A pile of leaves in the road on Sandy Court in Riverhead Monday afternoon. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Friday’s snowstorm, while not a major snow event, was enough to complicate things mightily for the Riverhead Highway Department and its newly installed superintendent. Crews had just begun the much-delayed loose leaf pickup on Monday, Jan. 3 and were at it less than three full days before they had to shift gears and focus on snow removal.

“We knew it would be a race against time,” said Highway Superintendent Mike Zaleski, who took office Jan. 1, succeeding long-term predecessor in the post, George Woodson. “But it happened quicker than we’d hoped.”

Woodson and the Riverhead Town Board were in a standoff over loose-leaf pickup at the end of his final year at the helm of the department — with the town board directing the superintendent to conduct the pickup and Woodson refusing.

Woodson had been seeking to end the practice for more than a decade, arguing that the pickup program was not a highway function and questioning the legality of spending highway funds on it. Successive town boards rejected Woodson’s request to terminate the pickup program, even though the town’s contract with its household garbage carter provides for bagged leaf and yard waste pickup year-round.

In the fall of 2020, Woodson agreed to do the pickup on the condition that the town board understands the highway department will not be doing it in 2021. But 2021 turned out to be a replay of 2020 — except Woodson, whose term was expiring at the end of the year and decided not to seek re-election, said he would not capitulate. And he didn’t.

That left the incoming superintendent — who had served as Woodson’s deputy since 2016 — to deal with the leaves after he took office. Zaleski was hoping the weather would cooperate, but he was soon disappointed.

In the predawn hours Friday, Riverhead highway crews were out spreading salt and sand and plowing snow.

And, consequently, leaves.

A Riverhead Highway crew removing leaves on Jan. 5 in Wading River. Photo: Peter Blasl

While the town requires residents to place loose leaves curbside for pickup, but not in the roadway, many residents pile leaves in the road anyway. So the plows plowed the the piled-up leaves along with the snow.

“We tried to go around them wherever we could,” Zaleski said. But it just wasn’t possible to avoid them in most cases. So the leaves get spread around, which makes picking them up more difficult, Zaleski said.

When the snow melts and the water moves to the street drains, it brings the leaves with it and the drains are getting clogged, Zaleski said. “That’s a huge factor,” he said.

It’s more difficult to dump the leaves, too, Zaleski said. The trucks have to traverse muddy fields and they get stuck. “The snow really hindered the operation,” Zaleski said.

“Usually we’d have this done before Christmas. You might get one snowfall in December, maybe two. But now it’s January and that’s a whole different ballgame,” he said. “Now, it’s a mad rush to get them picked up.”

The whole process — more slow-moving than usual — is delayed, Zaleski said. Highway crews are still working in Wading River.

Zaleski asks that residents be patient.

“We’ll be battling this all month,” he said.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.