04/13/14 6:00am
04/13/2014 6:00 AM
A sandbar at the end of Pine Neck Road in Southold. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

A sandbar at the end of Pine Neck Road in Southold. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

I must admit I was surprised at Bill Toedter’s response to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s commitment to address the damage to the quality of our waters that excess nutrient loading is causing. It is a complex issue and we should be glad to have a politician brave enough to take action.  (more…)

04/12/14 7:00am
04/12/2014 7:00 AM
A sandbar at the end of Pine Neck Road in Southold. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

A sandbar at the end of Pine Neck Road in Southold. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

Alternative on-site wastewater treatment systems (OWTS) for nitrogen reduction are being investigated for use in Suffolk County, and while they may have utility in some cases, they are not a panacea to our individual wastewater treatment issues.

Here are some facts that one should consider before installing such a system.  (more…)

03/27/14 6:00am
03/27/2014 6:00 AM
NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | The state Armory building on Route 58.

The state Armory building on Route 58. (Credit: file)

When I ran for Riverhead Town Board last year, I made positive suggestions that I believe might help the board through the embarrassing bickering “Honeymooners” moment it is struggling with now. Currently, the board is mud wrestling over important topics like what to do with the Second Street firehouse, the East Lawn building and the armory on Route 58. The board is in a tizzy over how to provide our town justices a safe environment to try cases and we seem to be back to square one on the animal shelter issue.  (more…)

03/23/14 8:30am
03/23/2014 8:30 AM

Testing

We’ve heard a lot recently about the “new” SAT, the national standardized test created and marketed by the private, not-for-profit College Board and used by many colleges and universities as the most important part of their admissions process. It is in the news because of the fear it instills in almost every high school student in America: the underlying message is “Blow the SAT and forget about your future.” (more…)

02/23/14 7:01am
02/23/2014 7:01 AM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The view from Route 105 bridge at Indian Island golf course as the Peconic River leads into the Bay.

The view from Route 105 bridge at Indian Island golf course as the Peconic River leads into the Bay earlier this year. (Barbaraellen Koch file photo)

Protecting our surface and ground water is Long Island’s public issue number one. The Long Island Clean Water Partnership has done a great job in increasing public and political awareness. But we must avoid the trap of oversimplifying both the problem and the solutions.

Any campaign has three elements: awareness, education and action. Awareness has been raised. Now the hard work, education, has to begin. Education involves inclusive public discussion, scientific debate and a broad coalition on how best to move forward.

Today, everything’s a 10-second sound bite. However, using sound bites to explain proposed solutions can be harmful to long-term success. For example, in County Executive Steve Bellone’s recent public talks on the water issue, he and others read from the same script we’ve heard over and over again. We deserve more than that. We need more than that.

We need full information to make informed decisions.

Take Mr. Bellone’s main proposal to solve our water problems: prioritize areas with failing septic systems, identify those near existing sewer systems and extend the sewers to those properties. Interesting concept until you look a little deeper.

Now putting priority properties, especially waterfront lots, onto a municipal sewer system will remove nitrogen from septic systems and from leeching into our waters. This is good. But think about this a little more. In Long Island’s history, when you extend sewer systems, high-density residential and commercial development follows. Always has. Always will. So what problems do extended sewer systems and more development add to our current water problems?

Many.

First problem is the sewers themselves. Septic systems work by seeping wastewater back into the ground. As the water moves through the soil, it filters out and reduces the concentration of nitrogen and other elements. In areas of high density — too many homes and people on too little land — the ground becomes over-saturated with septic output, thus the filtering of nitrogen and other elements is impaired. Sewers solve that problem, to some degree.

Most of Long Island’s municipal sewage treatment plants, and the smaller community systems which feed into them, take wastewater from the sewers, treat it and pump the resulting effluent into the Sound, bays or the ocean. While this prevents nitrogen from entering the ground, it also means all of that sewered water is removed from the recharge cycle. In other words, instead of returning a large portion of the water we use back to the water table and deeper aquifers, it’s diverted to our surrounding bodies of salt water.

So, increased sewering reduces the amount of water we put back into our groundwater supplies. And near the waterfront, if you remove too much water you lower the water table, salt water comes in to replace it and your well has to be shut down. This is already happening around the island.

In addition, volume from 100,000-plus homes could add a significant amount of total nitrogen being pumped into our already stressed bays. So sewering could add to our water pollution and declining fisheries woes, not solve them.

Many of Long Island’s sewage treatment plants are near capacity. Many need funding for mandated plant updates. Almost all need to extend their discharge pipelines out of our bays and into the more active waters of the Atlantic Ocean. These updates will cost billions of dollars and take years to complete. So the cost of extended sewering is significant.

And while we talk about funding for our sewer and sewage treatment plant needs, it doesn’t even touch upon the planning, development and cost of individual and community high-tech septic systems needed for the vast majority of those homes and businesses which shouldn’t or can never be sewered. We need answers. You can’t ask voters to support solutions unless you’re ready and able to talk about the costs of each option, as well as the ultimate costs of doing nothing.

But this is only part of the problem with extended sewering. As sewering grows, so does development, and open space, which is needed to clean and return rainwater to the water table and deeper aquifers, becomes paved over. Since 20 percent of nitrogen pollution comes in the form of rain and snow, those open spaces are critical to cleansing and protecting our waters. In addition, with open space paved over, a greater percentage of rainwater is routed to the sewers and the sewage treatment plants. That means even less water is making it down to the aquifers — another matter of sewering adversely affecting both water quality and quantity.

Out east, more sewering and more development take us further away from our cherished rural way of life. Those farms and farm stands, open spaces and rural vistas, the quiet rural roads and quiet sandy beaches are the drivers of both the local economy and the reason many people choose to live here. And once that changeover begins, you cannot go back.

Clean water is a complex problem. Sewering should be part of a comprehensive solution but we need more input from scientists, environmental groups and civic associations in discussions with our elected representatives at all levels. Let’s stop the sound bites and oversimplifying things. Let’s start getting more people with scientific backgrounds to work on this complex problem and its complex solutions.

Communicate that, and then we can make informed decisions on Long Island’s future based on dollars, sense and science.

Bill Toedter, a communications consultant, artist and Southold resident, has been president of the North Fork Environmental Council, an advocacy group, since 2010.

02/21/14 10:00am
02/21/2014 10:00 AM
GARRET MEADE PHOTO  |  McGann-Mercy football coach Jeff Doroski faces an uncertain future amid speculation that he will be replaced as the team's varsity coach.

Jeff Doroski became the head football coach at Mercy in 2011. (Garret Meade file photo)

I’ll never forget that day in Babylon in the fall of 1998. I was a senior at Mercy High School, playing in one of the final football games of the season, and we were getting our tails kicked in. At halftime the score was so obscenely lopsided that if forfeiting didn’t carry such universal shame, I’m sure most of my teammates would have elected to pack up, get on the bus and head back to Mercy. (more…)

09/30/13 8:00am
09/30/2013 8:00 AM
FILE PHOTO | Town officials have said the digital sign at the Valero station in Jamesport violates historic district codes.

FILE PHOTO | Town officials have said the digital sign at the Valero station in Jamesport violates historic district codes.

When the new bowling alley in Riverhead proposed erecting an animated billboard, it caused many people to wonder about the lit-up Valero price sign in downtown Jamesport, which similarly violates town code.

“What happened?” they asked. “I thought the town was going to make them take that down!”

Setting out to learn about town actions with regard to the Valero sign, I encountered a familiar roadblock: a FOIL request denial. I realized the town’s routine and cavalier obstruction of taxpayer requests for information is a far more important story than failure to enforce sign codes.

The opening statement of New York’s FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) statute says: “a free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public, and when the public is aware of governmental actions.” It couldn’t be more plain.

Why, then, does our town government so often fail to deliver requested information?

I haven’t kept track, but probably have had more FOIL requests rejected than filled. I’ve seen massive files withheld because they’re deemed “intra-agency material,” though exempt external correspondence was included. Another typical reason/rejection response: “It’s all being discussed with counsel, and is therefore privileged.”

Baloney.

My Valero request was sent to town code enforcement and the town attorney. Code enforcement rejected it, saying deputy town attorney Bill Duffy directed them to do so because the information, “if disclosed, would interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings.”

That’s a particularly lame excuse in this case. I contacted Mr. Duffy, but he didn’t return my calls. Because this rejection was so blatantly wrong, I thought about appealing it. I then remembered Mr. Duffy is also the town’s designated FOIL appeals officer; that battle was already lost.

Though an issue of minor consequence, this matter was so simple and straightforward that it made a great example; I contacted the Committee on Open Government (COOG), the state agency that oversees FOIL implementation. In response, the COOG assistant director made many useful observations.

Specifically on the denial of Valero information, she said: “If the agency has issued a notice of violation or a summons for violation of a zoning code, such notice would be required to be made public upon request for various reasons — one, it is likely that it is part of the public record at the courthouse; two, it would represent a final agency determination, which is required to be made public pursuant to section 87(2)(g); three, it would be difficult, if not impossible, in my opinion, for an agency to show that a record such as this if disclosed, would interfere with an investigation or judicial proceeding.”

(About the common “discussed with counsel” excuse, COOG said: “Merely because records are discussed with an attorney does not make them attorney-client privileged.”)

These are strong words, and it appears that Mr. Duffy is unequivocally wrong. If he returned my phone calls, I’d tell him so.

The point is not that secrets are being kept about the Valero sign (though they are); the point is that every day, residents are routinely and illegally blocked in their efforts to get information about the workings of this town.

It’s not always by denial. A taxpayer sought landfill records and was prepared to pay the 25¢ per page copying fee. The FOIL officer said the taxpayer must first pay $125 to have the 600-page file redacted … after which he could look at the pages, decide which he needed, and then pay copying costs. Outrageous. (Did the town charge this “redacting fee” multiple times for the same file?)

To be clear, plenty of folks working at Town Hall understand their job is to serve the public, and seem to enjoy doing so. Prompt and courteous assistance on some FOIL requests is not uncommon. The town clerk’s office, for example, is unfailingly helpful and incredibly efficient.

Yet, in some areas information is given grudgingly, and every request is treated as a nuisance. The town attorney’s office seems consistently prone to naysaying, foot-dragging, and abusive decisions. This must change.

Last year, Supervisor Walter and three council members joined town attorney Bob Kozakiewicz at a COOG forum on FOIL implementation. Was that just for show?

Back to Valero. The sign went up in 2008. In January 2009, Riverhead filed suit in state Supreme Court against the owner. Since that filing, there have been four motions, two conferences, 91 adjournments, and 0 decisions, with no activity since August 2010. (This info is from the court system website.)

Taxpayers deserve to know: 1) what actions code enforcement officers took before the lawsuit was filed; 2) whether the town sought injunctive relief to — at the very least — turn the sign off; 3) whether fines are being imposed and collected for this small-but-flagrant violation; 4) why there’s been literally no progress on this case in over three years.

The town’s position is that we’re not entitled to know any of these things, even though the state FOIL committee says that’s wrong.

Town attorneys are hired by, and take direction from, the Town Board. Voters who find this behavior troubling should remember that the incumbent supervisor and council members are extremely unlikely to fix this pervasive problem. We need representatives who will treat residents with greater respect, and who will obey the law.

Larry Simms owns a home in South Jamesport and is a principal in a firm that licenses commercial flooring technology. He is active in savemainroad.org, an advocacy group dedicated to preserving the character of the Main Road corridor and surrounding areas.

08/26/13 6:00am

MICHAEL WHITE PHOTO | The new Suffolk County jail facility in Yaphank.

When the plan to build a new Suffolk County county jail was first proposed about 10 years ago, the political and economic landscape in the county, as well as the nation as a whole, was dramatically different from what we have today. Even back then, when Suffolk County was running budget surpluses, opponents of the new jail project made good arguments that it was ill-conceived, from both budgetary and policy standpoints.

In retrospect, they were right.

Suffolk County is now facing budget deficits that may exceed $200 million in 2014. At the same time, county officials are considering moving forward with Phase II of the new jail in Yaphank, at an expected cost of $100 million, totally paid for by Suffolk taxpayers without any state or federal subsidies. It is madness.

During the past several years, analyses and studies by criminal justice experts have highlighted our flawed approach to crime and punishment nationwide. Accounting for population, the rates of incarceration in the United States are some of the highest in the world. This high rate of incarceration is largely created by our decades long “War on Drugs” and a get-tough-on-repeat-offenders strategy that mandated prison sentences for defendants regardless of the severity of their actual crimes. The result for states and other municipalities has been soaring expenditures for corrections and other related costs of criminal justice systems. These policies have had a crippling effect on state and local county budgets.

However, recent studies on a national level have indicated that this trend is being reversed. Most states have gotten smart about the cost of incarceration and the need to reduce jail populations through less costly alternatives. Even here in New York State, the prison population has decreased during the past few years, with state prisons being closed and costs statewide being reduced. In contrast, Suffolk County has been moving in the opposite direction, with more and more jail cells being built or proposed and increased numbers of people being incarcerated. It has to stop as soon as possible, or it will send this county into a fate similar to that of Nassau County, or worse, Detroit.

Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco has been pressing forward with a plan to reduce the inmate population through less costly alternatives to jail and diversions from incarceration that could eliminate the need for the $100 million Phase II of the new Yaphank jail. Suffolk County legislators and taxpayers should heed his call.

By expanding current jail diversion programs through the Probation Department and the courts, along with implementing new, cost-effective initiatives to divert low-level offenders from incarceration, we can significantly reduce the inmate population here in Suffolk County without jeopardizing public safety. These alternatives to incarceration programs can save taxpayers both the cost of expanding the Yaphank jail, as well as the annual increase in operating expenditures associated with running and staffing this new jail, which would include both hiring more correctional officers and increases in overtime pay.

Suffolk County needs to get in step with the rest of the nation and avoid the costs associated with high rates of incarceration.

Jerry Bilinski is a case manager with a non-profit group that advocates for incarcerated and mentally ill people. He lives in Riverhead.