Newsday

Copyright 2004 Newsday, Inc.

Newsday (New York)

August 31, 2004 Tuesday
NASSAU AND SUFFOLK EDITION

SECTION: NEWS; Pg. A02

LENGTH: 1740 words

HEADLINE: Their last days of summer;
After generations enjoying a life at the shore, and decades of charges of political favoritism, 93 beach cottages will soon face demolition

BYLINE: BY INDRANI SEN. STAFF WRITER

BODY:

After five generations of summers in cottage 75 of West Meadow Beach, the “good ghosts” of Jeanne Cooper’s family are everywhere she looks.

They’re in the sand she crawled in as an infant – the same sand her mother molded into castles years before, and her own children tracked into the house on wet feet years later. They haunt the wicker rocking chair on the porch, placed there by her great-grandmother in 1930 and now used to rock Cooper’s 2-year-old cousin to sleep. They’re at the moussaka party every Memorial Day, at the clam chowder party on Labor Day, and in the kitchen all summer as plates of spaghetti are dished out to the many family members who pile in and bunk down.

So when Cooper, 53, thinks of her family cottage demolished, along with the 92 others on this sandy peninsula in Stony Brook, she cries.

“Intellectually, the mind says this is it, or it could be,” she said. “But emotionally, you can’t even entertain the possibility … It’s almost too painful to think about.”

After almost a century of controversy, the cottages – which are owned by the Town of Brookhaven, and, critics charge, have been historically rented cheap to the politically connected – are to be demolished this fall, following a 1994 court decision ordering the land returned to its natural state as a town park.

The leaseholding families, many of whom have summered there since childhood, are trying to savor their last weeks in this tight-knit community, even as they mount a last-ditch lobbying, protesting and petition-collecting campaign to save the cottages.

“Most people are traumatic over this,” said Dick Confoy, president of the West Meadow Beach Cottage Owners Association. “But we have no intention whatsoever of giving up on this thing.”

Advocates for the cottages’ removal, outraged by what they call politically sanctioned squatting on what’s arguably the most valuable natural treasure the town owns, say it’s an issue of social justice, public access to public land, and environmentalism. And there’s no shortage of emotion on their side, either.

Clambakes and good times

“Many people will tell their tales of clambakes and cookouts and the good times that they’ve had,” said Herb Mones, a Stony Brook resident who has fought for the cottages’ removal since the early 1990s. “What’s forgotten is an entire generation of children who have been shunted aside … I believe that my children are equal to any other children, and should have equal access.”

As the Oct. 1 move-out deadline looms, residents of the charmingly ramshackle assortment of wooden bungalows waver between disbelief and dread, nostalgia and anger.

On a sunny Monday earlier this month, Kathleen LaRosa, 78, sat outside her cottage and looked out at the bay where she met her husband, when they passed each other on water-skis.

“I saw him in his boat and he saw me in my boat,” recalled LaRosa, now widowed, as she watched her grandchildren play in the shallow water. “We met in September and we married in May.”

After 45 years, four children and eight grandchildren, LaRosa said she can’t imagine her family cottage and all it represents destroyed.

“This is our home. This is where are roots are, here,” LaRosa said. “We’re heartbroken about the turn of events, that somebody was very disgruntled and decided we don’t have a right to live here any more.”

Roberta Odierna, 56, is a relative newcomer to the community. A retired bartender, she bought the lease for her cottage five years ago for $60,000.

“I just always wanted a cottage down here, from day one,” she said. “I knew the situation … I said well, if I only have five years, I’ll take the five years.”

But two weeks ago, Odierna was among several hundred neighbors and cottage supporters who gave up a gorgeous Saturday morning on the beach to hold placards in Setauket’s downtown as passing motorists honked in support.

“It’s been so hard this summer, with the campaigning and the T-shirts and the bumper stickers,” Odierna said. “I try to be very optimistic about this. I try to feel that the glass is half-full, but I have to be realistic and think that if this is it, I had five years here.”

An improbable dream

For her neighbor Lauretta Tobani, the end of West Meadow Beach cottages means the end of an improbable dream come true. “It’s a place for a middle-class person who doesn’t have a million dollars to have a place by the beach,” said Tobani, 56. After 23 years here, she said, she and her husband would not be able to afford another piece of beachside property.

Sunning herself in a gold-trimmed black swimsuit, Helene Bredes has been a fixture on the beach for decades, carrying her folding chair and magazines to her favorite spot by the jetty.

“I’ve been sitting here all my life, and I don’t have a cottage,” declared Bredes, a retired teacher from Stony Brook who gave her age as “21-plus-plus-plus.”

If the cottages are demolished, Bredes fears the area will become deserted, and unsafe for a woman to visit alone. “I’ll have to give up the best sitting spot in the whole wide world,” she added.

Sipping mineral water in the screened deck of the cottage he’s had for 30 years, Confoy called those who pushed for the demolition of the cottages “mean-spirited.”

“They felt at that time that it was a Republican enclave, which I don’t feel is true,” Confoy said. “And they wanted to punish the Republicans.”

But there’s much more to it than that, said Mones, who is president of the West Meadow Beach Conservancy, the group that sued in 1994 to have the cottages removed.

At the core of the movement is a feeling of exclusion, Mones said. Growing up in Selden, Mones recalls visiting what’s generally called the “public portion” of the beach, near the parking lot, and assuming the rest of the beach was off limits to him and his family.

“If you walked down Trustees Road, up until several years ago, it was clearly posted with ‘No Trespassing’ and ‘No Parking,’” Mones said. “To this day, many people still believe it’s private property.”

Although the whole beach is technically public, Mones said, it remains awkward to walk between the closely spaced cottages from Trustees Road.

“Nobody wants to walk in somebody’s yard,” he said. “And certainly nobody wants to get stares or unwelcome looks as they walk past someone’s structure.”

A feeling of injustice

For Mones, and for those throughout the last century who have fought for the removal of the cottages from West Meadow Beach, the injustices they perceive there are precisely what civic activism is about, Mones said.

“I’m always teaching and preaching the need for public involvement, citizen involvement, in being a watchdog over government,” said Mones, a longtime social studies teacher who is now a social studies coordinator in the Middle Country school district. “It would belie everything that I’ve taught and everything I’ve told students throughout the decades if I was just to ignore what’s happened at West Meadow Beach.”

As well as the environmental concerns about the 93 cesspools contaminating the water and the cottages themselves marring the landscape, Mones said he’s driven by a feeling of injustice.

“There is a sense of complete bewilderment that the town would use public parkland for the exclusive use of 93 individuals,” he said, saying the market value of the 2.5-mile sandspit would be in the hundreds of millions.

To put it in perspective, Mones said, even if voters approve a proposed $100-million, open-space bond act in November, “the town could never buy a waterfront peninsula or park that approaches the uniqueness of West Meadow … Yet it keeps it off-limits to the taxpayers who own it.”

‘Irksome’ profits

Mones said he’s particularly galled by the sale of cottage leases for as much as $120,000 and by rumors that some lessors rent their cottages for far more than the $7,000 a year they pay the town.

“It’s irksome,” he said. “Because people are making substantial amounts of profit by not only using town parkland, but also using town-owned structures in order to enrich themselves.”

Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket), a longtime critic of the cottages who represents the area, went even further than Mones in his criticism of the cottages’ history, equating it with that of the Ku Klux Klan, which held marches and had bonfires on West Meadow Beach in the 1920s and 1930s.

“It’s part of the sad reality that bigotry and hatred was very much associated with the creation of that cottage community,” Englebright said. “It wasn’t created for people who were ordinary citizens … It’s not a proud history. It’s not a wonderful history.”

To Cooper, the history and the politics are an abstraction as she contemplates the very real prospect of the cottage she calls her family home being reduced to a pile of rubble.

It’s not the first time Cooper’s family has gone through this, as various movements to remove the cottages have advanced and receded, but the bulldozers have never seemed quite as close as they do today.

“When you were younger, you’d figure you’d chain yourself to the house,” she said ruefully. “When my son was a kid, he’d say, ‘Mommy, when will I be old enough to fight for the bungalow?’”

The battle continues, in the halls of local government and in Albany, in private meetings between lawyers and politicians, over dinner tables and in the opinion pages of local newspapers. But for Cooper and her family, these last weeks of the summer of 2004 will be a more personal struggle.

“When you’re here, you just do the things you always do – you go out on the boat and you pick clams and you sit on the beach and you giggle with your friends,” she said. “You actively work not to put it in the forefront of your mind. Because it could spoil the time you have left, and you don’t want to do that. There’s still memories to be made.”

But, Cooper said, crying again, there’s no avoiding the reality of the situation.

“For my family,” she said. “There will never be another place like this. Never.”

QUOTES:

1) ‘Intellectually, the mind says this is it, or it could be. But emotionally, you can’t even entertain the possibility . . . It’s almost too painful to think about.’ – Longtime cottage leaseholder Jeanne Cooper; 2) ‘I believe that my children are equal to any other children, and should have equal access.’ – Cottage opponent Herb Mones; 3) ‘Most people are traumatic over this. But we have no intention whatsoever of giving up on this thing.’ – Dick Confoy, president of the West Meadow Beach Cottage Owners Association

GRAPHIC: Newsday Photos / Michael E. Ach – 1) Among those who stand to lose their family cottages at West Meadow Beach in the fall are Rosanne LaRosa Blakeman, left, and her mother Kathleen LaRosa. 2) Dick Confoy, 3) Herb Mones, 4) Newsday Photo / Jim Peppler – Opponents of a plan to remove summer cottages attend a Brookhaven Town Board meeting. NEWSDAY FILE COVER PHOTO / MICHAEL E. ACH – A group opposed to the cottages won a suit in 1994 to have them removed. They are to be torn down in the fall.; MAP: Area of detail – West Meadow Beach Cottages (not in text database)

LOAD-DATE: August 31, 2004

 

Copyright 2004 Newsday, Inc.

Newsday (New York)

August 31, 2004 Tuesday
NASSAU AND SUFFOLK EDITION

SECTION: NEWS; Pg. A03

LENGTH: 844 words

HEADLINE: A final push for preservation

BYLINE: BY INDRANI SEN. STAFF WRITER

BODY:

Three days before the State Legislature ended its session earlier this month, Assemb. Steven Englebright received a visit from a group urging him to extend the lease on the controversial cottages at West Meadow Beach.

And not just any group. Although saving the cottages has been seen primarily as a Republican cause, the delegation included two major Democratic figures in Long Island politics: Jerry Kremer, a former Democratic chairman of the Assembly’s powerful Ways and Means Committee; and George Hochbrueckner, a Democratic former congressman.

They were there to ask Englebright (D-Setauket) to propose a bill extending the leases of the Town of Brookhaven-owned cottages by four years while a plan to provide more access to the beach for the public is devised. Critics charging that the cottages were built on land the town illegally leased to Republican insiders won a court ruling in 1994 ordering the structures vacated and destroyed.

A month before the Oct. 1 deadline for cottage residents to vacate, many aspects of the century-old controversy defy expectations. Englebright, who has pushed for the cottages’ removal since the 1980s, now finds himself in a powerful position as the only man who can save them.

Legislation drafted by State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) passed unanimously in the Senate in July, but Englebright, who represents the area, would have to propose and pass a corresponding measure in the Assembly before it can become law. He has so far declined to do so.

“They’re basically pushing for exclusive privilege and perpetual continuation of private use of public property,” he said. “They’ve dressed it up, but it’s still the same basic problem.”

Nowadays, cottage residents say, and town Democratic leader Marsha Laufer agrees, that the cottages are no longer an exclusive Republican enclave. Laufer is another unlikely supporter of the cottages, while many town Republicans say privately that they’ll be glad to see them demolished.

“I don’t like its history and I don’t like the fact that it was used as patronage, but that was in the past,” said Laufer, who favors an extension of the leases and a plan to create public access to the beach with some or most of the cottages remaining.

“There have been more shouting matches than discussions as to what could be done to protect this area,” she said. “People who are on one side want all park. People who are on the other side want all cottages. I think there can be a compromise.”

Few dispute that in their early years, the leases were handed out to Republican insiders, a practice protested by residents, including soap mogul Eversley Childs in 1908 and, in 1930, industrialist Frank Melville Jr.

Most of the 93 cottages were built in the 1920s and 1930s, but a few structures existed as early as the turn of the last century. By 1917, the beach was used as a getaway for campers escaping an influenza epidemic in New York City and for those with other respiratory illnesses.

It was in the early 1920s that Brookhaven rented the bulk of the lots to town residents for $5 to $20 a summer, folklorist and cottage supporter Nancy Solomon wrote in her recently published book, “West Meadow Beach.”

In 1925, Setauket resident Charles Mellon devised his own protest against the leasing of a portion of the beach to a restaurateur who charged 25 cents an hour for swimming.

According to newspaper accounts quoted in anti-cottage activist Herb Mones alternative history of the beach, “West Meadow Beach: Past, Present and Future,” Mellon drove to the beach in a bathing suit, walked onto the leased property and went swimming. When he refused to leave, he was charged with trespassing and disorderly conduct. Mellon’s trial was attended by 300 people, Mones wrote, and led to the formation of a group opposing the leasing of the beach.

In 1976, a Democratic Brookhaven Town Board formally designated the beach parkland and created a provision to end all leases in 1985, a move some see as a political strike against the perceived Republican summer clique there.

Court battles between cottage residents and the town, and then between cottage opponents and the town, dominated the 1980s and early 1990s, culminating in a 1994 State Supreme Court decision that ruled the town’s arrangement with the cottage lessors illegal. The ruling was upheld on appeal.

State legislation and a town resolution signed in 1996 extended the vacate deadline for the leaseholders to October in exchange for the transfer of the ownership titles of all the cottages to the town.

Cottage residents say they’ve collected more than 10,000 signatures on petitions to save the cottages over the last four years.

Brookhaven Supervisor John Jay LaValle has said he supports preserving the cottages. He has also said, however, that he will comply with the 1996 agreement and remove the cottages if the law is not changed. He did not return calls for comment.

Brookhaven officials have said they’ll start soliciting bids for the demolition job in the next few weeks to meet the state-mandated demolition deadline of Jan. 15.

GRAPHIC: Photo – Assemb. Steven Englebright

LOAD-DATE: August 31, 2004