Five years after New York State's newest village was incorporated, Mastic Beach continues to wrestle with the same issues that supporters of breaking away from Brookhaven Town said would be solved by creating a new government.
From reducing the number of absentee landlords to addressing the plague of abandoned homes, supporters as well as opponents of the 2010 incorporation effort say the major goals of the incorporation effort remain largely unfinished.
"It's been a disaster," said Village Mayor Maura Spery, who opposed incorporation five years ago but who now says that -- with the right leadership -- the original goals can still be reached. As of now, she said, the village is "almost at step one" in those goals.
On Aug. 30, 2010, residents voted 1,797 to 1,385 to separate themselves from Brookhaven and form the new village of Mastic Beach. The village's first day was Sept. 16. The creation of the village has inspired another Long Island hamlet, Hampton Bays, to toy with the idea of separating from Southampton Town and forming its own government.
Supporters of Mastic Beach say that while the process has been slow, there are notable achievements, first among them the passage of a new zoning code. The residential, downtown and waterfront zoning districts didn't exist under Brookhaven Town.
"This was critical because the No. 1 municipal advantage to a village is to have control over your zone, which will determine the rhythm and patter of development," former village attorney Brian Egan said. "It controls what business districts and homes look like."
Critics, however, say the most striking feature of the new village government has been a revolving door of leadership and squabbling among board members. Since voting to incorporate, the village has had three mayors, five treasurers, five attorneys and three clerks. Critics say the village has also been marred by the filing of civil and federal discrimination lawsuits.
And critics and supporters alike say back-to-back storms -- Irene and Sandy -- set the village back as they flooded streets and damaged hundreds of properties within two years of incorporation.
'You can't wing it'
Paul Breschard, who helped form the committee to promote incorporation and who was voted in as the first mayor, said he believed another benefit of incorporation would be to help keep taxes lower or at least even with what residents paid to Brookhaven Town. Village taxes for property owners are about $150 a year lower than what residents would have paid to Brookhaven, records show. The village's last four operating budgets have fluctuated between $3.8 million and $4.4 million without any tax increases.
Breschard said the committee started in his living room with six others who were eager to clean up blighted properties and go after illegal renters. He said he envisioned Mastic Beach first and foremost as a code enforcement village: fining illegal renters and landlords and keeping Brookhaven Town to continue offering basic town services such as road maintenance.
"Mastic Beach was a beautiful beach community which had fallen on hard times," Breschard said. "We felt our problems were too big for the town to tend to by itself."
Spery blamed the village's condition so far on previous administrations, which she said failed to properly plan for services the new entity would need, such as street paving and sweeping.
"You can't wing it and think it's going to work right, it's not. After four years it is not working," she said.
Brookhaven Town Councilman Dan Panico, who represented Mastic Beach on the town board before village incorporation, said, "The village formed with the misconception that the town would continue performing services; that they could pick and choose what services Brookhaven would provide."
Supporters of incorporation point to the board ordering the demolition of 15 abandoned homes in the past five years -- one of the main goals of the incorporation drive -- more than what Brookhaven Town did in the previous 40 years. That alone, they say, is a mark of success.
Critics say Mastic Beach has about 1,500 illegal rental properties, the same amount as when it incorporated. Spery said there is improvement in this area: 45 illegal renters were brought into compliance during the village's first four years. She said 50 tickets were issued for illegal occupants in the past four months.
Long-term potential seen
Spery said the village can be successful in the next five to 10 years -- if she and her administration are leading the government.
"If my administration is in charge, there will be more development on Neighborhood and Mastic roads, businesses, sewers, downtown revitalization and blighted homes being purchased and renovated for first-time home buyers."
Some residents who voted for incorporation remain optimistic real change will come in the future.
"I thought Mastic Beach would be a perfect village on the water, rich with history and beautiful homes," said resident Jamie Reason, 68, who voted for incorporation. "I know how much potential it could have. It's really heartbreaking."
Regardless of the obstacles still in place, one former village official says Mastic Beach is on the right track.
"Five years, that's a very short time to expect changes," said Virgilia Gross, 54, who was hired as the first village employee when she accepted her position as clerk. "It will take another 10 to 15 years to see the benefit or impact. That's when we'll really start to see a difference being made."