A community garden on a town-owned plot of land on West Main Street would “jumpstart downtown revitalization,” according to garden proponent Laurie Nigro.

Nigro is a co-founder of River and Roots Community Garden, a nonprofit group dedicated to bringing a community garden to downtown Riverhead on the vacant lot opposite Griffing Avenue on the south side of West Main Street.

Nigro, along with River and Roots co-founder Amy Davidson, both downtown residents, told board members that community gardens bring people together, building community,  promoting community pride and healthy eating habits.

“And it will be an instant facelift. It will jumpstart downtown revitalization,” Nigro said.

Board members heard from a wide range of community garden supporters — from health educator Susan Wilk of Cornell Cooperative Extension, who said her agency has just received a $1.2 million state grant to promote healthy eating which could help fund the community garden effort downtown, to 6-year-old Rita Nigro, who gave board members an education on sorrel, her favorite vegetable.

Davidson and Nigro have been searching for a plot of land in downtown Riverhead for more than a year. They liked the West Main Street site early on. So did the Town Board, apparently. On a Facebook page created for the community garden announced in March they had the “unanimous support” of the Town Board for their use of that location. But the idea stalled because board members said they heard a prior board had promised the site to an unidentified veterans group for the site of a new war memorial.

“We’ve done extensive research and cannot find any evidence that this site was in any way dedicated to any veterans group for a war memorial,” Supervisor Sean Walter said at yesterday’s Town Board meeting.

But John Newman of South Jamesport, representing VFW Post 2476, challenged that conclusion. Though he acknowledged he didn’t have documentation of any claim to the land, Newman said he was “led to believe that a previous board passed a resolution approving this site as a war memorial.”

“We can’t find it. We’ve looked everywhere,” Walter said. “I don’t think that’s accurate.” The supervisor also said his staff has spoken with every veterans group in town and nobody knows anything about it. The veterans groups said they have difficulty maintaining the three existing war memorials in town, according to the supervisor.

“The only people I’ve ever heard this from are you and [Riverhead Town Assessor] Paul Leszczynski,” Walter said.

Walter said he does not believe the two uses are mutually exclusive, anyway, though Newman disagreed.

“If we don’t do [the community garden], the alternative is what’s been there, a vacant lot and an eyesore,” Walter said.

Riverhead resident Sandra Mott objected to the site for a different reason. She said the plot, which is near the Peconic River, is sometimes flooded when the river rises above its banks.

“There are all kinds of radioactive wastes in that river, from Brookhaven Lab,” Mott said. A site that receives floodwaters from the river is therefore “not suitable for growing food,” she said.

A 2004 health and environment assessment of the Peconic River, commissioned by Suffolk County, found that discharges into the river from the sewage treatment plant at the national laboratory in Upton, the site of the river’s headwaters, have contaminated the river’s surface waters and sediments with PCBs, mercury, cesium 137, copper and silver. The study, conducted by Cashin Associates, concluded that that the greatest risks are those relating to toxic impacts from the consumption of fish caught in the river, principally from mercury.

Nigro said the community garden would consist of raised beds, which will be filed with soil purchased from garden supply centers, and the beds should not be impacted by any flooding.

The plan is to lease sbout 40 raised beds to downtown residents for a nominal fee that would cover the cost of liability insurance and basic maintenance. Beds not claimed by downtown residents would be let to other Riverhead residents on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“I love that this is part of a resurgence of interest in agrigculture,” said Councilman George Gabrielsen, a Jamesport farmer. “I’m all for it.”

“I think this is a fantastic idea,” agreed the supervisor.

The public hearing record remains open for written comments until Jan. 7, 2011.


Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the age of Rita Nigro. She is six years old.

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