01/05/12 3:00pm
01/05/2012 3:00 PM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Supervisor Sean Walter, councilwoman Jodi Giglio and councilman Jim Wooten joined the River and Roots community garden's co-founders Amy Davidson (left) and Laurie Nigro (far right) with daughter Rita for a formal ribbon cutting this past June.

Two years ago, walking past an empty and glass-strewn lot south of West Main Street, few could envision a place where children would plant their first vegetable seeds.

Most people could never imagine a place where residents young and old would congregate and trade gardening tips and where a veritable community meeting place would soon spring from the ground.

But Amy Davidson and Laurie Nigro did. The pair are the founders of downtown’s River and Roots Community Garden, which opened to the public last spring on town-owned property just south of the intersection of Griffing Avenue and West Main Street.

With a little bit of grant money, the blessing of Riverhead Town and a small army of volunteers, the women transformed that land into something every Riverhead resident can be proud to call their own community garden.

“I think the community garden has brought a fresh surge of energy to the west end of Main Street,” said Lisa Jacobs, director of the nearby Riverhead Free Library.

That, in a nutshell, is why the News-Review has named Ms. Nigro and Ms. Davidson its 2011 People of the Year.

For a small fee, locals can maintain a plot inside the wrought iron fence surrounding the garden. For that price, they also get the camaraderie of working side by side with other local gardeners.

The pair spent hour upon hour researching other successful community gardens around the country, said Ms. Davidson’s husband, Dan Kulp. They also had to solicit donations and work with town officials to secure the land. Mr. Kulp noted that while Ms. Davidson and Ms. Nigro were doing all that, they were also balancing their roles as teachers for their home-schooled children.

“It was great multi-tasking,” he said. “She was working pretty much non-stop.”

Ms. Nigro and Ms. Davidson may be the driving forces behind the project, but they did get some help along the way.

Inmates at the Suffolk County jail in Riverside helped build more than two dozen wooden beds for the garden. River and Roots also received a $10,000 grant from Cornell Cooperative Extension and a $5,000 award from the Riverhead Business Improvement District. Local businesses also donated materials.

And while searching for the perfect spot and facing some roadblocks here and there, the pair never wavered from holding out for a downtown plot.

Town officials had originally said the land where the garden now sits was promised to a local veterans group for a memorial, and a suitable alternative could not be found. But it turned out the site hadn’t been promised to veterans, so the town was able to rent the land to the gardeners.

The garden opened about five months after the River and Roots nonprofit group signed its lease with Riverhead Town.

“As downtown residents who want to see Main Street flourish, these ladies got the idea, got the Town Board’s support, got the prime plot of land on the river, got the nonprofit status, got the fence, got the boxes, got the gardeners and even got the plants,” said Jamesport resident Nancy Swett, founder of the I Love Riverhead group. “They did it all with style and grace.”

During his Jan. 1 inauguration, Supervisor Sean Walter called the garden “a dream of two women” that came true, even “when they were told it couldn’t be done.

“They did it anyway, and it has become a beacon of light on West Main Street.”

vchinese@timesreview.com

01/05/12 2:00pm

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Highway Superintndent George "Gio" Woodson.

Just as 2010 was wrapping up — bringing with it some of the wettest months on record — the snow came.

And then it kept coming.

By the end of January 2011, the region had received 34.2 inches of snowfall, good for the most on record for the month of January, according to National Weather Service officials. The figure shattered the old record taken at Upton of 21.5 inches. And all that snow came after a monster blizzard in late December. And more snow followed as the long winter progressed.

Summer 2011 was no better. In late August, Riverhead saw one of the worst storms to hit the area since Hurricane Gloria: Tropical Storm Irene.

While most residents and town workers were hunkering down, one elected leader — the always-hands-on highway superintendent, George “Gio” Woodson — took to the roads. His leadership helped keep Riverhead Town roads safe and clear during some of the most challenging weather events in recent history. And when he wasn’t clearing snow or trees from roads in the dead of night, he was shopping for equipment at auction and beefing up his fleet of trucks — without busting budgets — to ensure that he and his crews would always be prepared.

For his tireless work and dedication, as well as his creative approach to running a department without neglecting problems due to budget cuts, Mr. Woodson is our News-Review Public Servant of the Year for 2011.

A highway department employee for more than two decades, Mr. Woodson, a Democrat, was first elected in November 2007 and sworn into office in 2008. He was re-elected in a landslide against a formidable opponent in 2009 and in 2010 embarked on a voter-approved four-year term.

“What makes the highway department here stand out most is that it’s historically, from a town perspective, short-staffed,” said Riverhead Councilman James Wooten, the Town Board liaison to the department. “They’re down to 32 employees when at one time they were up to 45. When Gio first took office he had to restructure his entire department to handle the demands of the community, but with less workers.”

Aside from keeping the town’s roads navigable during and after some of the worsts storms on record, Mr. Wooten pointed to Mr. Woodson’s environmentally conscious push toward requiring all residents to use brown paper bags to gather leaves — and his expedience in collecting those leaves.

“This new bagged leaf pickup went far beyond our expectations this year,” he said. “It took three weeks to get all the leaves picked up; normally it takes six weeks.”

But there’s more to the highway superintendent job “than just making sure the drains are cleared and there’s a sharp blade on the snow plow,” Mr. Wooten said, explaining that Mr. Woodson has worked closely and effectively with town engineers to help the town comply with federal environmental regulations.

“Now with EPA,” he said, “they came out a few years ago with stormwater runoff regulation and how the town has to be responsible for collecting its water and filtering it and all that to make sure it doesn’t go into our waterways. Gio was very much a part of putting together our stormwater management plan.”

Drew Dillingham in the town engineering department said Mr. Woodson’s contribution has been invaluable and has helped the town avoid lawsuits over nagging problems.

“He identifies problems or will have problems called in from citizens and he and I will work together for a solution,” Mr. Dillingham said. “I prepare the design and he carries it out. He always gets back for phone calls within a day, which even in the private industry would be pretty amazing.

“And he’s extremely easy to work with,” Mr. Dillingham continued. “It’s give and take; it’s not his way or the highway. But he always has great ideas as far as finding solutions.”
He also pointed to a two- or three-week period during which the EPA was auditing the town’s stormwater management program.

“He had his staff well prepared,” Mr. Dillingham recalled. “Upper officials in the highway department were more or less put on the dais in Town Hall and interviewed and asked a ton of questions. And they were well prepared and came through with flying colors.”

mwhite@timesreview.com

01/05/12 12:00pm

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Nancy Swett is the 2011 News-Review Civic Person of the Year.

The News-Review’s Civic Person of the Year award for 2011 goes to a person who loves Riverhead.

In fact, she’s the head of a group called “I Love Riverhead,” and runs the website iloveriverhead.com.

Jamesport resident Nancy Swett is also president of a marketing company called Great Peconic Communications, and the publisher of another website, called North Fork Parenting.
She started “I Love Riverhead” in 2009. Through its website and monthly meetings, the group aims to devise strategies to help revitalize downtown Riverhead, as well as to publicize businesses and events there on iloveriverhead.com and the group’s Facebook page.

It’s been called “part marketing campaign and part civic organization.”

“Nancy’s done a lot to energize the public to revitalize downtown and Riverhead in general,” said Lisa Jacobs, director of Riverhead Free Library. “I think she’s a positive force in Riverhead.”

The library and I Love Riverhead have co-sponsored a Downtown Riverhead Summer Photo Contest the past three years, Ms. Jacobs said.

“She’s a great motivator,” said Chris Kempner, Riverhead Town’s community development director and a past News-Review overall Person of the Year.

Ms. Swett has brought in speakers from areas like Patchogue and Oyster Bay to meet with her group, which serves as a sort of unofficial downtown civic association, about what those communities have done successfully, as well as what they can learn from Riverhead, said Pat Snyder, executive director of East End Arts.

“Nancy is doing what she’s doing because she loves Riverhead,” Ms. Snyder said. “She’s getting no financial rewards; she’s just doing it because she’s totally dedicated to the town.”
Ms. Snyder said Ms. Swett “has gathered a whole group of people that wouldn’t have gotten together otherwise.”

I Love Riverhead’s members have also been involved in other projects, such as the Rivers and Roots Community Garden.

“It’s nice to see that you don’t need to be an elected official or the owner of a large business to make a difference in the community,” Ms. Jacobs said. “You can do it simply by speaking up and getting others to contribute.”

“She’s an informational hub,” Ms. Kempner said of Ms. Swett. “She’s a community builder.”

tgannon@timesreview.com