01/01/12 7:00am
01/01/2012 7:00 AM

VERA CHINESE PHOTO | Riverhead school board president Ann Cotten-Degrasse (right) celebrates approval of the school bond Tuesday night.

Riverhead taxpayers served up a big fat no to a school district capital improvement plan in 2010, but a year and a half later voters approved a reduced plan for buildings and grounds upgrades in the Riverhead School District.

By a slim margin, Riverhead voters in October approved the $78.3 million plan for infrastructure upgrades at district schools, though a separate measure for a $7 million gym at the high school was rejected.

The measure will fund roof and ventilation repairs at district schools, parking lot reconfigurations, new science classrooms at the high school and kitchens at Aquebogue Elementary, Roanoke Avenue Elementary and Pulaski Street School, among other upgrades.

Under the approved $78 million plan, a Riverhead Town homeowner whose house is valued at about $280,000 will pay an extra $40.09 for the 2013-14 school year, the year residents will start paying the bond, according to a brochure provided by the district.

That amount will increase to $213.25 in 2018 and gradually decrease after 2033. The bond will be repaid in 2036.

The plan drew harsh criticism from opponents who argued the community could not support the plan in the down economy. Opponents also criticized the school district for releasing the names and phone numbers of district residents to a group lobbying for the bond’s approval.

But the district was within its rights to do so, according to State Freedom of Information Laws.

vchinese@timesreview.com

12/31/11 7:00am
12/31/2011 7:00 AM

COURTESY PHOTO | Michael Hubbard

Tragedy struck here Memorial Day weekend when a 14-year-old boy suffered severe burns and a brain injury in a freak gel candle accident while prepping his aunt’s backyard for her wedding celebration.

The gravity of the situation was matched only by the generosity of the Riverhead community, which pulled together for Michael Hubbard and his mother, Nancy Reyer, through car washes and other fundraisers. Michael spent nearly six months at Stony Brook University Medical Center before moving to a Westchester County children’s hospital. Thousands of dollars were raised to help support the family. The accident happened as Michael poured citronella-scented gel into a previously lit candle at his aunt’s house. The bottle of FireGel-brand fuel exploded in his hand, covering his body with the burning jelly. That accident and several similar ones caused the gel’s manufacturer to voluntarily pull the product from stores across the country.

Michael’s recovery has been slow, but Ms. Reyer got an early Christmas present last week in terms of her son’s progress. On Dec. 16 a speech therapist asked Michael if he liked to go-kart, to which he responded, “Yeah,” his first word since the accident.

vchinese@timesreview.com

12/30/11 7:00am
12/30/2011 7:00 AM

GRANT PARPAN FILE PHOTO An electric wire down on Mill Road in Riverhead during Hurricane Irene.

Some North Forkers thought they were going crazy when they felt, for many the first time in their lives, tremors from an earthquake centered in Virginia Aug. 23.

The quake, with a magnitude of 5.8, was the strongest to hit the East Coast in 67 years and lasted from 10 to 15 seconds.

Two days later, National Weather Service alerts read that Hurricane Irene, then a powerful Category 3 storm, had “Long Island in its crosshairs.” Residents along Long Island’s coastlines and in NYC were being told to evacuate or face the storm alone; rescue workers would not be putting themselves in grave danger, officials said.

Hundreds packed the Red Cross shelter in Riverhead and/or dropped their pets off at the Suffolk SPCA shelter in Northampton. Old-timers recalled tales from the devastating Hurricane of 1938, which made landfall in Westhampton Beach. But Irene was downgraded when it hit land near the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and was categorized as a tropical storm when it finally hit Suffolk County.

It took down trees and caused some minor flooding on the North Fork, but Irene spared us her worst, as our headline read. LIPA did struggle for more than a week restoring power to its customers.

vchinese@timesreview.com

12/29/11 7:00am
12/29/2011 7:00 AM
Long island Aquarium

JAMES BISSETT III

Jim Bissett’s unexpected death in December was obviously a blow to his family and friends. But it was also a huge loss to downtown Riverhead. Mr. Bissett’s departure has left a void in the business community, here and elsewhere in Suffolk County, that may never be filled.

The visionary behind Atlantis Marine World — now called the Long Island Aquarium and Exhibition Center — and later the Hyatt East End hotel, Mr. Bissett was a giant among men when it came to Riverhead’s Main Street. He and his business partner,

Joe Petrocelli, have for over a decade attracted hundreds of thousands of people every year to an otherwise beleagured downtown.

Now, Main Street appears to be getting back on track — something that likely couldn’t happen with Mr. Bissett’s hard work. His Hyatt Hotel led to a slew of new restaurants opened by entrepreneurs hoping to capitalize on the hotel, conference center and aquarium traffic.

But just four months after a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Hyatt, Mr. Bissett’s body was found Dec. 14 in Veterans Park in Mattituck, not far from his sprawling estate, after an apparent suicide.

As for his life in Riverhead, one could argue Mr. Bissett was the heart and soul of downtown, even if he didn’t always seek out the spotlight.

Moving forward, it appears his businesses are in good hands. The morning after his death, employees at the hotel and aquarium on East Main Street released a statement to the media expressing their sadness while also saying they were all so grateful just for the opportunity to have worked for him.

“We will honor his memory by dedicating ourselves to continuing the work he loved so much,” the staff said.

To give an example of what he meant to his friends and others, in a RiverheadNewsReview.com story published Dec. 15, there was an online comment made by someone who identified himself as friend and business owner and called Mr. Bissett “the most generous, wonderful, honest [person] I have every dealt with. He only cared about his friends and the people he loved.

“He was loved by everyone,” the commenter added. “And he was my hero and always will be.”

mwhite@timesreview.com

12/28/11 7:00am
12/28/2011 7:00 AM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Suffolk Theatre's new digital marquee.

The News-Review will be counting down its top 10 biggest stories of the year. Coming in at number 5 is the changing face of downtown.

Does it seem like downtown Riverhead is one of the top 10 stories every year?

2011 was no exception, as the changing face of downtown Riverhead continued to be one of the area’s big stories, with plenty of new arrivals and new proposals.

For much of 2011, the 800-pound gorilla in the room was a possible downtown movie theater.

Town Supervisor Sean Walter has said that one of his goals is to bring a first-run motion picture theater to downtown, and one proposal that’s been floating around all year, although nothing formal has emerged, involves the former Woolworth building.

Back when Phil Cardinale was supervisor, Apollo Real Estate Advisors purchased the Woolworth site in order to build a multiplex. But Apollo’s plan never came to fruition, and now developer Ron Parr is trying to buy the building from them — so long as he can get a movie theater company to sign on first, Mr. Walter has said.

Regal Cinemas, the biggest movie theater chain in the country, seems to be the most interested. Company officials visited Riverhead this fall and took a walking tour of downtown with Mr. Walter and other officials. They even invited Mr. Walter to attend the grand opening of a new Regal multiplex in the upstate town of Clifton Park.

“People have been talking about a movie theater for 20 years here, so me working on it for 22 months isn’t terrible,” Mr. Walter said.

But in November, Apollo raised some eyebrows by renting out space in the Woolworth building to a barbershop.

And other developers also are talking multiplex, including Vintage Square, which unveiled a new source of funding for its planned multiplex/mixed use development on Railroad Avenue, and Riverhead Enterprises, which owns a number of buildings, including some empty ones, on the south side of downtown Main Street.

Movie theater talk aside, the long-planned Hyatt Place hotel next to Atlantis Marine World opened in July, and Atlantis changed its name to the Long Island Aquarium. Also, a new restaurant called The Riverhead Project, run by the former owner of the Frisky Oyster in Greenport, opened in a vacant former bank in downtown Riverhead.

The controversial Casa Rica restaurant, which had been the scene of a number of violent incidents in recent years, closed its doors in late 2010 and was replaced in 2011 by Cody’s BBQ and Grill, a bustling sports bar and restaurant.

Also, Summer Wind Square, a proposed 52-unit workforce housing apartment complex on Peconic Avenue, with stores and a restaurant on the ground floor, finally broke ground after having been proposed three years ago. It is expected to open in 2012.

tgannon@timesreview.com

12/27/11 7:00am
12/27/2011 7:00 AM

VERA CHINESE PHOTO | The Wading River Motel.

Riverhead Town obtained a search warrant and conducted an Aug. 12 raid on the Wading River Motel, which the County Department of Social Services had been using as an emergency shelter for battered women and others.

The raid, which saw police and code enforcers force motel occupants from their rooms as they scanned their ID’s and took photos of their belongings, set off a war of words between town Supervisor Sean Walter and DSS commissioner Greg Blass.
Mr. Walter said there were serious building and fire code violations in the building, such as exposed wires and damaged smoke detectors. He also insisted the property was being illegally operated as an emergency shelter.

“Anything who is looking at this objectively has to say these are unsafe living conditions,” Mr. Walter said, as he showed pictures of the motel to the media a week after the Friday night raid.

Mr. Blass responded that the bulk of the people being sheltered at the motel were single mothers and that they were there because all 52 shelters the county uses were full. He called the town’s raid “a shocking turn of events.”

Even Councilman George Gabrielsen took exception with the raid, saying at the time that the town should apologize to the people living at the motel.

“This stuff happened in the Soviet Union. It shouldn’t happen in my town,” he said.

Fast forward to the end of the year, and the town still has not formally charged the motel’s owners with any violations.

But Town Attorney Bob Kozakiewicz said the town has given the owners a 30-page “order to remedy” and is giving them time to correct alleged violations before the town issues fines.

Mr. Kozakiewicz said on Dec. 20 that time is running out, and if the alleged violations aren’t corrected soon, he will recommend that the town file charges in Town Justice court and take the property owners to state supreme court to force them to comply.

tgannon@timesreview.com

12/26/11 7:00am
12/26/2011 7:00 AM

At its heart, it was really was just kids goofing off in the halls.

But when news broke Dec. 15 that a group of Riverhead High School students was suspended for ‘Tebowing’ — dropping to a knee in prayer à la Denver Broncos religious quarterback Tim Tebow — in the hallways, people everywhere couldn’t get enough of it.

From local and national TV news shows, including ESPN’s Sportscenter, to radio and newspapers, Riverhead High School was suddenly sharing the spotlight with national lighting rod Tim Tebow.

Were the kids mocking Tebow, a devout Christian who’s long been outspoken about his faith? Or were they actually blocking the hallways in tribute?

Should they have been suspended? Was the school administration stifling freedom of speech and religion? Are public schools anti-Christian?

The conversation seemed to know no bounds.

And people sure liked to talk about it, including ringleader Tyler Caroll, who wasn’t shy in telling news outlets the kids were just trying to be funny. But Tyler also often said he thought Tim Tebow was a good role model, so if the kids were going to mimic anyone, as a joke or not, it might as well have been a religious and family-oriented athlete who doesn’t have sex or do drugs.

Not everyone found the joke — or its consequences — to be a laughing matter, as school superintendent Nancy Carney received hate mail from across the country over the school’s course of action in punishing the boys. Ms. Carney told the News-Review they had repeatedly been told to stop.

Tebow himself eventually weighed in, telling an AP reporter that the kids “have to respect the position of authority and people that God’s put as authority over you, so that’s part of it, and just finding the right place and the right time to do things …”

NBC sports, NFL.com and other outlets all linked to the Riverhead News-Review and Suffolk Times websites that week, making it the most Times/Review Newsgroup web post of all time.

Never can we remember our town getting so much attention.

mwhite@timesreview.com

12/25/11 7:00am
12/25/2011 7:00 AM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Horton Avenue flood victim turned community activist Linda Hobson (right) and her fellow flood victims during a press conference last summer.

The News-Review will be counting down its top 10 biggest stories of the year. Coming in at number 8 is Horton Avenue residents get $3.6 million grant.

The story of the year in 2010 was the devastating March 29, 2010, flood that put the Horton Avenue neighborhood north of Route 58 under several feet of water. Flood damage in several houses on the block made them unlivable.

The path that led to those flood victims finally getting some relief was one of the stories of the year in 2011.

Initially, it appeared that attempts to help the Horton Avenue residents, some of whom are still homeless and living with friends or relatives, would be for naught, as attempts to gain funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state Office of Emergency Management were falling short.

Local officials initially were told the storm didn’t cause enough damage to qualify for relief. They then set about to try to link the damage from this storm to that of other storms in the Northeast.

Several of the affected homeowners even filed a lawsuit against Riverhead Town and Suffolk County, claiming both were negligent in their handling of drainage in this area.

But at the end of July 2011, word came that federal aid was on the way for Horton Avenue.

A $3.6 million hazard mitigation grant was awarded by FEMA to provide relief to the Horton Avenue residents who’d lost their houses.

“This is a statement about the value of persistence,” Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) said at the time.

The grant will allow officials to purchase the 13 affected homes in the flood location at pre-flood market value, then demolish them and use the land for drainage measures.

The homeowners would then be able to use that money to buy or rent homes elsewhere.

The county also has been working with the Long Island Housing Partnership on an affordable housing development in the Horton Avenue area that could benefit some Horton Avenue flood victims.

The county also passed a law giving residents who are victims of natural disaster a preference in the county’s affordable housing program.

tgannon@timesreview.com