Promises of help for Riverhead’s Reeves Park residents, who are fighting development at the entrance to their community, headlined the North Fork Environmental Council’s “Save Our Sound Avenue” event Friday night — an evening full of warnings.
And the warnings? The developers are coming.
Amid reminders of a long history of community fights against building along the 16-mile rural corridor, though, came some positive news for Reeves Park residents and their supporters.
Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter told the crowd gathered at Martha Clara Vineyards that he believes the county will be able to acquire property owned by Kenn Barra’s EMB Enterprises. Mr. Barra has long planned to build a shopping center on the northeast corner of Park Road and Sound Avenue.
“I don’t want to see a pizza place and a dry cleaners” there, Mr. Walter said. “That parcel is being appraised as we speak.”
In March, the county Legislature voted to begin plans to acquire 15 acres on the northwest corner of Park Road, owned by Ed Broidy’s Boom Development, to be used as a 9-11 memorial park and ball fields. Mr. Broidy had initially planned a shopping center but had instead proposed a residential development before entertaining the possibility of selling the land for public use.
With the county so far failing to make an offer, Mr. Broidy is in lawsuit settlement talks with the town. He could end up building homes there and preserving the acreage that fronts the highway.
“This is our time to save what’s left,” county Legislator Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches), who has been pushing for preservation of the Sound Avenue corridor, told the attendees. “This is our time to leave our legacy …. This is the last rural corridor left on Long Island.”
Added Mr. Walter, “The reason [Sound Avenue] is the way it is today is because farming is successful. I know our farm families are doing well.” He also noted that both Riverhead and Suffolk County development rights purchase programs had helped farmers continue to work their land.
But, Mr. Walter said, Riverhead is not taking in enough Community Preservation Fund revenue, collected through a real estate transfer tax, to pay the debt service on purchases it has already made, making it difficult for the town to commit money to preserving more land.
“I need your help,” he told the crowd. “We cannot put every burden on the farmer. We need to shop the farms, which I bet all you guys do.”
Long Island Farm Bureau executive director Joe Gergela agreed with Mr. Walter that the best way to preserve land is to make farming profitable, but he cautioned that farmers are still very sensitive to preservation groups that don’t respect their farms as private property.
“Be respectful. Other people own the land,” he said in reference to farmers who might want to sell to developers. “Don’t scare people into making decisions they wouldn’t normally make.”
Mr. Gergela said the farm bureau has been at the forefront of preservation efforts along Sound Avenue, particularly in the fight in the early 1970s against what had originally been 19 nuclear power plants along the shores of Long Island Sound and Atlantic Ocean.
“They were worried that if there was the slightest bit of radiation leaking, no one would ever buy another Long Island vegetable,” said local historian Richard Wines, who kicked off the evening’s events with a historic slide show detailing the development of the road.
At the road’s inception in the 1600s, it was known as the “Road to Setauket,” which was the closest town west of Mattituck along the Sound shore, Mr. Wines said. Sprawling houses owned by farm families who worked tens of thousands of acres along the road sprang up over the next two centuries. Of 172 farmhouses that dotted the edges of the road in 1899, only 38 are still standing.
In 1899, Mr. Wines said, Sound Avenue became New York State’s first Rural Free Delivery road, where letter carriers delivered mail instead of requiring people to visit the post office. The road was even incorporated as a village at one point, to the delight of newspaper editors who had a field day poking fun at the village where little happened.
Then came the age of industry. In 1956, the Northville terminal dock was built and, in 1963, the “Riverhead Harbor Industrial Park” was proposed just north of where Hallockville Museum Farm sits now. But Mr. Wines said the jetties built at the entrance to the man-made harbor caused so much erosion that U.S. Senator Otis Pike stepped in and stopped the project.
From then until the early 1970s, all sorts of industrial plans were proposed for the area, including a fuel desulphurization plant and the aforementioned nuclear power plants. A master plan pitched by Riverhead Town in 1973 initially proposed that the road be turned into a four-lane parkway, a plan that was quickly squashed. In 1975, New York State designated the road an historic corridor, setting the stage for keeping the road as it had been for centuries.
On June 18, Mr. Wines will lead a bus tour of Sound Avenue that will begin at the Hallockville museum, in conjunction with the NFEC’s effort to preserve the road.
Many who attended Friday’s event also wrote down their thoughts and memories of the road on a poster that will be part of an upcoming exhibit at Hallockville.
“I really have to be careful driving Sound Avenue, because my head keeps turning back and forth from side to side. I have to get used to its beauty, and I expect I never will,” wrote John Rooney of Southold.
“A road should tell you something about where you are, where you’re going,” wrote Nancy Gilbert of Jamesport. “Sound Avenue is magical in creating a sense of space.”
“Sound Avenue is more than just a a scenic road, more than a road through history. It’s a road into the soul of America,” wrote Phyllis Curott of New Suffolk. “To allow its exploitation would be like allowing our very spirit to be despoiled.”