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NYS DEC And Peconic Land Trust Team Up To Protect Aquifer


The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the Peconic Land Trust today announced the preservation of a parcel in the Central Pine Barrens Core. The acquisition of this property will help protect Long Island’s groundwater. The town of Brookhaven, Suffolk County, parcel is the first in the state to be approved and purchased with funding from DEC’s Water Quality Improvement Project (WQIP) grants that specifically target the protection of source waters. 

Funding for the project comes from a $2.3 million DEC grant awarded in December 2017 to the Peconic Land Trust for implementation of a Regional Aquifer Protection Land Acquisition Program (RAPLAP). The Trust paid $135,000 for the one-acre parcel on Cornfield Road. The property was identified by the Town of Brookhaven as a priority for conservation because of its location in the Central Pine Barrens Core, adjacent to other protected Suffolk County and Pine Barrens conservation easement lands, and its proximity to land owned by the Suffolk County Water Authority (SCWA).

The Trust proposes to maintain the property for passive recreational uses such as hiking and birdwatching. There will be no interior parking. Potential improvements would be limited to a foot trail, placement of trail markers, and a trailhead kiosk. 

New York’s Water Quality Improvement Program (WQIP) 

WQIP is supported by the landmark $2.5 billion Clean Water Infrastructure Act and the Environmental Protection Fund. It is a competitive reimbursement grant program to fund projects that improve water quality, reduce the potential for harmful algal blooms, and protect drinking water across the state. Grants are awarded for municipal wastewater treatment; nonagricultural nonpoint source abatement and control; salt storage; aquatic habitat restoration; municipal separate storm sewer systems; and land acquisition projects for source water protection. Last month, DEC 
announced more than $103 million for 124 projectsbeing awarded through the WQIP grant program. 

Two rounds of WQIP grants specifically for land acquisition have already been made, with more than $28 million awarded to more than 25 projects statewide. Protecting drinking water is a high priority for New Yorkers and additional land acquisition grants will be made available over the next three years, with a new round of applications for projects to be solicited this spring. For more information about the 
WQIP grant program, please visit DEC’s website.

In addition to the WQIP program, DEC and the New York State Department of Health have launched a Drinking Water Source Protection Program to provide municipalities with resources and tools to proactively protect their drinking water sources. As part of the program’s first phase, DEC is currently soliciting applications from municipalities interested in receiving free assistance in preparing drinking water source protection plans. Applications are being accepted until Feb. 15, 2019, and more informationcan be found at DEC’s website. To continue supporting these and other initiatives, Governor Cuomo’s 2019-20 Executive Budget proposal includes a total of $5 billion for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure - building upon the $2.5 billion Act and effectively doubling the state’s investment in clean water over the next five years.

The Regional Aquifer Protection Land Acquisition Program

On Long Island, where 100 percent of the drinking water for 2.8 million residents comes from underground aquifers, protecting the land through which water filters is critically important. It costs up to 10 times more to produce clean drinking water from wells where surrounding lands is heavily developed than from wells in the Pine Barrens where the land is protected.

Peconic Land Trust’s RAPLAP is a multi-year program using WQIP funding to acquire land or development rights for surface water quality, groundwater recharge areas, and drinking water protection. 
The Trust received $2.3 million from DEC to work with the Town of Brookhaven to identify and acquire properties to further protect drinking water sources. Funding for this project allows properties to be protected in and near the Special Groundwater Protection Areas within the Peconic Estuary and Forge River Watersheds and the South Shore Estuary Reserve. 

The Peconic Land Trust is partnering with Peconic Estuary Program to pool resources and expertise to identify and acquire land or development rights on parcels that meet source water protection criteria. The $2.3 million from DEC will provide 75 percent of acquisition costs and the remaining 25 percent is matched with other public and/or private funds. The Trust was awarded an additional $3 million by DEC in December 2018 for Phase II to assist the Towns of Shelter Island, Southold and Riverhead. For more information, visit the 
Trust’s website.

People interested in the DEC’s WQIP grant program and other New York water-related issues are encouraged to sign up for the 
weekly e-newsletter “Making Waves.”

“I would be hard-pressed to recommend a more significant one-acre property in Brookhaven Town than this parcel,” said John Turner, a land management specialist with the Town of Brookhaven and a longtime Pine Barrens Protection advocate. “Not only will the purchase protect the trees and wildlife on site and help safeguard the ecological integrity of a complex of properties previously preserved adjacent to the parcel, acquisition will also prevent a new house with fertilized lawns and a septic system from being installed a few dozen feet from the Peconic River. Congratulations to the Peconic Land Trust on completing this important project.”


SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - Pine Barrens Society Lawsuit Loss Is A Win 

By Karl Grossman

The lawsuit brought by the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, which would have crippled Suffolk County’s visionary and nationally heralded Farmland Preservation Program, is no more. 

New York’s Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, refused to consider it and the society has abandoned its last chance for a “re-argument” before that court.

The society’s lawsuit claimed that allowing “structures” on preserved farmland, as permitted by amendments to the Farmland Preservation Program, was not legal.

One judge, State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Whelan, ruled in 2016 in favor of the lawsuit. State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr., an attorney and former Suffolk legislator, said Justice Whelan “basically misconstrued what the county’s original intent was—to prevent the development of farmland but still allow typical and acceptable farm practices to be utilized. Under the program, farmers have been “entitled” to build sheds, barns and other structures. “The idea was that farming is dynamic and that there would have to be changes in the future.”

Suffolk County appealed the judge’s ruling. It retained a law firm that has long fought for the environment, Riverhead-based Twomey, Latham, Shea, Kelley and Quartararo. The appeal was handled by a partner in the firm, Lisa Clare Kombrink, who has a specialty in farmland preservation as former Southampton Town attorney.

Justice Whelan’s judicial superiors on the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court last year reversed his ruling. Still, the Pine Barrens Society pushed for the Court of Appeals to step in. It refused. On December 27, 2018 came the deadline for the society to seek a “re-argument” on getting the high court to consider the case. The society let the deadline pass.

The legal brief prepared on behalf of Suffolk County by Ms. Kombrink was strong. “Now,” it stated, “under the two amendments which have been invalidated, farmers cannot build a barn, install irrigation or underground utilities, or offer hayrides or ‘you-pick’ for strawberries or other crops grown on their property….The impact is so extreme that farmers cannot even put up a fence to protect their crops from predator animals.”

“In essence,” it said, Justice Whelan “has ruled that the Suffolk County Farmland Preservation Program is meant to preserve open space, and not lands used in agricultural production.” The brief declared that the ruling “contradicts” various New York State laws that it enumerated, “all of which recognize the importance of farmland, farming and agricultural production as an important natural and economic resource in the state.”

If the Pine Barrens Society lawsuit had won, it would have undermined the Farmland Preservation Program begun in 1974. As John v.H. Halsey, president of the Peconic Land Trust, itself long involved in conservation including of farmland, commented: “If we want farmland to be farmed we have to allow farmers to do what we told them they could do when they sold their development rights. They retained the right to build structures. They never sold that right to the county and the county didn’t buy it. Suffolk’s Farmland Preservation Program, the first of its kind in the country, was created to protect not only farmland but farming. Farm operations by definition are the land, the structures, the improvements and the practices necessary to perform agricultural production.”

The program is based on the brilliant and then novel idea of purchase of development rights. Farmers are paid the difference between the value of their land in agriculture and what they could get for it if they sold it off for development. In return, the land is kept in agriculture in perpetuity. The Suffolk program has been emulated across the nation.

Suffolk Legislator Al Krupski, a fourth-generation Suffolk farmer, is “very happy” with the outcome of the matter. Ms. Kombrink did “a very good job.” If the lawsuit had succeeded, “it would have been very damaging to farming in Suffolk County going forward.” He added, “My thanks to the county executive” for his leadership on the appeal. Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone had said that if Justice Whelan’s ruling stood, it would “effectively gut the Farmland Preservation Program. If farmers can’t do the things necessary to run a successful operation, we can’t have farming here anymore.”

Ms. Kombrink comments that the “answer” to claims raised in the Pine Barrens Society lawsuit “seemed obvious. Farmers need to build structures such as barns, fences and irrigation equipment to farm their land. I am very grateful that the courts agreed and recognized this basic and very important principle” and decided “in favor” of Suffolk County.

For her, said Ms. Kombrink, “working on the case was one of the highlights of my career.” It is also one of the highlights in the history of farming in Suffolk. As a result of its  Farmland Preservation Program, Suffolk continues as a top agricultural county in the state with farming a major industry and a key to another big industry here, tourism.

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. 


SCPD Mourns Loss of Police Officer Fadi Rafeh


Members of the Suffolk County Police Department are mourning the loss of active member Fadi Rafeh who died unexpectedly on January 20.

Rafeh, 38, is survived by his wife, Jennifer, and two sons, Nicholas, 5, and Benjamin, 3.

Officer Rafeh was sworn into the academy in June 2010 and served the residents of the Fifth Precinct his entire career, first in patrol, primarily in Patchogue and Bellport, and then as an investigator in Crime Section as of October 2017.

Rafeh’s partner Dan Hogan added, “We are all shocked and saddened by this loss. He was a great partner and an even better friend. He will be greatly missed.”

According to his colleagues in the Fifth Precinct, Rafeh, a 1999 graduate of Longwood High School, was never without a smile on his face and was always looking for ways to build camaraderie among the officers. Several recounted his efforts organizing group trips to baseball and football games. 

Police Officer Patrick Ryan said Rafeh was so well-regarded by his friends and colleagues, that in November, when a group from the precinct planned a football trip to Charlotte, North Carolina and they found out Rafeh could not go, they all instantly changed their trip to another weekend so he could attend. 

“We changed our plans because he is the type of guy that can walk into a room and just bring the energy,” Ryan said. “He was a great guy all around. I have only known him here but I already feel like he was a little brother to me—He was just a very intelligent guy.”

“The untimely passing of Police Officer Fadi Rafeh is an unbelievably tragic loss to his young family and an incredible loss to our police family,” Suffolk County Police Chief of Department Stuart Cameron said. “Fadi Rafeh exemplified the diversity that makes our department great, having been born of Lebanese immigrants and serving as an Arabic translator for our department. I ask the public to join the members of our department in keeping his family in their thoughts and prayers.”   



SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - Rising Costs On LI And Population Exodus


By Karl Grossman

I was unaware of a problem that is hitting most Suffolk schools hard—a declining number of students—until talking to a former college journalism student of mine, Tim Laube, now an administrator in the Eastport-South Manor Central School District. “The drop in enrollment,” said Mr. Laube, “is directly attributable to affordability—the cost of living on Long Island.” 

The cost of housing is now very high in Suffolk and the rest of Long Island and so many young people are leaving and not having children who would go to school here. “They go off to college and don’t come back,” said Tim. 

Where are they going? Tim spoke of a meeting he attended at which the speaker told of “20 new school buildings a year” being constructed in South Carolina. Meanwhile, in his district, in which he is assistant superintendent for business and operations, there has been a reduction in students since 2010, when the total was 3,888, to “now 3,268. That’s a drop of 16 percent.” As a result, the district has had to reduce staff and hiring. A further decline in students is foreseen.

From Sag Harbor, my school district, I obtained in exploring the issue a detailed “Long Range Planning Study,” a “Demographic and Enrollment Analysis” covering 2018 to 2027. It was done for the district by the Western Suffolk BOCES Office of School Planning and Research. The study says the district “is expected to experience a decline in district K-12 enrollment during the projection period.” Cited are “the challenges young adults face with high rent costs and with saving money for the down payment required to purchase a home.” Also pointed to are “significant student loan debt” and “lower starting salaries.”

My wife and I purchased our first house—a seven-room home in Sayville—for $18,000 in 1964, A comparable house today would cost many, many times that. Newsday reported last year that the median sale price of a house in Suffolk was $380,000, citing data from the Multiple Listing Services of Long Island. The story’s headline: “LI HOME PRICES UP AGAIN,” and the article noted this was “a 7 percent increase from” the year before.  The median sale price in adjacent Nassau, meanwhile, was $525,000.

What would be the payments on a mortgage on a $380,000 house? An online “mortgage calculator” says with 4.5 percent interest, payments on a 30-year mortgage would be $1,925 a month. Then you have to figure on property taxes, 70 percent of which, ironically, goes to schools. With other expenses, if two people are involved, both have to work—and scrape by.

That’s why it’s hello South Carolina, hello upstate New York, etc.

In the Hamptons, the median prices of houses are astronomical. “The median price of homes currently listed in Southampton is $2,100,000,” reported Zillow last year. “The median price of homes currently listed in East Hampton is $1,595,000.” According to the online “mortgage calculator,” at 4.5 percent, payments on a $1 mortgage over 30 years would be $5,066 a month. To make payments of that kind you have to be loaded. 

In Smithtown, the median price of a house is higher than the Suffolk median. “The median price of homes currently listed in 11787 is $587,000 while the median price of homes that sold is $457,600,” said Zillow online last year. 

Now not every school district in Suffolk has declining student enrollment. On stable Shelter Island, enrollment in the pre-K-to-12th grade Shelter Island School has “been steady,” its superintendent Christine A. Finn was saying last week. “We watch enrollment very carefully. It’s 209 this year and was 213 last year.” But “all over Long Island,” said Dr. Finn, who previously was a principal in the Patchogue-Medford School District, “declines in enrollment have been a trend.” A key, she said, is high housing costs. When she graduated from Islip High School in 1980 it was with a class of 400. “Last year the graduating class was 280.”

There is a desperate need on Long Island for affordable housing to deal with declining school populations and other issues. Government on several levels are taking steps to encourage it. 

In the Town of Smithtown is an organization that has been in the fore in advancing affordable housing is the Long Island Housing Partnership. It is located at 180 Oser Avenue in Hauppauge. Its “Mission Statement” declares: “Since its inception in 1988, the mission of the Long Island Housing Partnership has been to provide affordable housing opportunities to those who, through the ordinary, unaided operation of the marketplace, would be unable to secure a decent and safe home or remain in a decent home.”

The phone number for the good people of the Long Island Housing Partnership is 631-435-4710.

There was a headline in the New York Post last month: “The exodus of New York City’s endangered middle class.” The article below it said, “New York City’s shrinking middle class is in full retreat,” and cited were “the city’s high—and rising—housing and other living costs.” We can’t let that happen here, impacting on our communities and decimating the numbers in new generations brought up in Suffolk.

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. 


Commack Students Recognized For Outstanding Volunteer Service


Commack Students Honored for Community Contributions

left to right, standing: Frank Agovino, AP at Commack Middle School; Nicole Kregler, Director of Guidance; Carrie Lipenholtz, AP; Evelyn Cardenas, AP; Christine Nicols, Guidance Counselor, and Michael Larson, Principal. Students seated: Ryan, Jordan, Athena and Jillian. Four Commack Middle School students received Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, to recognize their outstanding volunteer service and dedication based on their academic accomplishments, character traits, volunteer work, and participation in school activitie

Athena Efthymiou and Jillian Cestaro, each consistent high-honor-roll 7th grade students, were chosen to receive Certificates of Achievement for distinguished accomplishment in volunteer service. They are awards finalists, and their applications have been nominated for state recognition. Jordan Hub and Ryan Smith were selected as “Top Volunteers,” and they both received a Certificate of Merit from Commack Middle School. Their work has truly been inspiring to others and has been beneficial to the greater community.  

Awardee information:

Athena Efthymiou is dedicated to fundraising for research in helping to find a cure for Crohn’s and Colitis through the annual “Take Steps Walk.” This determined young lady reaches out to individuals and businesses for assistance in fundraising. Her passion to this mission hits close to home, as Athena was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when she was three. Athena takes on the role of team leader of “Team Miou,” and her responsibilities in fundraising and organizing have helped to raise over $10,000. On account of her hard work, Athena was nominated to be the spokesperson or “Shining Star” of the 2017 walk. Athena has shared that it feels amazing to be making a difference and to help others who have been going through the same experience.

Jillian Cestaro is a founding member of a family run group called “Kids 4 Causes.” It is a group of five students dedicated to helping others. Jillian was inspired by the classic starfish story, that one person, one step at a time, can make a difference. Her group participates in fundraisers and volunteers their time to support different non-profit organizations. They have helped in various ways, from crafting pillows for patients at Stony Brook Child Life Services to raising funds to pair service dogs with special needs individuals. So far, she and her team have raised $5,000! Jillian is a very well rounded student as she has been involved in school clubs, sports, named Team Spirit Leader and Student Council President.

Jordan Hub, an eighth grade National Junior Honor Society member, got involved in community service for her Bat Mitzvah project and it launched into a dedicated, continuing volunteer effort. Jordan was shocked at the price of sports equipment and wanted to make a difference to others in need. She works with a not for profit organization called “Let’s Play it Forward,” and has collected lightly used and new sports equipment for underprivileged children. She used social media and placed donation boxes in many buildings and businesses throughout the community. She collected over 600 pieces of equipment, including uniforms, balls, sticks, helmets, cleats and sneakers. Jordan feels good that many underprivileged students will get the opportunity to play sports and learn important life skills, like teamwork.

Ryan Smith, an eighth grade student, has the true spirit of community service, and embodies this through his commitment to school activities. He is the president of the Middle School Leader’s Club, an organization dedicated to community service. Ryan is also on the Student Council Executive Board and was newly inducted into the National Junior Honor Society. Ryan dedicates time out of his day, whether it is during lunch or after school; to help organize events and activities, including participating in the Thanksgiving drive, helping in our school’s car wash fundraiser and assisting sixth graders transition smoothly into the middle school.

Athena, Jillian, Jordan and Ryan are just a few of our students dedicated to improving the lives of the people in our community. Special thanks go out to ALL students at the Middle School who selflessly give their time to help others in need.