Area civic associations struggle to replace outgoing members

Rex Farr stepped down as president of the Greater Calverton Civic Association at the end of December, after 18 years.

His replacement? No one. 

In fact, Mr. Farr says the civic association lost its entire board in the past year due to health issues, time constraints and, in some cases, death.

“I had hoped that in 2018, I would be able to spend time on my tractor and not in Town Hall,” said Mr. Farr, who runs an organic farm in Calverton.

“I’m tired. I really am,” he said. “We have no new president. No one has stepped up. I’ve been trying for six months, or maybe more, to get the next generation involved.”

Throughout Riverhead Town, civic associations — the watchdogs who play a vital role in the future of their communities — are grappling with declining numbers, as fewer people are stepping up to fill open positions. Sid Bail, longtime president of the Wading River Civic Association, said younger people express interest in joining, but often are already too busy with work or their kids.

“From talking to other civic associations, there seems to be a generalized problem in that civics seem to attract older folks who tend to be the regular attendees,” he said.

Last fall, none of the local civic associations organized a candidate’s debate, as had been done in previous town election years.

The only candidate forum held last fall was sponsored by the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce, the Long Island Farm Bureau, the Long Island Builders Institute and the New York League of Conservation Voters.

Mr. Bail said his experience has been that involvement in civic associations increases when there is a controversial issue facing the neighborhood.

“The problem with that is that a lot of people get involved for that one reason, but they don’t see that there are other issues in the community,” he said. “So once their issue is addressed, successfully or unsuccessfully, they withdraw.”

Mr. Bail said this is actually how he got involved in the civic association back in 1983.

He was part of a group that wanted the boundaries of the Shoreham-Wading River School District changed.

“We were unsuccessful and most of those people didn’t remain in the civic association,” he said. “I was one of the few that did.”

Mr. Bail has taken occasional breaks during his tenure as president — about five times — during which he usually became vice president. He estimated he’s probably been president for about 20 of the 30 years he’s been involved with the group.

Local civic groups are often the first line of defense when a controversial proposal arises. And in recent years, they’ve had a strong record fighting Town Hall.

Back in 2012, the Wading River Civic Association and the Riverhead Neighborhood Preservation Coalition, which was billed as an umbrella group of all the civics in town, were active in responding to four large development proposals along the Route 25A commercial corridor in Wading River, and demanded town action.

The Town Board at the time agreed to undertake a $42,000 study of the uses along that corridor, and later rezoned four large properties that had been targeted for development. To date, one parcel has been approved for medical offices and two — including the medical offices — resulted in lawsuits challenging the zoning. The other lots have had development proposals presented, but have not been approved by the town.

In Jamesport, the Greater Jamesport Civic Association — formerly called the Jamesport-South Jamesport Civic Association — became active in response to three large development projects along Route 25.

Since then, the Town Board in 2015 rezoned a section of Route 25 — where a 7-Eleven in Aquebogue was proposed — so that it could not be a 24-hour operation. A lawsuit is still pending on the convenience store application. A 2015 court order ruled in favor of developer Vinland Commons, but the property owner did not file a lawsuit challenging the 24-hour prohibition.

To date, no construction has taken place.

In addition, a 40-acre development north of Route 25, across from the Elbow Room restaurant, was halted when Suffolk County agreed to purchase part of the land as a park and leave the rest as farmland.

The third large project, a proposed expansion of the Jamesport Center shopping complex, is still pending, but has encountered opposition from civics.

The Town Board offered to do a corridor study of Route 25 in Jamesport, similar to what it did in Wading River, but the dropped the idea when the civic association objected to the study.

Angela DeVito, the groups’s president, could not be reached for comment.

The Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association is one of local civic group that has been drawing a lot of people recently, but that wasn’t always the case.

When the association needed a president in 2011, no one wanted the job except Vince Taldone. But he wasn’t allowed to run because, although he owned property in Flanders, he lived in Riverhead Town.

At the time, the FRNCA board immediately held a vote of its members and agreed to change its bylaws so property owners could run.

And then they elected Mr. Taldone as president.

The group’s membership grew in recent years following a controversial proposal to establish a garbage district. That would mean residents within the district would pay a special tax and would have the town collect their garbage curbside.

FRNCA leadership backed the proposal, but community opposition prompted Southampton Town to drop the idea.

After that issue, many opponents of the garbage district joined FRNCA and have since become involved in other issues within the three hamlets.

Mr. Bail said his civic association has a lot of people who are willing to pay the annual dues, but don’t show up at meetings, which puts the burden on other people to be watchdogs for their community.
And that, he says, is a major function.

“You can’t always depend on your elected representatives to protect your interests,” he said. “That’s why something like a civic association is important and necessary.”

To help reach more people, the Greater Calverton Civic Association created a Facebook page a few years ago. Mr. Farr said the social media site allows the group to share information and help keep people informed even if they couldn’t attend the meetings.

“If you’re too lazy to come to a meeting, then get your thumbs to work, because we’re posting information on stuff that’s happening in your backyard,” Mr. Farr said.

Still, the response has been mostly minimal, he said.

Photo caption: Rex Farr recently stepped down as president of the Greater Calverton Civic Association. (Credit: Tim Gannon)

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