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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Brown: Manorville fire highlights crucial issues

A firefighter battles a blaze in Manorville off

A firefighter battles a blaze in Manorville off Wading River Road as a large brush fire spread across eastern Long Island. (April 9, 2012) Credit: Chris Ware

The ambitious preservation effort that saved the pine barrens and other natural resources is having the unintended effect of leaving a neighborhood most damaged by this week's wildfires with no hydrants and no link to water lines.

The preservation limits development that would make it economically feasible to extend water mains and, with them, fire hydrants, to the section of Manorville in Riverhead Town.

The community is home to 61 residences and businesses, surrounded by woods and dotted by ponds that 30 years ago were cranberry bogs. "It's like a secret paradise right here on Long Island," said George Moretti, who has lived on Oakwood Drive for 25 years.

At one point yesterday, the discussion among neighbors on his front lawn turned from the element of fire -- and praising firefighters -- to the element of water.

"I saw firemen rushing up and down our street asking, 'Where's the hydrant?' " said Moretti's wife, Kathleen. "I had to tell them, 'There are none.' "

The firefighters weren't from the Manorville Fire Department, she was quick to add, noting that the local department knows to pump water from a dead-end street pond in emergencies.

For decades, however, the Morettis and their neighbors have coveted links to a Riverhead Water District water line, but the cost -- an estimated $2 million or so -- for so few properties has been viewed as prohibitive, officials said.

"We've complained for years about safety and water quality," said Sharon Bontempi, who lives on Old River Road. "All we want is what it seems like everyone else has."

Preservation is one reason why that's not happening. "The process of preservation may never allow the area to naturally develop," said Gary Pendzick, superintendent of the Riverhead Water District.

But still, safety matters.

"Obviously, I would support looking for federal or state funding to help us run more water into the pine barrens to get more water pressure to fight fires and to keep them from becoming full-fledged conflagrations," said county Legis. Edward P. Romaine (R-Center Moriches), who represents the area.

"We had to have helicopters to drop water," he said. "We had to wait until fire burned its way to roads so firefighters could put them out with pumper trucks."

The community relies on electric-powered wells for water. Moretti has two; one in the basement for household needs, the other in the yard for irrigation. Many neighbors have only one.

"You don't drink it, you bring in water for drinking," said Bontempi.

"The water is so hard, you have to have it softened," added Roseanne Smith, who lives near Bontempi. "Everything rusts and if you find a big piece of rust on the bottom of the washing machine . . .

" . . . You better leave it because picking it off could make a hole," Bontempi finished.

John Dunleavy, a Republican town council member, and Pendzick had stopped by earlier. Both said they would work to try and find a grant or some other way to bring a water main into the community.

Pendzick said the community was the last in Riverhead not to have the choice of hooking up to a water main. "Our goal is to extend the water district to every resident," he said.

Moretti said he'd seen another fire in the area about 20 years ago. "We made plans back then too to get out with our children, our animals and our family photos." The family's plan worked.

"But I'll tell you this," Moretti said, looking at the new damage. "I'd feel a lot better about a next time if we had fire hydrants."

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