04/05/13 7:59am
04/05/2013 7:59 AM
PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO  |  Volunteer firemen fighting the wildfires in Manorville last year.

PAUL SQUIRE FILE PHOTO | Volunteer firemen fighting the wildfires in Manorville last year.

April showers bring May flowers, the saying goes.

But not last year. April 2012 brought raging wildfires to the region, including a blaze that blackened over 1,100 acres from eastern Brookhaven into Riverhead Town, destroying homes and property and injuring volunteer firefighters along the way.

Already this year, on Wednesday, the National Weather Service warned of an enhanced threat of wildfires due to dry air and wind.

Related: Pine Barrens, fire victims see life returning to normal

Although local fire departments have taken the necessary steps to improve what was already a lauded response to the Wildfire of 2012, state officials in Albany should step up their response and get serious about preventing such disasters from ever happening.

Controlled burns, also known as hazard reduction burning, in forested areas are still rarely used in Suffolk County as a way to prevent these windswept and uncontrolled fires from sparking in the first place. Although last year’s wildfire was deemed intentionally set, such fires are natural occurrences and necessary for regeneration within the Pine Barrens. Controlled burns, performed in small areas when conditions are right, should be undertaken regularly as they are in other states with more wildfire experience.

Government officials and residents in the Midwest know from experience that if they don’t act first, Mother Nature will find a way to take care of her forests. And she doesn’t take lives or property into account. Richard Amper of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, who favors controlled burns, reports this week that state and local officials are looking into conducting more controlled burns, also known as prescribed fires.

But why is everyone still looking, when so many months have already passed?

Since last year, local firefighters have been taking important steps toward better equipping themselves for forest fires and more training. But controlled burns are a much less expensive way to ensure public safety — and it’s good for the environment. Though somewhat unfamiliar here, residents who live near forested areas must understand and refrain from issuing complaints with the government during such burns, something that has led to the cessation of burn programs in other states, ultimately resulting in disastrous results.

New York State Central Pine Barrens Commission executive director John Pavacic said that, while the commission has acted in trying to educate the public and fire departments on how to prevent and tackle accidental fires, it’s also “taking a fresh look” at updating its fire management plan. But it’s a year later and time is of the essence.

A plan that includes a sophisticated controlled burn program should be presented to the public sooner rather than later.

03/29/13 7:59am
03/29/2013 7:59 AM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Pam Green of Kent Animal Shelter.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Pam Green of Kent Animal Shelter.

Riverhead Town is finally moving in the right direction when it comes to caring for its animals. The town animal shelter is now being operated not by the police department but by a nonprofit humane group with plans to move from its antiquated and inadequate Youngs Avenue building. Donations through the Move the Animal Shelter fundraising group plus a $300,000 bequest from the Troxell estate in Mattituck will help transform the Henry Pfeifer Community Center property into a modern, comfortable and temperature-controlled shelter for both cats and dogs.

It wasn’t easy to reach this point; some might argue it’s taken decades, and many thanks must go out not only to recent Town Board members who helped make this happen — especially James Wooten — and the North Fork Animal Welfare League, which agreed to take over the shelter, but also to a long list of people who volunteered in varying capacities. The are too many to name.

Related: Kent Animal Shelter receives key approval for new $1.75 million facility

Thanks are due to those at RSVP, established in 1996 as the Riverhead Shelter Volunteer Program and now a regional animal welfare and rescue group. Volunteer trainers and personnel from RSVP and other humane groups have helped dogs at the existing shelter, either getting them adopted or making their lives a bit more comfortable in Riverhead. And then there are those who established and have helped run the town’s animal advisory committee. Along with trying to hammer out policies, such as the one for euthanasia, committee members have served as citizen watchdogs for the town’s shelter management.

And all along, staffers and volunteers at the private Kent Animal Shelter in Calverton have been quietly caring for the town’s shelter dogs and stray cats. Before NFAWL took over the town shelter, Supervisor Sean Walter called Kent the “de facto municipal shelter.”

So while all the press has gone to the trouble-plagued town animal shelter over the years, little attention has been paid to Kent Animal Shelter. It also deserves community support in its quest to raise money and win approvals needed to build a new shelter at its Calverton property. The new facility would be farther away from the Peconic River than the existing facility and would have upgraded septic systems, temperature control and sound-proofing elements.

Kent was recognized as America’s Shelter of the Year in 2009 by the North Shore Animal League, a Port Jefferson-based rescue and adoption group. The local shelter was honored in 2010, at the 55th annual Purina Pro Plan Show Dogs of the Year Awards in NYC, where officials praised Kent’s policy of accepting animals from around the corner and around the globe.

As far as dog and cat shelters go, Kent is a gem, something all of Riverhead can be proud of and should support as it moves forward with plans for its new $1.75 million shelter.

Those who’d like to contribute should contact Pam Green at (631) 727-5731 or pamgreen@kentanimalshelter.com.

01/31/13 7:00am
01/31/2013 7:00 AM
PAUL SQUIRE  PHOTO | Riverhead authorities investigate the latest dumpster fire in Riverhead Sunday evening.

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Riverhead authorities investigate the latest dumpster fire in Riverhead Sunday evening.

“Lives are at risk.”

That’s what Riverhead Town fire marshal David Andruszkiewicz said this week when questioned about the string of dumpster fires — clear acts of arson — that occurred in Riverhead and Southampton towns. Riverhead alone had eight fires in four days.

It’s ridiculous that some need reminding of those grave childhood warnings about the danger of misdirecting emergency resources. Most remember the fire officials who would visit schools to warn that “it could be your house that burns down while firefighters are headed to a false alarm.”

Yet it seems neither the threat to life nor the risk of prison time for an arson conviction is a deterrent. So let’s try a different approach.

Give the guys a break.

The Riverhead Fire Department is coming off its busiest year on record, with volunteers responding to 1,159 alarms, for a total of 14,228 hours out in the field. And that’s OK; these selfless men and women know what they’ve signed up for, and it’s in their nature to want to help their friends and neighbors during a fire, accident or some other calamity.

But that’s also 14,228 hours they spent away from their homes, families and workplaces in 2012, affecting their personal lives and maybe their finances. They don’t deserve to have more hours piled on.

For every idiotic early morning dumpster fire set in recent days, some small child somewhere in town might have had to wait by himself for the school bus during an unusually cold morning, because dad wasn’t there to sit with him in the car. Another youngster might have missed practice or karate lessons because she couldn’t get a ride after mom was called out of the house at 6 p.m. to douse garbage. No one in our communities needs a little more quiet time with their families more than our busy volunteer firefighters right now, and whoever’s behind these little blazes — be it some sicko or immature kids — is taking that away from these dedicated volunteers. Not to mention putting lives at risk.

Anyone with information about the fires is encouraged to call the Riverhead Town fire marshal’s office at 727-3200, ext. 601.

01/24/13 7:59am
01/24/2013 7:59 AM

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In less than two short decades, the North Fork has seen Grumman Corporation’s fighter jet assembly and testing facility in Calverton shut down; North Fork Bank’s acquisition by Capital One Bank, which later closed its Mattituck headquarters; Mattituck Aviation — globally famous for its airplane engine overhauls — purchased by a Chinese company and relocated; and an announcement that the Plum Island Animal Disease Center would be shuttered in favor of a new facility in Kansas.

In 2008, in the face of cost-cutting measures included in a proposed congressional budget, it also appeared the area would lose an additional 1,000 nearby jobs at Brookhaven National Lab — at least until Congressman Tim Bishop stepped in and fought to keep those jobs here. Meanwhile, economic development at the former Grumman site, now called the Enterprise Park at Calverton, has been largely stagnant.

It’s clear that the greatest threat to our region, its real estate market and the families who live here is the continued loss of well-paid jobs. That’s why the North Fork needs a facility like the NextGen Integrated Air Traffic Control Facility, a campus comprising 250,000 square feet of buildings that would generate some 800 highly technical and well-paid permanent local jobs, as well as hundreds of construction jobs over a 10-year building period. Riverhead Town officials agreed last week to submit an application to bring the project to town land at EPCAL.

Frankly, the people of the North Fork and adjacent areas need the facility more than those in Islip Town, Nassau County and even Selden, where residents are more easily able to commute to New York City and other points west, where more vibrant industrial economies exist and quality jobs are more readily available. While it’s understandable that Mr. Bishop doesn’t want to choose sides among constituents in his vast district, he should recognize this great threat to the region and push for sites on, or closer to, the East End. While the FAA coming to town-owned land at EPCAL would be best for Riverhead taxpayers in particular, any land in the area will do — even property near Westhampton’s Gabreski Airport or privately held land at the EPCAL site.

It is regrettable, as Riverhead Councilman John Dunleavy pointed out last week, that the town has arrived late to the party in making a pitch for this facility. Now, we can only hope the delay doesn’t hurt the town’s chances of getting it.

The News-Review has supported Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter’s efforts to create an economic generator at EPCAL by subdividing the property and selling off the land to individual companies. But this FAA facility is a potential game changer, just as other projects might be as they are proposed for the site. Mr. Walter will need to adjust his vision for EPCAL accordingly. Yes, as Mr. Walter has said, thinking about Long Island as a whole has its benefits — but it’s a big island, and things that benefit Westbury or Lindenhurst or Islip Town can actually worsen our precarious situation on the East End. And that, it could be argued, could do even greater damage to the island as a whole.

12/07/12 10:00am
12/07/2012 10:00 AM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Riverhead police speaking to a Hispanic bicyclist on West Main Street in downtown Riverhead in 2009.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Riverhead police speaking to a Hispanic bicyclist on West Main Street in downtown Riverhead in 2009.

Lost in much of the recent discussion about how to bridge the divide between the Riverhead Police Department and the town’s Hispanic community is the actual goal. Readers have bemoaned a society that bends over backward to help undocumented immigrants. But let’s be clear: That’s not what police experts and officials are advocating.

The goal is not to cater to minorities but to be a more effective police force. Investigations in Hispanic neighborhoods, experts say, could be greatly aided by officers who can communicate with the people who live and work there.

Imagine a scenario in which a Hispanic woman wishes to report a crime but can’t explain the situation quickly or clearly enough to a responding officer. This scenario is not purely hypothetical. In the town police department today you can see Hispanics struggle to communicate with police, and vice versa. You can also see officers frustrated by a language barrier that prevents them from doing the best job they can and want to do.

Experts and officials say the town would be better served, and safer, if such lines of communication could be opened. Residents could communicate effectively with officers to alert them to dangerous people in the community or tip them off to potential crimes before they happen. And officers would have the added opportunity to develop sources within those communities that could prove invaluable in catching criminals.

READ THE DEC. 6 NEWS-REVIEW COVER STORY

Current popular police theory holds that departments should reflect their community. Nowhere is this better seen than in the New York Police Department, which includes hundreds of minority officers — more than half the force now — who are able to connect and forge relationships with minority neighborhoods.

According to 2010 census data, nearly 14 percent of Riverhead town is Hispanic, a major jump of more than 77 percent from 10 years earlier. And that data does not include those who didn’t volunteer information for the census. There is no way of knowing how many of those Hispanic residents speak only Spanish, but the Hispanic population is growing and slowly integrating.

Our immigrant population boom is just beginning, and that integration won’t happen overnight. But Riverhead’s public schools already include a higher percentage of minorities than is found in the general population, signifying that population shift. There are dozens of English as a Second Language classes in our public schools, libraries and churches, with hundreds of students.

Yet some people seem convinced that, unlike immigrants past, from Germans and Irish to Italians and Poles, this generation of immigrants refuses to assimilate and will not learn English. The critics fail to see that real integration takes time and that, until it does happen, it’s dangerous to ignore a growing population.

Having people who are able to connect with the Hispanic population, experts say, opens up a wealth of knowledge for police officers to pull from. It’s these bonds between diverse areas and police officers that make the whole community safer, not just minority neighborhoods.

No one — not experts or town officials or police administrators — is suggesting the town hire less competent officers. The latest police recruits hired Tuesday are, by all accounts, upstanding and exemplary.

But just as some value a university cop’s experience on the job, others value language skills.

That’s one reason the Suffolk County Police and police departments across the country are now seeking more Spanish-speaking officers. Fluency in a language spoken by an underserved population is a valuable skill, just like a war hero’s skills acquired in battle, and not in any way a crutch.

SPECIAL REPORT, FEB 10: In diverse area, Riverhead police force remains overwhelmingly white

08/23/12 6:00am
08/23/2012 6:00 AM

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON FILE PHOTO | Ed Romaine goes about his lawmaking business at a recent Suffolk County Legislature meeting in Riverhead.

A quick glance at the Suffolk County legislative district map reveals that only one representative’s territory stretches all the way from the North to the South shore.

It’s a very narrow line, but at that one point, from Wading River to Center Moriches, one legislator represents residents from Long Island Sound to Moriches Bay.

That legislator is our very own representative, Ed Romaine, who lives in Center Moriches.

So for the past six-plus years, the North Fork has been represented in the county Legislature by a South Shore resident from Brookhaven Town.

This hasn’t been an issue … so far. Mr. Romaine has worked tirelessly since his 2006 swearing-in and has been an effective legislator for his entire district. He’s made land preservation and public transportation — important topics on the North Fork — two of his signature issues.

Mr. Romaine has done us good, and this newspaper has supported him with an endorsement in each of his four campaigns.

Now Mr. Romaine is considering a run for the soon-to-be vacant Brookhaven Town supervisor seat. If he receives his party’s nomination, he’ll have a good shot at beating likely Democratic nominee Brian Beedenbender.

What we fear is that the North Fork could soon be represented by someone with no real connection to this area; someone who wouldn’t work quite as hard as Mr. Romaine has to make sure we’re represented effectively in Suffolk County.

Even more troubling is the fact that the new county redistricting plans, which don’t go into effect until 2014, have already been finalized, so any hope that the district could be redrawn to better serve the North Fork is lost.

The current district lines have never made any sense, apart from the fact that they were drawn in a way that enabled Mr. Romaine to represent the East End all these years.

It seems more logical that Center Moriches share a district with Moriches and East Moriches than with Greenport. It also would appear to make more sense for Wading River and Shoreham to share a district than the current arrangement, which aligns Wading River with the likes of Peconic and matches Shoreham with Coram. While that latter scenario certainly rhymes, it is without reason since Wading River and Shoreham currently share a school district.

These district boundaries didn’t bother us so much last election, when they enabled Mr. Romaine to continue representing us in the Legislature, but the possibility of a change on the horizon highlights just how oddly the county jigsaw pieces fit.

Should Mr. Romaine move on to Brookhaven Town government, we hope whoever replaces him pays as much attention to the needs of residents on the North Fork as he or she does to those in Brookhaven.

Council district gerrymandering doesn’t hurt so much when you’re represented well, but our communities could be facing years of being overlooked and underserved if our next legislator’s focus leans toward another spot on the map.

08/16/12 6:00am
08/16/2012 6:00 AM

SUFFOLK TIMES ARCHIVES | Revelers sing and dance at the first-ever Polish Town Fair in 1975.

“There was dancing in the streets, in the rain and in the puddles.”

That was the lead sentence in our August 1975 story on the very first Polish Town Fair. It was estimated that “thousands” flocked to Pulaski Street that rainy day, downing plate after plate of kielbasa, pierogies and golabki. Many purchased T-shirts that read “Poland” and “Polish Power.”

“Even the Italians and the Englishmen were swaying about and tapping their feet to the polka music which came vibrating through loudspeakers,” we wrote.

The fair, which has for 38 years held its claim as one of the most fun-filled events of summer in Riverhead, returns again this weekend. Tens of thousands more people will come out to celebrate.

So how did the Polish Town Fair come about?

The fair was born in 1975 as a way for the Polish Town Civic Association to raise funds, according to the organization’s website. Some folks suggested a parade. Others called for a polka ball. One idea shone brighter than the rest: “We’ll have a street fair,” the website quotes one unidentified member as suggesting. “Like the ones they have in Poland. It will be a true Polish event.”

That year’s one-day festival, held on Aug. 16, was directed by Al Barbanel, who served as chairman of the fair committee. The date was chosen to coincide with the feast day of the Assumption of Mary — a holiday celebrated by Catholics in Poland and other countries to honor the day the Virgin Mary ascended into Heaven following her death.

Only 50 booths were set up for the inaugural Polish Town Fair. We estimated in our coverage that had organizers set up seven more booths serving Polish pastries that year, those would have sold out, too.

But fair organizers weren’t caught by surprise in 1975.

Former Riverhead tax receiver Irene Pendzick, who helped organize the first event, warned the Town Board a few weeks before the fair that it was growing into something bigger than they’d imagined.

“At first we didn’t plan a major event,” she told the board. “But it’s turning out to look like quite a fair.”

It was. It still is.

Our very first Polish Town Fair story ended with a hopeful wish from the author. It’s something many local folks have repeated in the years since.

“Here’s hoping for a sunny Polish Festival next year,” she wrote. “And more great eats.”

08/09/12 4:00am
08/09/2012 4:00 AM

Some things make too much sense not to be pursued.

Manorville resident Clare Bennett’s request this week to have Manorville ambulances instead of Riverhead ambulances respond to calls on her Oakwood Drive block and the immediate neighborhood is one of them.

Such a change would affect about 60 families that live at the edge of town and find themselves in the Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance district, even though they’re much closer to Manorville Community Ambulance headquarters. And we’re talking light-years closer, considering what’s at stake.

The Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance headquarters on Osborn Avenue is 10.2 miles from Oakwood Drive, while the Manorville ambulance headquarters on South Street is 3.75 miles from Oakwood. It’s actually surprising it’s taken this long for folks in these communities to speak out.

Ms. Bennett begged Riverhead Town Board members for help Tuesday, saying that she had to wait quite a while (40 minutes, a number Riverhead ambulance officials found hard to fathom) for an ambulance to arrive at her home for three separate medical emergencies in recent years. Each time she had to wait, even while knowing a row of shiny Manorville Community Ambulance vehicles stood ready just a few minutes away.

The situation is unacceptable. But because Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance is funded by a tax base that’s entirely in Riverhead Town and Manorville Community Ambulance is funded by a tax base that’s entirely in Brookhaven Town, Supervisor Sean Walter explained to Ms. Bennett on Tuesday, the only way Manorville ambulances could be allowed to respond to a Riverhead Town address would be for Riverhead to contract with Manorville for ambulance services.

But he also said the board would do what it could to make that happen and that he personally would contact Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko to get the ball rolling.

So often, requests like these — residents’ imploring local officials to try to fix blatant problems with school, fire or other taxing districts — are dismissed as being impossible to achieve. So Mr. Walter’s response was encouraging.

Ms. Bennett also made it clear her request has nothing to do with dissatisfaction with the work of Riverhead volunteers. Riverhead ambulance officials should not take the Manorville resident’s request as a slight and, in response, try to jealously protect their “territory,” which is known to happen from time to time among proud emergency responders.

Should town officials in Riverhead and Brookhaven not act, Ms. Bennett vowed to circulate a petition among her neighbors, whom she said support her. This is a serious situation with a logical solution. It should not have to come to residents needing to petition en masse.