Last year was a pretty good year for the Peconic Bay Community Preservation Fund.
The fund, which uses money raised through a voter-approved 2 percent real estate transfer tax to buy open space and farmland development rights in the five East End towns, brought in a total for 2013 that was up by 43 percent over the previous year. (more…)
One of the last words any taxpayer wants to hear an elected official say is “bankrupt.”
But that’s how Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter describes the town’s Community Preservation Fund. Luckily, the term is not being used literally in this case, though the difference seems to be semantic: The town will be doing nothing besides paying down debt on a loan for another 16 years until it’s paid off.
Avid bird lovers and nature buffs alike have been looking to the skies more frequently in recent weeks, trying to spot the long-admired snowy owl — whose population is “irrupting” this season, experts say.
An irruption is a spectacular, unscheduled migration of large numbers of birds to areas they usually bypass, said Don Bindler, an avid East End birder. While it’s not uncommon for snowy owls to migrate to the North Fork, this season’s irruption has been one of the largest on record, with as many as several hundred birds migrating from their breeding grounds in northern Canada’s tundra to the northern coastlines of the United States, Mr. Bindler said.
Locally, the birds have been spotted as far west as the former Grumman property in Calverton to as far east as Orient State Park and Plum Island, according to a joint website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, www.ebird.org, which maps bird sightings. According to the map, snowy owls have also been spotted as far south as Bermuda and Florida — far beyond where they are normally spotted in the states.
The magnificent birds spend their summers north of the Arctic Circle hunting lemmings, ptarmigan and other prey in the 24-hour daylight, according to Cornell.
Unlike most owls, which are nocturnal, the snow white bird is active during all hours — making them easier to spot.
In years with overly abundant prey, the birds can raise double or triple the usual number of young, said Dr. Kevin McGowan of Cornell.
He said that while experts don’t know for sure why the birds are migrating south in such high numbers, a population boom could explain it.
“One reason may be that it is a real big production year,” possibly combined with conditions that aren’t “so good up north and they are having a hard time finding food — or it could be both,” he said.
A single bird may eat more than 1,600 lemmings in one year, Cornell researchers said.
The owls hunt seagulls, ducks, and other small animals on the East End, swooping down to pick up prey with their large, black talons, said Michael Lotito, a nature photographer who regularly contributes his work to the North Fork Audubon Society. So far this season, Mr. Lotito said he has photographed 14 different snowy owls throughout the East End.
“They travel well over 1,000 miles to get here, and because of the distance they generally come down here weak and starving, Mr. Lotito said. “For that reason it’s important that people do not chase them but choose to simply observe them.”
He said that, if approached too closely, the birds lengthen their necks, their first warning sign that they feel danger. They may also simply take flight, fleeing to a safer area.
The birds have been known to stay in one area anywhere from six to 12 hours, and if left undisturbed they can stay in a one-mile radius for the entire winter — provided there is enough food, he said.
Generally, the youngest birds, about a year old, will migrate from the arctic first, pushed out by their elders when fighting over territory, the Cornell researchers said.
The snowy owl is the continent’s heaviest owl, weighing between three and six pounds, depending on what they have had to eat at a certain time, and adults have a wingspan between four and five feet. Males are typically smaller than females.
“They are very quiet and calculating,” Mr. Lotito said, adding that, like all owls, they are silent in flight because of the configuration of their wing feathers, allowing them to surprise and pounce on their prey.
They can down a rodent headfirst in a single gulp, according to Cornell.
Aside from their snow-white feathers, the birds are best known for their cat-like yellow eyes.
Male owls are white with dark brown spots when they’re young, which disappear as they age. Females keep some dark markings throughout their lives.
For those hoping to catch a glimpse of the coastal birds, Mr. Lotito recommends going to Orient State Park, along the shoreline. Snowy owls like open dune areas and open fields, he said.
This Saturday, the Group for the East End will be holding an informational event about owls common to the North Fork, giving participants the chance to dissect owl pellets at Down Farm Preserve on Main Road in Cutchogue and learn about their diets.
The event, geared toward families, will also provide information on the snowy owl and its abundance this season. A $5 donation per family is suggested. For event times and more information contact Christine Tylee at (631) 765-6450 ext. 208.
Single-family home sales for the third quarter of 2013 were back to their pre-recession levels in Riverhead, numbers show, though the median price was down more than 10 percent compared to the same period last year.
According to data provided by Suffolk Research Services, 122 single-family homes in Riverhead sold from July through September. That was the most sold in those months since 2006, when 149 homes sold in the area, and far above the 88 homes sold last year. However the quarter’s median home sales price dropped from $355,000 in 2012 to $350,000 this year.
The trend is similar across the East End, numbers show, reflecting an active market where many people who have been waiting to buy or sell are finally making the move.
“It means there’s good value out there,” said Valerie Goode, owner of Colony Realty in Jamesport. “People who were waiting for their homes to sell two years ago are now ready-to-go consumers.”
Across the five East End towns, the volume of single-family home sales jumped 35 percent in the third quarter, from 635 a year ago to 860 this year. Median prices, meanwhile, dropped 3.9 percent from 2012 to $639,000 — and far below a third-quarter high of $717,000 in 2007.
Shelter Island was the only town to see an increase in the median sales price, which rose 21 percent to $760,000 over 22 sales. Southampton took the quarter’s biggest hit, dropping 13 percent from $900,000 to $780,000 over 371 transactions.
In Southold, the third-quarter median sales price fell from $480,000 last year to $429,000, a drop of over 10 percent. As in Riverhead, however, the number of transactions for the period was up in Southold, from 104 in 2012 to 127 this year.
Carol Tintle, regional manager with Daniel Gale Sotheby’s, said that she’s seen home sale prices increase recently, especially at the upper and lower ends of the market.
“The higher and lower ends are definitely selling,” she said. “The problems are the middle of the road, unless it’s very special. Until some homes get reduced to the price they should be, there is so much on the market, they may not sell.”
A quarterly report released by real estate firm Prudential Douglas Elliman noted that median prices on the high end were, on the whole down, across the North Fork. The median home price in the fifth and highest quintile, the report states, was $870,000, down 20 percent compared to last year. But the lowest quintile showed a 9.1 percent gain, to $257,500.
Julia Robins, an associate with Century 21 Albertson Realty in Greenport, suspected that an overall median price dip would be more reflective of the higher end, as she’s seen more sales volume on the whole.
“Sales activity is fabulous,” she said. “And it’s sustained into the fall. If there is any red in the median sales price, it’s probably the upper end.”
No agents reported concern about an increase in interest rates over the last six months, as a first-quarter average of about 3.4 percent on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is expected to give way to about a 4.3 percent rate in the coming quarter, according to Freddie Mac economist Frank Nothaft.
The $46 million total for third-quarter single-family home sales reported in Riverhead was the town’s highest since 2007, when the total reported was $47 million.
The Long Island Rail Road will extend its summer schedule on the Greenport to Ronkonkoma line by 10 weeks, stretching into November, Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials said.
The Long Island Rail Road, through its parent company, the MTA, has been discontinuing all weekend service between Greenport and Ronkonkoma after Columbus Day and before Memorial Day since 2010.
Summer service, as it’s now called, will now begin in April and end in November, said LIRR spokesman Sal Arena.
After November, there will again be no weekend service between Greenport and Ronkonkoma, he said.
“The MTA was able to identify additional money, revenue from dedicated state taxes as well as internal cost-savings, that could be used to enhance train service and other customer amenities,” Mr. Arena said. “The LIRR is making a number of improvements with its share of that money, including the extension of weekend service on the North Fork.
“It made this decision based on customer demand and specifically to expend service to the fall harvest period, an important tourist season for the region.”
About seven years ago, the LIRR was considering discontinuing service between Greenport and Ronkonkoma altogether, but backed off that plan.
“This service investment shows that the MTA and LIRR are committed to expanding and improving service to the East End,” South Fork state Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) said of the move.
Mr. Thiele has been an advocate for increasing train service on the East End, and one of the projects he has touted also got some money from the MTA. A proposal to establish a network of smaller “scoot” trains between Greenport and Ronkonkoma, as well as in other areas on Long Island, received $37.2 million from the state.
Currently, the LIRR is exploring the possibility of diesel-powered Scoot service on the Oyster Bay Branch and on the Main Line east of Ronkonkoma, Mr. Arena said.
The $37.2 million funding for such a purchase is in the current (2010-2014) MTA Capital Program, and will remain available even if it is not expended by the end of 2014, Mr. Arena said.
“Scoot” is a railroad industry term used to describe a train that would shuttle regularly between the first and last stops on a particular branch or branch segment, according to Mr. Arena.
Currently, the LIRR runs only about two trains per day in each directions between Greenport and Riverhead on weekends in the summer, and about three trains per day between Greenport and Riverhead during weekdays, prompting calls from East End residents and officials for better service.
“As envisioned by the LIRR, scoot service would allow for more frequent train service than currently provided,” Mr. Arena said. It “would encourage intra-branch and intra-Island travel, but also would require a transfer to electric trains for those traveling on to New York City.
“The LIRR is currently looking for alternate (smaller) diesel trains that would be more cost-effective to operate and maintain, as compared with both the LIRR’s existing diesel fleet and with electric trains.”
The LIRR does not have specific timeline or start date for either purchasing the alternate diesel fleet and/or initiating expanded Scoot service for East of Ronkonkoma, he said.
“The scoot train could be much smaller to than the standard 10 or 12 car consist,” Mr. Arena said, “perhaps just one, two cars or three coach cars, depending on demand.”
Two years after its launch, Suffolk County’s East End Sunday bus service pilot program has received a significant financial boost with the federal government and the county chipping in nearly $8 million over the next three years to help expand service to the full year, lower fares for East End riders and add several more Sunday routes across the county.
Suffolk County currently only has two bus lines that provide Sunday service, the S92 and 10C routes. The S92 line runs from Orient Point to East Hampton and the 10C connects East Hampton to Montauk. Both operate from Memorial Day to Columbus Day.
This year Sunday ridership is at an all-time high, county officials said. Over the first four Sundays of the season, ridership on the S92 route increased by 38 percent and rose on the 10C by 36 percent, said Legislator Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk).
“The success of the pilot program justifies the expansion,” he said. “The fact that we are seeing major ridership increases demonstrates that Sunday bus service is meeting a major unmet need.”
By January Suffolk County could have as many as 10 routes offering year-round Sunday service, including the two East End routes.
The expansion is being made possible by $4 million in federal funding. Suffolk will match that funding with additional state aid received earlier this year. The distribution breaks down to $2.6 million annually over the next three years.
The New York Metropolitan Transit Council Program Finance and Administration Committee approved the distribution of the federal money on Wednesday. The funding comes through the Job Access Reverse Commute Program, which addresses transportation challenges faced by welfare recipients and low-income residents seeking to obtain and maintain employment.
The county Department of Public Works is in the process of identifying areas that would benefit from the Sunday routes the most, such as commercial areas and poorer communities, Mr. Schneiderman said.
The year-round service would benefit many businesses on the East End, including those on the North Fork that rely on public transportation to get workers to and from their jobs, said Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue).
The funding will lower costs for East End patrons. Riders on the S92 and 10C lines now pay $2.25, a quarter more than riders in the rest of the county. The increased fee covers the cost of the Sunday bus service. One proposal under the new system would establish a $2 fare countywide, Mr. Schneiderman said.
While the funding is only in place for the next three years, Mr. Schneiderman said he hopes the program will become permanent.
“Once you get the service up and running it will hard to pull the plug,” he said.
The Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office has purchased a custom-made, 41-foot emergency response ship equipped with high-tech features like side-scan sonar and forward-looking infrared cameras, allowing it to spy on bay and ocean bottoms and navigate through the night with the utmost confidence.
The vessel will be used by members of the East End Marine Task Force, established in 2007 to help coordinate marine units from across the East End. The task force includes sheriff’s deputies and U.S. Coast Guard officers. Marine law enforcement units from each of the five East End towns also signed a memorandum of agreement to share and standardize equipment and training.
The task force agreement allows participating personnel to cross town borders when needed, which “increases safety and keeps costs down,” said sheriff’s office’s marine unit commanding officer, Sgt. John Andrejack.
Sgt. Andrejack is tasked with overseeing and managing the new boat.
“I don’t know of any other vessels like this,” Sgt. Andrejack said.
The ship, Marine 41, is a C.B.R.N.E.-response vessel -— which stands for Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear and Explosive — outfitted with radar, chart plotters and a dual-screen GPS. The boat is designed to be able to respond to a nuclear, chemical or biological attack or accident.
It’s powered by twin Cummins Diesel motors and does not have propellers. The boat is instead propelled by Hamilton Jets, which allow it to operate in very shallow water (less than three feet), officials said. The cabin air is always purified, with no outside air circulated inside. If the boat enters an area with hazardous smoke and fumes, there is constant clean air in the cabin, official said.
Marine 41 has firefighting capability with a water pump that can move 2,000 gallons a minute. It also comes with a 500-pound Davit winch to lift and recover things from the water.
“This is the most well-equipped response boat in the area,” said Sgt. Andrejack, who was involved in acquiring, designing and equipping the craft.
Officers on the task force from all different towns will crew the ship, he said.
“This vessel is crewed by multiple agencies, used for whatever town may need it for any large event,” Sgt. Andrejack explained, giveing the annual Maritime Festival in Greenport as one example. “It can be transferred from town to town when and where it is needed.”
The sheriff’s office was able to make the purchase using a $1.2 million Federal Emergency Management Agency Port Security Grant, officials said. The grant also allowed for the purchase of personal radiation protectors and 40 strong exposure suits that can be used to protect officers during severe storms or harsh winter weather, both to be distributed to members of the East End Marine Task Force.
The boat also came with a survival raft, EMT equipment and is able accommodate a patient on a backboard.
Marine 41 and all the on-board equipment cost $650,000.
A full-scale training exercise was recently performed on the boat. That simulation exercise, based on an actual recent event, involved a fishing vessel had dredged up hazardous material that the crew had to “decontaminate” before towing the vessel back to shore.
“A vessel of this capability was lacking in the region and the citizens of the East End deserve the capability and protection this asset provides,” Sgt. Andrejack said.