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Port Jefferson moves to preserve Highlands parcel as open space

Christina Giacomazza, left, of Port Jefferson, and Kathleen

Christina Giacomazza, left, of Port Jefferson, and Kathleen Riley, of Port Jefferson, stand in front of an area that has been recently approved by the Village as public parkland. Credit: Ed Betz

Port Jefferson officials have approved plans to turn a wooded, six-acre parcel into a public park to save it from possible development, bringing relief to residents who feared losing one of the village's last pieces of open space.

The fate of the property -- known as the Highlands, for the adjacent condominium development that once owned the parcel -- had been among the concerns raised by critics of a proposed master plan that is nearing approval by the village board.

The land is on Highlands Boulevard in the village's Upper Port section, where officials hope to revitalize a sagging Main Street commercial strip.

Kathleen Riley, part of a group that advocates Port Jefferson land preservation, said the wooded parcel, dotted with Bradford pear trees and oaks, is one of the village's last pieces of undeveloped property.

"Open space is like gold, and to me it is like a premium environmental concern to everyone," said Riley, adding that about 1,500 residents signed petitions asking that the property be saved from development. "Preserving the land truly was a true communitywide effort."

Port Jefferson officials several years ago had rejected developer James Tsunis' proposal to swap a parcel he owned in exchange for the village-owned Highlands property, where he planned to build four three-story, 24-unit apartment buildings.

The proposed master plan recommends designating the Highlands property for open space. But many critics of the plan said the document did not go far enough to ensure the parcel's protection from development.

The village board voted 4-0 on March 16 to designate the property as parkland. Mayor Margot Garant said a public meeting would be held later this year to discuss possible uses for the land.

Trustee Bruce Miller abstained from the vote after a failed attempt to amend the resolution to say the property would be used for "passive" parkland.

Garant and other trustees said the term "passive" was too vague. "A golf course could be described as passive," trustee Bruce D'Abramo said.

Garant, after an online search, read a definition saying passive park uses could include libraries and parking fields.

"It's a village property, and it needs a public discussion," Garant said. "Saying it's passive doesn't solve the problem."

Virginia Capon, a former member of the village's Comprehensive Plan Committee, which sought public input for the master plan, said the best use of the land would be "nature appreciation."

"Everybody's happy that it's protected," Capon said.

Riley said the land should be reserved for "contemplative walking paths."

"Where do you see places that are an open field left on Long Island? Where do you see it?" Riley said. "We're just building too much. I just think it's so important for our health . . . that we preserve these areas."

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