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Smithtown master plan community forum draws residents

Residents look at two aerial maps of Smithtown,

Residents look at two aerial maps of Smithtown, one from 1930 and another from 2010, before a forum where Smithtown Town Planning Director Frank DeRubeis (not pictured) talks about the newest volume of the town's comprehensive plan at the Smithtown Library on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. Credit: Brad Penner

Planning for Smithtown's future was the hot topic at a recent community forum, which brought out dozens of residents who filled a library room to hear about updates to the town's master plan, which was last adopted in 1957.

The hamlet, like many suburbs across Long Island and the nation, is at a crossroads to determine its next steps in economic development, infrastructure improvement and attracting young people to its downtowns, planning officials said.

"Suburbia is really a new form of development that occurred only in the postwar years. . . . It was a period of very, very rapid growth," said Smithtown town planner Frank DeRubeis. "That period of growth has ended, and it ended in about the mid-80s. . . . Anything that we're going to do, we're going to do with what we've got now."

DeRubeis, who spoke late last month at an event hosted by the Smithtown League of Women Voters, unveiled updates to the town's master plan, which includes eight volumes that analyze population, transportation and economic and natural resources. The seventh volume, on land use, is to be published this summer. The eighth volume -- which DeRubeis estimated will be completed in a year, but said could take longer -- will be the plan itself, which requires community input and more active involvement from government leaders.

"If you are going to do something within your community, you cannot wait for somebody else to do it," he said. "You have to do it." DeRubeis explained that his office, which is short-staffed, has been working on the plan for the past six years because the board did not want to pay an outside consultant to complete it more quickly.

Key infrastructure improvements include redeveloping the town's road and park systems to increase pedestrian safety and better spread park utilization. The town is also pursuing a sewer line extension from Kings Park to downtown Smithtown -- a critical component to allow restaurants and multifamily housing -- estimated to cost $14 million, said DeRubeis.

"The town will have to actively pursue sewers and determine where the financing will come from, because you're talking tens of millions of dollars," said Smithtown Supervisor Patrick Vecchio. "Sewers also would provide the housing that would attract young people in the downtowns close to transportation."

Despite the planning efforts, some residents balked at the idea that the town's plan is 57 years old.

Bruce Ettenberg, president of the Commack Community Association, wondered whether the updated plans would materialize in his lifetime. "This has been going on in the last 30 or 40 years," he said. "If you look to our east and to our west, Huntington seems to be a thriving town and so does Port Jefferson. Downtown Smithtown looks like a shopping strip and there's no life there."

Downtowns in Smithtown and Kings Park will be analyzed for development as part of $300,000 in planning services from the Regional Plan Association. The services were offered in March to three other municipalities by the Suffolk County Industrial Development Agency.

The association's Christopher Jones said it is important to attract young people and businesses to the area, and offer transportation options.

"If you're not expanding your economic base by bringing in more businesses and more households, you're putting more property taxes on the people who already are there," he said.

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