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Head of the Harbor turns to volunteer highway road crew

Residents paint a wall in Head of the

Residents paint a wall in Head of the Harbor on May 26 as part of a volunteer crew the village put together to help with beautification projects. Credit: Ed Betz

Instead of deploying Head of the Harbor’s tiny highway department or hiring expensive contractors for beautification projects this summer, village officials are turning to free labor: a volunteer residents’ road crew.

The crew, formally known as the Roadside and Beautification Committee, assembled on a recent steamy Saturday morning at the intersection of Three Sisters and Gate roads. The entrance walls of the former Thornton Estate, an informal and somewhat imprecise marker of the municipal border, needed paint and the daffodils had grown unruly.

There were five workers: Trustee Gordon Van Vechten, who runs a molding company; Nancy Hess, a real estate broker in Manhattan; Sharlene Wasserman, a volunteer; and two residents who asked not to be named because they work in government.

They had answered a mailer Van Vechten sent out a few weeks ago to the village’s roughly 500 homes. An earlier incarnation of the crew faded away seven years ago after key members grew sick or moved away.

Van Vechten handed out gloves, tarps and rollers and talked as he painted. With no commercial tax base, the village’s “budget is always tight” he said. The highway department is “three guys who are kept busy all the time” with a $448,917 budget and 20 miles of public roads. “If we can accomplish this with volunteer labor, that’s always a plus.”

Municipalities including the towns of Babylon and Southampton, Suffolk County and New York State have more formal initiatives in place, such as the state’s Adopt-A-Highway program.

Smithtown is rolling out a program later this month based on a similar idea, pairing youth groups with area businesses to fundraise and plan face-lifts to town property. Some of those properties — not including park signs and sidewalks — may then bear “tasteful advertisement” to pay for their maintenance, town spokeswoman Nicole Garguilo said.

Van Vechten said he hoped the village road crew would do more than merely save money. Head of the Harbor has no civic association or chamber of commerce. He sees the road crew was “an opportunity to get involved in a civic way, maybe to meet other residents and neighbors.”

He was right. Crew members who’d only just met chatted about deer and camping and the surprise birthday party Wasserman was planning for her husband. They strategized about fixing the finial pineapples atop the Thornton columns and sprucing up to be done elsewhere in the village.

“I want our community to be nice for our family and my kids,” Wasserman said. “People should like their neighborhood and want to conserve it,” said Hess, who likened the village to “an oasis.”

The crew knocked off after two hours of work, having completed one wall and an impressive amount of weeding. Van Vechten handed out bottled water.

In coming months, Van Vechten said he hopes the crew will address the village’s wooden sign posts and the bulletin boards where, even in an electronic age, public notices are posted: They all could use a new coat of white paint, in his estimation.

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