battles ahead,” Suozzi told TBR News Media in a statement. “We successfully stopped Governor Hochul’s radical proposal from being passed in the budget, but we’re not done yet. Now we must stop her and the state legislature from passing this misguided legislation during the Albany legislative session.”

Throughout the last month, these lawmakers argued that the plan could have potential impacts on Long Island’s quality of life, the environment and local school districts.

““I’m pleased that Governor Hochul pulled the Accessory Dwelling Unit legislation from the budget, but that isn’t enough,” said Suffolk County Legislator Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst). “At this time, there are still discussions of tweaks to the law. Local officials on Long Island are adamantly opposed to any modifications that remove our ‘home rule.’ We know what is best for our community and we don’t need New York City and New York State dictating to us what our communities should look like. As we’ve seen with the pulling of the bill, combining our voices and speaking out ensure that we can be heard. I urge all residents to contact their State representatives and the governor’s office, to voice their opposition to any modification of ADUs here on Long Island.”

Several Suffolk County lawmakers spoke up against the ADU legislation Feb. 11 with the help of several state assembly members and senators.

“The removal of this proposal from the budget is great news for all of our communities and I am proud to have stood with my colleagues in town, county, state and federal officials from both sides of the aisle to fight to protect local control,” said state Senator Mario Mattera (R-St. James). “This shows that joining together and standing united can lead to positive change for our residents.”

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) held a press conference Feb. 3, as one of the first townships to take a stance on the issue.

“The call to remove this misguided proposal was finally heard by the governor and we will continue to maintain local zoning control,” he said in a recent statement. “Our right to home rule on issues like housing is what protects our communities from turning into the crowded neighborhoods that we see in cities, which is not what the residents of Brookhaven Town want.”

Hochul still has plans to combat the affordable housing crisis, and the emphasis on increasing accessory apartments and improving their safety will be targeted in New York City rather than the suburbs.

“Albany extremists will resurrect this terrible idea the moment bipartisan opposition gets distracted,” said Huntington Town Supervisor Ed Smyth (R). “Stay vigilant!”

Congressman Tom Suozzi joined other elected officials on all levels during a press conference, Feb. 11. Photo by Julianne Mosher

A week after the Town of Brookhaven and local state representatives bashed Gov. Kathy Hochul’s (D) plan to potentially eliminate certain single-family zoning laws across New York state, other Long Island townships and Suffolk County officially voiced their concerns.

During a press conference at the county Legislature in Hauppauge Thursday, Feb. 10, more than two dozen elected officials at town, county, state and federal levels collectively agreed that Hochul’s plan would be bad for the Island.

Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) said that of all the officials gathered, it was a unanimous, bipartisan agreement that this should not happen.

“We are all concerned about the future of Long Island and the quality of life here and the need for local government to have control over their zoning with local elected officials,” he said. 

“This is a radical plan by the governor to take away local zoning from where it belongs in the hands of the local officials who were elected to make sure that the zoning codes stay in place for the quality of life that each one of the municipalities that they choose to live in.”

He added that if Hochul’s plan in fact happens, it will eventually have an impact on parking, water quality, sewerage and more. 

The governor’s comprehensive five-year housing plan would potentially invest $25 billion to create and preserve 100,000 affordable homes and tackle inequities in the housing market. Last month, she announced the plan to make housing more affordable as part of the 2022 State of the State.

“In the wake of the pandemic, it’s crucial that we tackle the housing crisis and make New York a more affordable place for all,” Hochul previously said. “These bold steps are a major step forward in transforming our housing market, protecting affordability and increasing the housing supply.”

Congressman Tom Suozzi (D-NY3) noticed the plan in the State of the State book and began bringing it to the public’s attention. Suozzi is campaigning to take Hochul’s seat. He cited her State of the State book on pages 130 and 131 regarding accessory dwelling units. According to those documents, he said the governor would want to oppose legislation to require municipalities to allow a minimum of one accessory dwelling unit on owner occupied residentially zoned blocks.

“That’s the end of local control,” he said. “That’s the end of local governments authority.”

Suozzi believes this could be “a dangerous idea” that could “result in commercial landlords buying properties and trying to pack people into neighborhoods.”

“This is just a failure to understand what it’s like out here,” he added.

Currently, many building permit applications that increase the number of bedrooms in a dwelling require the approval of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services. 

According to county representatives, at no point in the proposed legislation does it address the fact that the health department determines the appropriate number of persons residing at a home that is utilizing cesspools. Over 75% of Suffolk County is unsewered — a mass expansion of accessory dwelling units will result in a deterioration in the water quality here on Long Island.

State Sen. Mario Mattera (R-St. James) said that state lawmakers are continuously “going against everything we live for and our investments.”

“I wake up in the morning and I feel like I’m in the twilight zone,” he said.

Mattera added that many municipalities have been focusing on downtown revitalization plans, which already create apartments.

“We’ve been doing these apartments for a reason to make sure our families have places to go so we keep our young or middle aged or seniors here,” he said. “We are doing that job governor, but governor, this is not the City of New York. We’re in the suburbs. This is so important for our future.”


Huntington Town Supervisor Ed Smyth. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Representatives from the Town of Huntington were in attendance, with Supervisor Ed Smyth (R) voicing that the town already has permissive accessory apartments laws.

“We already allow for accessory apartments in homes in the town,” he said. “We don’t need Albany telling us how to do this.”

He added, “With home rule, we have ensured that our communities do not become overdeveloped, are kept environmentally sound, and are a place people want to live and raise a family. This proposal by the governor would end all of that overnight. Proof of how bad an idea this is … is the fact that both sides of the political aisle have come together to state their opposition.”

Smyth said they will not stop until the item is removed from the New York State budget and “laid to rest.”

Local representatives gathered at the Lawrence Aviation property last year to identify where a rail yard could be built. Photo from state Sen. Anthony Palumbo’s office

Discussions have dragged on and on, and even as years turned to decades the dream of an electrified northern line of the Long Island Rail Road has shuddered along, like a train limping forward on little to no steam.

Though local leaders now say the time is ripe. With state reps championing the cause in Albany, local leaders are holding up a plum location for the necessary rail yard: Lawrence Aviation.

The former site of Lawrence Aviation Industries. File photo

The 126-acre superfund site in Port Jefferson Station has sat vacant since 2000, after the airplane parts company was accused of leaching chemicals into the ground. Ground cleanup was completed in 2009, and asbestos was removed from some of the buildings in 2015, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Various sources confirmed that late last year, local civic leaders as well as representatives from Brookhaven, Smithtown and Huntington townships, joined Suffolk County and state leaders on the superfund site property to identify where such a rail yard could be built. The latest update on the property by the EPA, dated October 2021, stated that the site consists of 10 buildings, a drum crushing site, and a vacant lagoon and woods.

Yet officials across both parties have long supported the project, which has been talked about for over four decades. It’s a project the environmental and economics-minded people have been on board with. Both previous state Sens. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and John Flanagan (R-East Northport) were proponents, and many electeds like Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) have long called on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to move the project forward.

What’s different now? Charlie Lefkowitz, president of Three Village Chamber of Commerce, said the most recent change in state leadership has resulted in a “newfound focus” on electrification. He agreed that Lawrence Aviation, which is tucked far enough away from residential houses to be not detrimental to homeowners, would be an optimal place for a yard.

The chamber leader also cited how much of a beneficial impact electrifying the line would have on the surrounding economy, especially with how Stony Brook students can use the train to traverse to hotspots like Port Jefferson or Huntington villages.

“Creating viable, sustainable public transportation really has to be looked at hard here,” Lefkowitz said.

In a written statement, state Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) further put his support behind the project.

“There is broad and bipartisan support to turn the site into a new rail yard to provide greater service to the region,” he wrote. “It is also a crucial component in the plan to electrify the Port Jefferson line. With the state and federal government investing billions of dollars in infrastructure there is no excuse not to get these projects completed now.”

“Creating viable, sustainable public transportation really has to be looked at hard here.”

— Charlie Lefkowitz

Suffolk County officials said they have had this property in mind for civic development since at least 2015. Deputy County Executive Peter Scully, known as the county’s water quality czar, said that there’s a current $860,000 annual cost to taxpayers due to a number of liens on the property, and the federal government is also looking to make up costs on the $150 million cleanup.

The county has already received legislative approval to settle with all the lien claimants, and execution on those settlements will likely happen in the next six to eight weeks, according to the deputy county executive.

“We have developed a cooperative working relationship with the state and federal governments to process those liens,” Scully said during a Zoom interview.

The Suffolk County Landbank put out a request for proposal in July of last year for companies to develop the Lawrence Aviation site. Early concepts of the site detail a portion of the property zoned for light industrial, while another section on the eastern end will be preserved as open space. Notably, the north end of the property conceptualizes an MTA railyard. The study also mentions potential plans to reroute the train tracks and potentially moving the Port Jefferson train station onto the Lawrence Aviation site as well, which would eliminate the crossing on Route 112.

Sarah Lansdale, president of the landbank and the county’s planning and environment director, said that and other concepts are on the table.

She confirmed the county received one bid back on the RFP for a solar farm on the industrial part of the property, though she did not offer further details as negotiations are ongoing.

Waiting on the MTA

With those claims out of the way, all that’s left is for the MTA to make a decision regarding electrification, but the transportation entity has been notoriously tight-lipped regarding this and other projects. The MTA included $4 million in their five-year 2015-19 capital plan to pay for a feasibility study on electrification of the Port Jefferson Branch, and while the transportation entity confirmed the study is in motion, there is no word on when it will be completed.

Dave Steckel, a spokesperson for the MTA, said in a statement that a feasibility study is one “among a variety of transit proposals throughout the region” and that “the authority will assess the study and other regional proposals using consistent metrics — such as cost, ridership, etc. — so that they can be comparatively evaluated.”

The analysis will also be used in MTA’s 20-year needs assessment, which is due next year.

That’s not to say the project is unknown to transportation officials. Kevin Law, past president of the Long Island Association who just recently stepped down from the MTA board, offered his support to two Island-based projects, according to Newsday. One was to finish the Yaphank station and the other to finish Port Jeff line electrification. Law is moving on to be the new director of Empire State Development.

Anthony Figliola, a civic leader in the Three Village area who is running for the New York District 1 congressional seat on the Republican ticket, said that he has talked to railroad officials who have confirmed the feasibility study is ongoing, though he and other civic leaders have not seen it yet. He added he’s spoken to the NYS Senate transportation committee leader, and that the local state electeds are on board.

“We’re on the radar as far as Albany is concerned,” Figliola said. “These are big capital projects that take a lot of time and planning. So while you know, while it may not happen right now, we need to start planning for this for the future, because COVID will be over, and life will get back to normal.”

Some transportation advocates say the silence is a bad sign. Larry Penner, a self-described transportation historian and writer from Great Neck, spent 31 years in the U.S. Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. In a phone interview, he said riders should not expect anything on electrification until 2034, at least.

“We’re on the radar as far as Albany is concerned.”

— Anthony Figliol

He pointed to the Feb. 8 public hearing from the MTA which did not include mention of Port Jeff electrification. He also mentioned that there’s no money for the project in the MTA’s 2020-24 five-year capital plan. After the feasibility study is released, the MTA will then need to do the EPA’s environmental review process, which will allow for further FTA funding. The same amount of lead up time to acquiring a rail yard is likely to be the same.

“It’s a package deal,” Penner said. “You can’t build a storage without electrification and Federal Transit Administration funding. With this requirement that you fund a transportation improvement project, it has to go to beneficial use. So you couldn’t build a yard and have it sit there for 15 years.”

Scully said they have been in communication with MTA board members, but emphasized that timing is important for the MTA to start making moves on both electrification and Lawrence Aviation. Lansdale said the county is tasked with disposing all parts of the property, and without an agreement they may have to move on.

But another piece of the puzzle remains whether riders will return to the LIRR, especially as the pandemic continues. Many workers have realized the benefits of working from home, and many city offices remain in remote work. Though it had increased marginally in October of last year, weekday ridership on the LIRR continues to be about 50% of what it was in 2019, before the pandemic.

Penner said that problem likely overshadows any attempt to add more services on existing lines. The existing MTA projects like the ongoing $11.2 billion East Side Access to Grand Central Station promised tens of thousands of new riders when originally proposed, but with the ongoing pandemic he remains skeptical. “You want to protect and maintain the existing service before you expand service,” the transportation historian said.

Still, locals like Lefkowitz and Figliola remain optimistic about ridership bouncing back.

“As a New Yorker who lived through tragedies like 9/11 and others, I think there will be people going back from the trains,” Lefkowitz said. “I do believe that at some point, these things will get back to whatever the next transition of our future is, but I believe people will be riding the trains.”

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Kings Park’s downtown district, above during Summer Nights in the Park: Monday on Main last July, will soon see the addition of sewers. Photo by Rita J. Egan

By Raymond Janis

Attorneys representing the Kings Park Community Association and the Long Island Pine Barrens Society have filed a $198 million lawsuit against Suffolk County over a sewer fund they claim was unlawfully depleted.

The Assessment Stabilization Reserve Fund was originated as part of the Suffolk County Drinking Water Protection Program, which was established in 1987. The program addressed ballooning sewer rates and volatility across sewer districts using a 0.25% sales tax to subsidize ratepayers and cap rate increases at 3%. After a 2020 voter referendum, the county reformulated the rate structure in Suffolk County Sewer District #6 – Kings Park, increasing rates by 452%, according to Michael Rosato, president of the community association.

In explanation, Peter Scully, deputy county executive for administration, said in a phone interview, “The prior rate structure was inequitable and would have disadvantaged residential property owners in the sewer district. The changes rectified that and made sure sewer ratepayers generating significantly more sewage paid their fair share.”

In a letter sent to Sewer District #6 homeowners Dec. 7, 2020, County Executive Steve Bellone (D) had justified raising sewer rates to mitigate wide discrepancies in operating costs across Suffolk.

“Property owners in the district have been undercharged for years, and revenues collected do not come close to covering operating expenses,” Bellone said in the letter. “The average Suffolk County sewer ratepayer paid $585 in sewer charges this year,” adding, “By comparison, the average homeowner in Sewer District #6 was billed $78.74.”

Rosato, who is also a part-time aide in the office of county Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), claimed Bellone illegally raised rates in Sewer District #6 beyond the 3% threshold, violating the terms of the program.

“In 2020 Bellone put a very misleading referendum on the ballot that he felt allowed him not to pay that fund back and to continue taking money out of it to pay for operating expenses,” Rosato said in a phone interview. “After raiding $198 million out of the fund, he raised Kings Park sewer rates 452%.”

The Pine Barrens Society is a named plaintiff in the lawsuit and has sued Suffolk County repeatedly since 2011 over this sewer fund. According to Rosato, the county demonstrates a pattern of budgetary mismanagement, sewer fund meddling and legal stonewalling.

“In 2011, County Executive [Steve] Levy [D] took $29 million out of that sewer stabilization fund to cover budget holes,” Rosato said. “He was sued by the Pine Barrens Society and the Pine Barrens Society won that lawsuit. Bellone became county executive soon afterward and he subsequently took $171 million out of that fund for operating expenses.”

In the current lawsuit, the Pine Barrens Society challenges Proposition Two, which was the 2020 referendum that authorized the county to use the sewer fund to effectively avoid service cuts and layoffs. Paul Sabatino, co-counsel representing the Pine Barrens Society, said the referendum had no legal basis.

“Proposition Two, when you cut through all the smoke, does two things. It unilaterally repudiates the judgement for $29 million and it unilaterally repudiates the balance of the [$171 million] payment.” Sabatino said in a phone interview. “A county cannot pass a charter law that unilaterally reverses a judicial decree and it cannot adopt a charter law that unilaterally repudiates a settlement agreement. Whether you do it with or without the voters, there is no authority.”

Scully disagreed with this legal reasoning. He said the Pine Barrens Society insisted in prior litigation that voter approval is paramount but is now reversing course completely.

“What’s going on here, ironically, is that the Pine Barrens Society is taking the position that voter approval should be disregarded and that the voters’ approval of Proposition Two in 2020 should be overturned,” Scully said. “I’ve been involved in government for 37 years and this is probably the most bizarre lawsuit I’ve ever seen.”

County voters approved Proposition Two by a margin of 54% to 46%. However, county Legislator Trotta said voters did not understand the intent of the ballot measure.

“The law is very clear about how a referendum has to be put on the ballot,” he said in a phone interview. “It has to be clear and concise, but most people had no idea what they were voting for. Politicians pride themselves on using uninformed voters and manipulating them.”

Scully contended that Trotta and the Pine Barrens Society conducted a lengthy media campaign against Proposition Two in 2020, but voters approved the ballot measure anyway.

“In the weeks prior to the referendum, Legislator Trotta and others were very vocal in bringing their concerns to the attention of the public through the media,” Scully said. “The voters appeared to summarily reject those concerns. People seemed to understand clearly what they were voting on. They voted for financial stability and they spoke with a very clear voice.”

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a major initiative to bring sewers into downtown Kings Park. The sewer stabilization fund and the downtown extension are fiscally unrelated, sourced from separate revenue streams. Scully said that while construction can move forward as planned, the modified rate structure will impact the business district when the project is complete.

“The project can move forward but the rate structure continues to be at risk,” Scully said. “Had the Legislature not modified the rate structure, residential customers in the sewer district would end up in some instances paying higher rates than businesses that generate significantly more sewage.”

Trotta accused the administration of intentionally muddling these two distinct sewer issues to confuse community members and generate fear that the extension project may be derailed.

“They’re totally unrelated,” he said. “What this administration tries to do is tie them together to scare people. They use scare tactics.”

Acknowledging that the two issues remain separate for now, Sabatino implied that the legal principle at stake could affect the downtown sewer extension in the future.

“The legal principle of this lawsuit is important because if they believe they have the ability now to unilaterally evade the 3% cap for Kings Park, then what will stop them from doing that for the extension five years from now?” Sabatino said.

Sabatino argued that fixed-rate increases and rigid percentages were put in place to prevent county officials from depleting the fund at will. He said this lawsuit will determine whether or not those officials remain bound by these requirements.

“If you don’t tie up the hands of elected officials, over time when they see a large pot of money it’s going to be gone,” he said. “You have to tie their hands and do it in a way that is truly effective. It’s the law of political human nature.”

Scully said the Pine Barrens Society has lost credibility due to this lawsuit.


“It’s really kind of sad what has happened with regard to the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, which is no longer a credible voice for environmental protection in Suffolk County,” he said.

Pixabay photo

Over the last month, the pandemic trends continue to improve in Suffolk County and in the country.

After a rocky start to the New Year, brought on by an omicron variant that was more contagious than either the original strain of the virus or the delta variant, the percentage of positive tests in Suffolk County continues to decline.

As of Feb. 7, the percentage of positive tests over a seven-day average in Suffolk County was 4.9%, according to the New York State Department of Health. That is down from 14% on Jan. 21 and 27% on Jan. 7.

The trends on Long Island are following similar patterns in other parts of the world that experienced the omicron infection earlier.

South Africa “experienced the omicron wave first,” Dr. Gregson Pigott, health commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, wrote in an email. “Almost as steeply as cases rose, they fell.”

Indeed, at Port Jefferson’s St. Charles Hospital, Dr. Sunil Dhuper, chief medical officer, said there has been a “significant” drop in the number of patients hospitalized and in the number of Emergency Room visits, while the use of monoclonal antibodies to treat patients in the early stages of an infection has also dropped dramatically.

“We are not seeing the kind of volume we were seeing a few weeks ago,” Dhuper added.

The Department of Health for the country reported that the reinfection rate, which reached a peak in the last week of December and first week of January, has also been declining.

The number of hospitalizations throughout the country has fallen enough that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to President Joseph Biden (D), recently said in an interview with the Financial Times that the country is almost past the “full-blown” pandemic phase. While he didn’t offer a specific timetable, he suggested that virus restrictions could be lifted within a matter of months.

Area doctors suggested that vaccinations and more mild symptoms among those who contracted the virus helped alleviate the strain on the health care community.

“The vast majority of those hospitalized for respiratory or other COVID-type illnesses have not been vaccinated,” Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, explained in an email.

While the overall number continues to decline, the county, and the country, need to make continued progress in reducing the overall infection rate before the all-clear signal.

Sean Clouston, associate professor in the Program in Public Health and the Department of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, suggested that the current number of infections still leaves room for improvement.

A positivity rate above 5% which was the figure earlier this week, is “still extremely high,” Clouston explained in an email. “Currently, the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] would recommend that no one in the globe travel to Long Island, which doesn’t seem like we ourselves see this as safe objectively.”

Health care providers highlighted the difference between the reported and the actual infection numbers.

When the pandemic started in March of 2020, Dhuper estimates that the ratio of reported to actual cases was close to 1 to 10. With Delta, that number likely dropped to closer to 1 to 5, and with omicron, that’s probably about 1 to 3 or 4.

With the increase in at-home testing, the numbers “we see are more of a sampling, showing the approximate prevalence of COVID-19 virus circulating in the population,” Pigott explained.

Nachman added that Stony Brook is following guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when it comes to vaccinations for people who tested positive for COVID-19.

These public health authorities generally recommend a booster dose after people feel well, which is usually 10 days to two weeks after an illness.

Doctors said they are monitoring a new version of the omicron variant, called BA.2

The new variant seems a “bit more” contagious” than the original omicron, Dhuper said. Vaccines, however, have a “reasonable level of protection to prevent hospitalizations and death.”

Dhuper said he continues to “keep an eye” on that variant.

Nachman suggested that the available vaccines continue to help.

“Right now, the [two omicron variants] do not seem to be radically different,” she suggested, as both have a short incubation period and people are protected by the vaccine.

With the number of people contracting the virus and developing more severe symptoms declining, Dhuper said the demand for the effective monoclonal antibody treatment continues to fall.

Dhuper said a recent New England Journal of Medicine study indicated that the antiviral treatment remdesivir, manufactured by Gilead Sciences, was effective at treating mild to moderate illnesses on an outpatient basis over a three-day period.

“Given under controlled conditions, (remdesivir) could be one of the best alternatives that we have,” Dhuper said.

Stock photo

Over the course of the last year, North Shore residents have gotten relaxed or forgetful when it comes to locking their car doors. 

For example, Fred Leute, chief of Port Jefferson’s code enforcement, said that over the past month, village code has been receiving calls about people rummaging through open vehicles.

He said that right now, thanks to Ring camera footage, they have seen three separate people on camera trying to open car doors. 

“They’re looking for loose change or cash,” he said. “They’re checking for open doors — not even looking inside.”

Leute said this can be prevented.

“Lock your doors,” he said. “Double check.”

And while the village experienced these incidents over the last few weeks, he said that this problem isn’t confined to just one area. 

“We’re aware of what’s going on,” Leute said. “It’s happening all over.”

A spokesperson from the Suffolk County Police Department said several North Shore hamlets have reported thefts from motor vehicles. These numbers cannot verify if a car was unlocked or not.

From January 2021 until this Jan. 22, there have been 111 reported thefts from a motor vehicle in Old Field, Poquott, Port Jefferson, Rocky Point, Selden, Setauket and Stony Brook.

Old Field and Poquott had the least amount, with just two each in the fall, while Selden experienced 46 thefts — the most happening in July, August and December of last year. 

Port Jefferson reported 10, 13 for Rocky Point, 17 for Setauket and 21 for Stony Brook.

These numbers also do not include thefts of parts from the vehicle like tires or catalytic converters. 

But along with small thefts from inside easy-to-reach cars, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said during a recent press conference that eight cars were stolen across Suffolk County in one week — Dec. 19 through Dec. 23.

“Many victims of vehicle theft not only leave their cars unlocked, but they leave key fobs in plain sight, either on the passenger seat, the driver’s seat or in the cup holder,” Bellone said during the Dec. 23 Hauppauge press event. “This allows car thieves to easily enter the vehicle and take off.”