Raised in the upper-middle class Village of Bellport, John Rogers spent a good part of his childhood in a community that was pedestrian-oriented. He could walk to the docks facing Fire Island on the south shore of the tiny, quaint village while interacting with the stream of visitors that would visit in the summer months, as well as year-round residents. The streets were lined with a hand-full of shops, and just as many restaurants that gave visitors a taste of this historic whaling village’s past.

Less than two miles from the Village of Bellport is North Bellport. The communities are separated by train tracks and on the north side is one of the poorest and most blighted neighborhoods on Long Island. According to the 2010 Census, nearly 43 percent of the residents in North Bellport are living below the poverty level, compared to just 2 percent in the Village of Bellport.

Rogers purchased a house in North Bellport in 1994, and began to notice the dramatic disparities in home ownership and unemployment. In 2006, Rogers, along with other members of the North Bellport community decided to work towards eliminating the disparities by creating the Greater Bellport Coalition. With the help of Sustainable Long Island, an organization whose mission is to assist in the advancement of economic development, the coalition began to work with the Town of Brookhaven to create a plan that would help revitalize North Bellport by creating a vibrant main street atmosphere along with jobs and investment opportunities.

After decades of attempts, the Town of Brookhaven finally took a major step in October by adopting a plan to reverse economic and social depression in North Bellport. Rogers and his colleagues were elated.

“This is a huge step towards revitalizing North Bellport,” Rogers said. “We’re ready to Rock ‘N Roll.”

Not quite. One of the biggest obstacles that officials must now confront is how to handle potential sites of serious contamination and pollution called brownfields, that are scattered throughout the area, a problem not only for Bellport but for the rest of Long Island, the state and the nation.

When the Town of Brookhaven was drafting the plan, officials identified 24 potential brownfield sites. Today, all but one of the 24 sites appears to be occupied with businesses that range from salvage yards to automotive repair shops, and from used car lots to heating and oil businesses. The bulk of these businesses sit along Montauk Highway, yet some are situated in residential neighborhoods, giving rise to the threat of contaminants, such as chemicals and metals, leeching into the ground water table.

Located on Montauk Highway, Tinsley Auto Paint was identified as a potential brownfield site and sits on the remains of an old gas station and automotive repair shop. The paint on the building is peeling, the front corner window appears to be dirty and hazy and there are multiple cars parked in front of the building. Heading west on Montauk Highway is an 18-acre site that runs parallel to Dunton Avenue, and is home to Mustang Auto Parts, Green Earth Materials and El Salvador Auto Parts, among a number of other salvage yards and automotive repair shops. Some of the houses on Dunton Avenue have second story windows that look out across this sea of broken down cars.

On Station Road, a major thoroughfare in the area, there is a site that was once occupied by a company called Poly-Mag that had a history of making magnets. The local hospital was looking for a place to build a family health center, but would not develop on the Poly-Mag site because hospital officials perceived that the site was contaminated.

“Here we were, unable to work towards revitalization because of perceived contamination,” says Diane Mazarakis, the principal planner for the Town of Brookhaven. This drove the town to seek state grant money to help clean up the area.

On Oct. 17, 2013, Gov. Cuomo announced that $10 million in Brownfield Opportunity Area Grants would be split between 26 communities across New York. The Town of Brookhaven received $303,958 to be used exclusively for North Bellport.

According to David Ashton, the Long Island representative for the New York State Brownfield Opportunity Area Program, “The issue [of brownfields] is large and the exact number of brownfields is not known.”

Though an exact number of brownfields in New York is not known, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation website lists 41 identified brownfield sites in the Town of Brookhaven, 278 in Suffolk County and 302 in Nassau County.

At a national level, the Government Accountability Office estimates at least 425,000 sites in the U.S. To put this number into perspective, the National Brownfield Association says, “Some estimates show that there are 5 million acres of abandoned industrial sites in our nation’s cities – roughly the same amount of land occupied by 60 of our largest cities.”

One of the problems with identifying brownfields is that the definition is very broad and contains terms like ‘real or perceived.’ According to Ashton, when sites are identified, “There isn’t always an environmental issue. The thinking is it’s always worse than it actually is.”

In North Bellport, most of the sites are not abandoned, but occupied.

Monti’s Auto Works shop owner Steve Montick was shocked that he was on the list of brownfields, and said that he had his soil tested recently for metals and chemicals and it came up clean. Nelson & Pope Engineers and Surveyors, LLC completed the soil test, but due to privacy issues, would not confirm Montick’s claim.

According to Mazarakis, the state grant money has been budgeted to allow for three main studies that will help the town attract investors to the area.

One study will look into how the revitalization will affect traffic patterns, another study will find out what type of housing is supported in the area and the third study will look at what the community is missing. The hope is that this will help dispel some of the rumors out there regarding the area.

Councilwoman Connie Kepert says, “When you look at North Bellport and look at the census tracks, it is one of the poorest areas on Long Island. What we need in this area is investment.”

An environmental inventory, analysis and site assessment will also be conducted on the 24 brownfields. Officials will decide whether the owners are in violation of their certificate of occupancy on zoning regulations.

According to Mazarakis, some of the brownfield sites are going to be rezoned, because the town doesn’t want to have too many parcels zoned for auto use.

“If an owner has a certificate of occupancy, he’s going to continue there forever, but, he won’t be able to expand,” says Mazarakis. “If he does not have a certificate of occupancy, we’ll eventually either tell him he has to become legal, or if he’s not compliant with the zoning he will have to come into compliance.”

Ultimately, the town wants to look into opportunities to turn these brownfield sites into economic development sites and lure private developers.

According to Sustainable Long Island Program Director Erin Thoresen, “We’ve had tough economic times recently and a lot of development in general, everywhere, has slowed down quite a bit. So, it’s really hard to say if they will be successful [revitalizing North Bellport,] but the community is persistent. I think that they want it and think that they are not going to give up,” says Thoresen.

Getting the land use plan adopted by the town was a major hurdle for the revitalization efforts, but it was only the first step. The next step will be to conduct the environmental assessments of all 24 sites, and that should begin by the middle of 2015.

The revitalization efforts are not going to happen over night. Councilwoman Kepert says that this entire plan could take up to 20 years to complete.

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