By Chris Cumella
Future ideas and recommendations being made for Smithtown’s Master Comprehensive Plan by town officials and residents have been public and viewable on the town’s website, but there is still miscommunication occurring on both ends.
Open recreational spaces, private lands for sewage treatment facilities, and renovation of outdated structures only scrape the surface of the expansive vision that the Smithtown government sees for the numerous town hamlets that the plan is expected to partake in. To display full transparency of the plan’s elongated efforts and strategies of achieving them, gaining public feedback was essential to the process of a collaborative effort of compromises between the town government and residents alike.
“In 2019, we began these public meetings in each hamlet,” said Smithtown Public Information Officer Nicole Garguilo in a phone interview. “We had maps, interactive sessions, we also did an online questionnaire.”
Smithtown officials began their public outreach through questionnaires created on publicinput.com, a community engagement software creator, which allowed the town to extend requests of feedback and concerns or questions from the residents.
However, while public information sessions have managed to keep the town up to date, it has also created problematic tensions for one group of residents in particular who are actively opposing certain aspects of the plan. Garguilo commented that the mentioned opposition is primarily against the waste-water management facility proposed for the Gyrodyne property in St. James but that the real issues stem from people “fearing what they don’t understand.”
The Head of the Harbor Neighborhood Preservation Coalition represents one of the groups of town citizens criticizing and opposing specific sections of the plan unless favorable compromises can be reached between the coalition and the town government. The coalition is a volunteer organization based in Head of the Harbor. It is composed of neighborhood residents in Head of the Harbor and St. James dedicated to the preservation of their environment, heritage and history.
The middle-ground between these two groups is uncertain, especially amid claims that there is improper regard to the community’s voices speaking out against the plan.
“They receive [our] letters, but we don’t receive any acknowledgment from the town that there are community concerns,” said Judy Ogden, trustee of the Head of the Harbor Neighborhood Coalition. “When the draft Comprehensive Plan came out, it was supposed to be a chance to speak of the conflict in some of the points being made.”
Ogden, along with other members of the coalition, attended the St. James hamlet meeting to raise questions. Their most recent attendance during a Zoom conference held Jan. 28 about St. James found familiar questions and ponderance directed toward the details of the plan for the hamlet.
One topic of conversation was the Gyrodyne sewage treatment plan proposed for the commercial property in St. James.
All over Suffolk County, according to Garguilo, various places are operating off of outdated sewage systems. If the town had to build even one sewer treatment facility with taxpayer money, the total amount of required finances would roughly estimate $157 million, according to the PIO. Even if the funds were acquired federally, the debate of where it should be placed would supposedly cause further complications and delays for set-up.
Garguilo said that it is a matter of a 20-to-30-year option vs. a three-year option. The latter being a route that costs the taxpayers of Smithtown nothing since the said sewer treatment facility would be developed in a private sector of land.
“Gyrodyne has owners that want to do right by the community,” Garguilo said. “Most of the representatives are St. James residents, and they care about the community and pay attention to what the concerns are. I think that when it’s all said and done, people will be pleased.”
In addition to sewage treatment, Smithtown officials had reached a deal that H2M, the multi-disciplined professional consulting and design firm, whose hired land developers stated if ten homes were built in a single square mile, a plot of land within a square mile would have to be preserved for open space.
Garguilo affirmed that this action followed part of the town’s decision to make certain areas of the town more family-oriented by associating outdoor-recreational environments that all age-demographics can enjoy.
Smithtown’s famous monument, a bull statue named Whisper, has remained across from developments that have come and gone for over a century. Across the street from the statue is currently the gentlemen’s club Oasis, among other outdated developments, which the town envisions as future open recreational spaces for the general public to use.
It is a mission statement of the town of Smithtown and a drive behind the Comprehensive Plan to preserve as much wildlife space and to never build on it if possible. That is where the town’s “Open-Space Fund” can take effect — renovating the land inside the town instead of constructing new developments on the other side of the Nissequogue River, which are primarily untouched wetlands and marshlands home to various species of wildlife.
The need to connect with the community follows a hope of Garguilo that there can be common ground between the opposition and the town as the Comprehensive Plan continues to unravel and expand.
Others like Ogden say they hope there will be a win-win for everybody, “If we can reconsider some parts, then it would feel like we’re being listened to.”