Column: From fighting to forging ahead together

I have admiration for people who can take bad situations and make good out of them — making lemonade out of lemons, if you will. To me, it says a lot when people can bounce back after being knocked down, then dust themselves off and take another shot at whatever it was that knocked them down in the first place.

So it’s been more than welcome to see the shift in tone — and overall change in action — in the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton communities over the last few months. Earlier this year, a debate about a municipal garbage district split the community in half. People flooded the local civic organization to protest the idea, which the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association had suggested to the town.

It got ugly. Barbs were thrown around, some of them more personal than others. In the end, the garbage district was thrown out.

At this point, though, that’s water under the bridge.

It’s been one of the more miraculous examples I’ve seen of a community going from divided to united — and really coming together on several issues, not rallying around just a single cause. People who less than five months ago were accusing each other of “vigilante tactics” and “trying to dictate our agenda” are now working together to promote positive change in their community.

Even the Facebook group that was formed to oppose the garbage district changed its name from Flanders Homeowners Against Town Garbage Pickup to Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Residents UNITED for Positive Change.

And positive change is actually happening.

Consider the following examples: Making sure dead wood that’s potential fuel for forest fires is cleared in the Pine Barrens, raising more funds for scholarships, donating more to school supplies for kids, lobbying the local congressman to call on the postmaster general for three new ZIP codes, holding family movie nights and even something as simple as cleaning up litter and cutting back brush by Grangebel Park — and staying on top of the town to make sure that it’s done properly.

In an article last spring we reported that the 43-year-old Flanders Little League was folding as “a sign of the times.” Subtext: Community involvement is down. But for Ron Fisher, one of the homeowners who were against the garbage pickup — and who played in the league himself — bringing back the Little League is just one of the goals he has in sight. In fact, he said it’s his next goal.

“The garbage district — that just sparked us,” the 32-year-old Flanders native said this week. “Everybody has the same vision: to do what’s better for our lives and make our community more united.”

For FRNCA president Vince Taldone, the last few months have been a roller coaster. Go figure; Mr. Taldone is actually a Riverhead resident who ended up as FRNCA’s president a few years ago because nobody else wanted to step up and do the job.

Not so much the case anymore.

“I would never have predicted this would be the outcome,” he said.

In the wake of the garbage district argument, a wave of new locals — 53 to be exact — signed up to join FRNCA, raising the organization’s paid membership from 87 to 140, Mr. Taldone said.

And while some have stepped back into the shadows, several others — most visibly, Mr. Fisher — have kept beating the drum and helping out.

“We have drug dealers on the street, prostitutes with mental health issues, people sleeping in the woods — these were issues I’ve been dealing with before fighting over a ZIP code,” the civic president said. “But when we have more people, and others get involved — we need the extra bodies to do that.”

This isn’t to say nothing was getting done in the area before the last few months. The Riverside Rediscovered plan has been in the making for close to a year and a half. A reconstruction of the traffic circle in Riverside has been in the works with Suffolk County for years. Funds needed to start paving Flanders Road didn’t come overnight. In fact, in another instance of good coming out of bad — tragic, in fact — they came after a Hampton Bays woman was killed on that pothole-riddled thoroughfare.

Yet it takes no master planner to figure out that much work remains to be done. As they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. While it seemed at the time that conflict over the garbage district was really splitting the community, what has emerged is a more unified whole. And it’s ready to work together to make itself better.

“I believe the town knows the community is standing together,” said Susan Tocci, a former longtime Flanders Northampton Ambulance Corps chief whose sister Barbara was the woman killed in January 2014. “And we want something done.”

Joseph Pinciaro is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at 298-3200, ext. 230.