Nissequogue River State Park in May 28, 2010.

Nissequogue River State Park in May 28, 2010. Credit: William Perlman

Under a clear blue afternoon sky, Ken Knudtsen of Central Islip sat on a lawn at Nissequogue River State Park in Kings Park and drew pictures of the fall foliage.

Surrounded by trees and the vacant brick buildings from the old Kings Park psychiatric hospital, Knudtsen and a friend appeared to have the entire park to themselves. The solitude, they said, is part of the park's appeal.

"You get the cool shadows of the old buildings," said Knudtsen, 36, an artist. "It's pretty quiet."

With dozens of vacant buildings, the sprawling park looks like a ghost town -- albeit one with stunning views of Long Island Sound.

But that could change if community leaders and local lawmakers have their way.

While the state's announcement last week that it would raze 15 dilapidated buildings at the site next year renewed speculation about the park's future, officials and community leaders say they have definite ideas about the site.

Buildings that are not demolished, they say, could be refurbished and reused.

"It's got tremendous potential for recreational and cultural uses," said Michael Rosato, chairman of the Nissequogue River State Park Foundation, a community group.

The former hospital site is actually two properties, each under the domain of the state parks office. The 153-acre portion north of St. Johnland Road -- including a wildlife refuge, public marina, and hike and bike trails -- is open to the public. It was used by 75,600 visitors last year, parks officials said.

Another 365 acres south of St. Johnland are closed to the public, officials said. The property's future is undecided.

That uncertainty has spurred concern that the state could sell the larger parcel.

Until five years ago, the state's Empire State Development Corp. tried to sell part of the property to developers. But three separate proposals were rejected or withdrawn -- largely due to community opposition -- and the site was transferred to the state parks office.

"The fear always is that it's going to go back on the selling block," said Linda Henninger, a community activist who runs the Park Advocate website.

Henninger and Rosato said the state needs a master plan that would outline the site's potential uses. But parks officials said a plan must wait until the state removes decaying buildings and cleans up miles of steam tunnels laden with asbestos. Cleanup estimates are as high as $215 million.

After the cleanup, Nissequogue could be "the great central park of Suffolk County," said Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket). He envisions theater, music and art galleries -- and housing for seniors in refurbished buildings.

Supervisor Patrick Vecchio said some structures could be turned into offices.

Henninger said the park has untapped potential. "It's only limited by my imagination," she said.

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