Smithtown officials have proposed acquiring 52 acres of Nissequogue River State Park from New York State for ballfields, Town Supervisor Edward Wehrheim said.
The site, covered by a mix of trees and brush on the southern edge of the state park near Route 25A in Kings Park, would have space for eight fields along with walking paths, bathrooms and a small dog park. It would be the largest town park in that hamlet and the town’s first major parks acquisition since Charles P. Toner Park in Nesconset in 2011.
"We in the town don’t own any parcels large enough to construct new field space like that," Wehrheim said in a phone interview. "We have a lot of town leagues right now utilizing school fields, but the people that run those leagues have indicated their numbers are growing … demand has ramped up."
Wehrheim made his request in a February letter to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo as state officials began public meetings to develop a master plan for the 522-acre Nissequogue River park. They are scheduled to release in December a final plan addressing use of its land and former Kings Park Psychiatric Center buildings.
That letter has gone unanswered, Wehrheim said. State parks spokesman Dan Keefe said his department would evaluate the request as "part of the ongoing master planning process, which is a public process engaging stakeholders, community representatives and the public about the future of the park. No decisions will be made until the master plan is complete."
Smithtown’s youth population fell from 31,204 in 2010 to 24,985 in 2019, the last year for which Census figures were available, but the town's own master plan, released in draft form late last year, identifies new soccer, lacrosse and football fields as a priority, and the pandemic highlighted what town officials said was a field shortage years in the making for recreation leagues serving thousands of children and adults.
"In the 28 years that I’ve been handling the field permit allocations, demand this year seems to be at its greatest," said Thomas McCaffery, the town’s superintendent of recreation. "We are in desperate need."
Some schools closed their fields early in the pandemic and some are now trying to squeeze a year’s worth of sports into what’s left of the school year.
Meanwhile, large organizations like the Smithtown Kickers soccer club have grown and travel teams have proliferated.
In interviews, John McQuaid, chairman of the Nissequogue River State Park Foundation, and Linda Henninger, Kings Park Civic Association president, said they were skeptical of the town’s proposal. "We need to take better care of or upgrade the fields that we have, as opposed to doing a land grab," McQuaid said.
Smithtown officials could also advocate through the master plan process for ballfields to be built and maintained at the park at state expense, rather than the town’s, he said.
"No acreage should be carved out" and other areas of the park are better for fields, Henninger said.
But Jennifer Juengst, the assistant town attorney stewarding Smithtown’s efforts, said town officials hoped to seize "an opportunity that only comes along once a half-century."
The town could seek transfer of title for the land, she said. That would require approval of the State Legislature, but there is precedent: the upstate town of Canandaigua took possession of parkland that way last year.
Field of dreams
Smithtown's proposal could add eight ballfields to town facilities that include:
20 softball fields
18 tennis courts
16 baseball fields
15 basketball courts
7 soccer fields
3 lacrosse fields