Suffolk Legislature approves 9/11 park acquisition

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Reeves Park residents placed candles at a small memorial for Tom Kelly near Sound Avenue earlier this month on Sept. 11. A new park would be dedicated to his memory.

In North Fork County Legislator Ed Romaine’s final meeting, the Legislature voted Tuesday to acquire a four-acre site on Sound Avenue and Park Road for use as a memorial park for first responders and victims of September 11.

The acquisition came more than a year after property owner Kenney Barra signed a contract to sell the land, and several months later than expected, Mr. Romaine (R-Center Moriches) said.

The county paid $1,277,645, or $305,000 per acre, for the 4.2 acre site on the northeast corner of Sound Avenue and Park Road (also known Thomas Kelly Memorial Drive). The vote was almost unanimous, but Legislator Tom Barraga (R-West Islip) voted against the acquisition and Legislator DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityvile)was not in the room when the vote was taken.

Eric Biegler, the president of the Sound Park Civic Association in the Reeves Park area, and Bob Kelly, a Reeves Park and retired New York City firefighter whose brother Tom was killed in the World Trade Center attack of Sept. 11, 2001, had urged the Legislature to approve the acquisition prior to the vote, as did Riverhead Town deputy supervisor Jill Lewis and Riverhead deputy town attorney Ann Marie Prudenti.

The town has committed $50,000 toward maintenance of the park, which will also have a reflecting pool, benches and a walking trail, according to Ms. Lewis. The $50,000 is not included in the acquisition cost, Mr. Romaine said.

“Riverhead has no funds available for acquisition because they were very aggressive in trying to prevent overdevelopment,” Mr. Romaine said.

The county will pay for the land through voter-approved drinking water protection money.

Reeves Park residents have been pushing for the acquisition for almost 10 years, after Mr Barra had proposed to build a shopping center there. The land was zoned for commercial use, but a town consultant had recommended it be rezoned for residential use as part of the town’s master plan update in 2003. Despite that recommendation, the town Planning Board, and later the Town Board at the time, adopted the Master Plan without the rezoning recommendation.

When the Town Board subsequently went back and rezoned the land to resident, under pressure from Reeves Park residents, Mr. Barra sued and later won.

Mr. Biegler told the legislators Tuesday that the value of maintaining open space farmland on the East End benefits the entire county.

“People come from all over Suffolk County to pick strawberries on the North Fork or to take tours at wineries,” he said, adding that there aren’t too many places in Smithtown or Huntington where they can do that anymore.

“This property is unique,” he said.

“This land acquisition means so much more than just the purchase of open space,” Bob Kelly told the legislators. In addition to helping to maintain the area’s rural character, “it would also serve as a true hamlet park and memorial to all those who perished in Sept. 11.”

Mr. Kelly said he lost a lot of friends in Sept. 11, as well as his brother Tom, who was a firefighter in Brooklyn and responded to the Twin Towers.

“If you spoke to the families of these people, they would acknowledge that this is a special place, and they would like for this memorial park to see the light of day, in honor of my brother and all those we lost that day,” he said.

Legislator Tom Cilmi (R-East Islip) questioned the price per acre, which he though was “an awful lot of money

But he ended up voting for the acquisition.

“While I’m somewhat offended by the price of this, I’m humbled by your description of the purpose and the meaning behind this proposal,” he said.

He and others thanked Mr. Romaine, who was the sponsor of the bill to buy the land, and was in his last meeting as a county legislator.

His was elected Brookhaven Town Supervisor earlier this month, and will be sworn into that office on Monday afternoon.

“I’ll miss this body,” Mr. Romaine said.

“And we will miss you,” Bill Lindsay, the presiding officer of the legislator, told Mr. Romaine.

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