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Highway workers to help clean Smithtown streams

The Smithtown Town Board has voted to temporarily transfer four town highway workers to help clean clogged streams in the area, to alleviate blockages that can lead to flooding and downed trees and can harbor mosquitoes.

The town board voted 4-0, with Councilman Edward Wehrheim absent, at a special town board meeting Tuesday to reassign the seasonal laborers and sanitation helpers to the town parks department. The workers were reassigned from Wednesday to July 2 for the project.

The vote came after a town board meeting last week in which the board voted 4-1 against transferring $50,000 to part-time salaries in the parks department for the project. Wehrheim said the money should be used to reconstruct park playing fields that are in disrepair. Supervisor Patrick Vecchio was the only board member who voted in favor of the transfer, though he said at a work session Tuesday that highway workers should be transferred to do the job.

The stream-cleaning sites include San Remo near Harrison Pond, and sections of the northeast branch of the Nissequogue River, such as the Brady Park area -- including sites east of Brooksite Drive -- as well as from Millers Pond south to Bow Drive marsh near the Islip Town border, said Russell Barnett, the town's environmental protection director.

"There are a number of surface water streams throughout the Town of Smithtown that are located in proximity with homes and businesses," Barnett said. "When the stream gets blocked up, it's no longer fulfilling its drainage function to move water out of a neighborhood, which means that when it rains, the pond gets bigger and bigger, leading to locally rising groundwater table that can flood people's basements."

Flooded ponds can also cause adjoining trees to die and fall on homes because the roots lack air, he said.

Since streams are protected wetlands, there are rules about how they can be cleaned, Barnett said. Workers must use hand tools to cut away downed trees, haul debris and knock down dams.

Barnett described the work as "very, very hard, labor-intensive work. . . . Sometimes you're walking up to your waist in dark, murky, smelly water."

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