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Learning the climate lessons of Mastic Beach, a Long Island experiment in local control

Joanne Kalb stands next to an American flag outside her home as floodwaters from a superstorm that struck the northeast begin to recede on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012, in Mastic Beach, N.Y. A Suffolk County official said the community on Long Island's south shore was among the hardest hit.
Frank Eltman
Associated Press
Joanne Kalb stands next to an American flag outside her home as floodwaters from a superstorm that struck the northeast begin to recede on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012, in Mastic Beach, N.Y. A Suffolk County official said the community on Long Island's south shore was among the hardest hit.

Maura Spery’s house in Mastic Beach floods so often that she names the tides that reach her home.

It's a largely working-class community that was developed in the 1920s as a summer community for blue-collar Italian-American families. But Mastic Beach wasn’t really put on the map until 2010 when a group of residents petitioned to have more control over their land and, later that year, incorporated Mastic Beach into its own village government. Spery was the village’s former mayor.

Maura Spery, the former mayor of the short-lived village of Mastic Beach, speaks with Higher Ground's J.D. Allen and Sabrina Garone.
Sara Ruberg
WSHU Public Radio
Maura Spery, the former mayor of the short-lived village of Mastic Beach, speaks with Higher Ground's J.D. Allen and Sabrina Garone.

“The incorporation of Mastic Beach Village was actually partially to develop the waterfront. This was met with a giant tidal wave of opposition,” Spery said. She wanted to turn that plan for development on the waterfront into one for conservation and climate action instead.

“You're pushing a giant ball up that hill, you know, that is a big push,” Spery said. “But we have to do it, folks. Otherwise, you're not going to want to live here because it's just going to smell like a giant septic system.”

But just six years later, the independent village government dissolved, its effort to address climate change ended in failure.

Spery said it hamstrings the community because the local government needs to be involved in combating climate change. Since the village government she headed dissolved in 2016, Spery has spearheaded environmental advocacy in her neighborhood. She created the Mastic Beach Conservancy to protect the over six miles of public, recreational waterfront that is feet from her home.

These considerations are important as New York embarks on a multi-year study to assess how the state can better respond to climate change and chart a course for its future based on climate science. On Long Island, those conversations about climate change can be hard to come by.

Mastic Beach and many communities on Long Island face systemic inequalities in their ability to respond to climate change. WSHU invited some of the residents of Mastic Beach to come together to tell their stories as part of the podcast Higher Ground.

Join the conversation

Outside the 10-foot climb to Spery’s front door gathered Emilia Brandimarte, a 17-year-old high school graduate who lives around the corner, local NAACP president Georgette Grier-Key and Alison Branco, an environmentalist at The Nature Conservancy.

Emilia Brandimarte, a graduate of Mastic Beach high school and member of Students for Climate Action, speaks to the crew of Higher Ground.
Sara Ruberg
WSHU Public Radio
Emilia Brandimarte, a graduate of Mastic Beach high school and member of Students for Climate Action, speaks to the crew of Higher Ground.

“I've been here all my life, I've never moved. And, you know, I found out that I actually liked Long Island, but that was only when I got a car,” Brandimarte said.

Then, she discovered the central role the environment plays in that enjoyment. So, she joined Students for Climate Action, a regional advocacy group that started on Long Island. She said young people shouldn’t need a car to enjoy it here.

“If you make this community more walkable, then you're using less cars and you know, the carbon emissions are less.”

Brandimarte also brings that advocacy home to her parents, whom she describes as hard working. Spery said that’s much like the other families here, who live in this blue-collar community but work in wealthier parts of the island.

“We house, we feed, we educate all of the workers, children, like almost all of them who work in the Hamptons.” Spery said. “A giant part of it's coming from this peninsula.”

In Mastic Beach, a two-bedroom house runs at least $275,000 — cheaper than the rest of Long Island and way cheaper than the Hamptons where prices exceed $20 million the closer you get to the water. Still, Mastic Beach is a shot at the American dream for many.

Georgette Grier-Key, Brookhaven NAACP president
Sara Ruberg
WSHU Public Radio
Georgette Grier-Key, Brookhaven NAACP president

“First of all, the communities that we're talking about, it's like someone has written the narrative for us. And we have to deconstruct that narrative that they have written for us that one said things that are derogatory to who we are as a people and as a community,” said Grier-Key, the NAACP president.

She said Mastic Beach gets a bad rap for petty crime and drug use. Tackling those problems were two more reasons for the village’s incorporation in 2010. Blight in the community encourages youth to act out.

“Because there's not so much to do around here. I was always horrified by the people who grew up here and lived here and as a kid, it was like, ‘oh, people live in this dump their entire lives and my next, you know, am I ever gonna be able to get out?’” Brandimarte said. “And it's not about getting out; it's about, you know, making it better sometimes.”

This collective brainstorming session allowed nearby residents to overcome barriers to prevent people from coming together, said Branco, the environmentalist. All of these guests live within a few miles of each other, and all are concerned about the environment and the effects of climate change. Yet they’ve never met one another until now.

Higher Ground host J.D. Allen, left, speaks with, from left, Maura Spery, Emilia Brandimarte and Alison Branco in Mastic Beach on Long Island.
Sara Ruberg
WSHU Public Radio
Episode 7 — Higher Ground host J.D. Allen goes to Mastic Beach, New York, to speak with Maura Spery, the former mayor of the short-lived village of Mastic Beach. It was formed in the early 2000s to better control its land, but recovering from Superstorm Sandy ran it to the ground. Now advocates, including Spery, Alison Branco, coastal director at The Nature Conservancy, and Emilia Brandimarte, a graduate of Mastic Beach high school and member of Students for Climate Action, want to save the community.

“It's a big effort. And it's not easy for people to come together,” Branco said. “You know, when you have a job, or two or three jobs, you know, all of the rest of your life to worry about. It's not easy to come together and sort of give your input on what you want your community to look like.

And so I think, now that so many coastal communities are facing extra challenges, because of sea level rise, it's even more important that we make that possible.”

And Mastic Beach is a special place to have a conversation about coastal communities for one particular reason: All of its coastline is publicly accessible, unlike most of Long Island — and really, the whole United States — which is privately owned.

“The management of it is done in a super selfish ‘me me me’ kind of way,” Branco said. “But when you can have public ownership of the land, that doesn't happen anymore, and you can prioritize things, like healthy coastal environments that protect the people, protect the habitat, and are really better for everyone in the long run.”

Branco said communities are prevented from responding to climate change for basic economic reasons.

“Sometimes you hear the less well informed people say things like, ‘oh, the whole place is going underwater, it doesn't matter,’” she said. “And that's not true. There are just certain places where people need help to move to higher ground and get safer, but the community as a whole can continue to be very vibrant here.”

Grier-Key wants all taxpayers to have the right to government assistance from some of the programs discussed throughout the Higher Ground series — even though they may be controversial to those who don’t live here, but who bear some of the cost.

Federal programs helped residents rebuild and raise their homes and businesses after Superstorm Sandy, which gave them access to affordable flood insurance. A state program even purchased flooded houses at the market price from people who wanted to walk away.

Mastic Beach got this help, too. But people of color received the least.

“What shouldn't happen is all of the red tape and all of the other shenanigans as far as you know, what happened with those programs and not making them really streamlined for the people who are the victims,” she said.

Black residents historically face more barriers to economic recovery. They are denied bank loans more than any other racial groups. Latino residents are next.

Grier-Key said people of color often lack the financial resources to recover from extreme weather, like bank savings, access to a line of credit, or the ability to borrow from family and friends. They also trust the government the least to be able to help them.

“I think about who historically is barred from getting these loans, it all has to do with your assets, your ability and mobility within the economic factors. And that's just not, you know, Brown and Black people, that's people who have been on the margins for years,” Grier-Key said.

And that’s part of why this “marginalized community” sought to take more say over the laws and services available to them, by incorporating their own village government.

Taking control

Once they established the Village of Mastic Beach in 2010, Spery, the former mayor, said residents were told the operating budget for the village would be $600,000, and taxes would not increase to fund programs and services they wanted to put in place.

“They told them that they could have a village government but their taxes would not go up, which is a complete lie,” Spery said.

Climate-resilient infrastructure sank the village financially from the start. Over a hundred storm drains, 84 miles of road, and the 6-mile waterfront, as well as everything else it takes to run a village, cost over $3 million in its first year.

“You can't have a village government without raising taxes,” Spery said. “The village of Mastic Beach was incorporated. A year later, Irene came and did tremendous damage down here and was kind of the precursor to how bad it was going to get a year later, and then they had Sandy and they did a terrible job of trying to maintain these dirt roads. Being a village government, when you don't know what you're doing, is difficult.

Spery’s final proposed budget as mayor exceeded $4.7 million. It would have raised taxes up to $300 a household to maintain the roads and storm drain infrastructure. Some people petitioned for her resignation. Instead, the residents voted to dissolve the village government the next year.

Branco said for coastal communities, municipal accountability like an incorporated village government is an effort to better control what happens in their backyard.

“Rather than just sort of let the water come and see what happens to us, what we really need to do is create a new vision for ourselves,” she said. “And that requires everyone in the community to be a part of it.”

Incorporation might not be the answer for every community. But organizing to have community voices’ heard is a start.

Finding solutions

Over two decades ago and a few towns over, civic organizations and other residents in eastern Long Island wanted a way to preserve wilderness. Grier-Key, the local NAACP leader, said they pushed elected officials to come up with a steady source of revenue that towns could use to purchase environmentally-sensitive land for conservation.

“Environmentalists, conservationists, historic preservationists, and we have to be together because the developers are coming for us one by one. And not that all development is bad development. We need smart development, we need to talk to one another,” Grier-Key said.

In 1991, a state ballot referendum vote established a new tax on real estate transactions to preserve open space and eventually to address water quality infrastructure.

Over the last 20 years it’s generated over $1.7 billion, and more than 10,000 acres of land has been preserved. But not every community has access to that money equally.

“Now, how do we incorporate that and other places like Mastic Beach?” she asked. “With this amount of money, you mean to tell me that there is nothing that we can't do. For a community like this, we're pristine property that we can't preserve? Just with that money alone, what can we do for our environment?”

“We need to figure out how we are leaving this for the next generation,” she continued.

Take student climate leader Emilia Brandimarte: She is heading off to college in Massachusetts. She was unsure if she would come back to Long Island, but after getting involved with the student climate group, she feels connected to this coastal community.

“The most active people in the community have been here their entire lives, and they're invested because of that. So you can't just have people that are, you know, coming in and doing all the work for you,” Brandimarte said. “You are responsible for your own community.”

“We are intertwined,” Grier-Key said with tears in her eyes. “People from around the world come to Long Island to live. Why should we have to move because we feel like things are changing? Because we're not doing anything to save it. We're not doing anything to make sure that even if you go away to school and you come back with this fancy degree, you'll have a job, you'll be able to buy a home. No, we're supposed to be leaving a better place for the generation and instead, we've given them a pile of crap literally to deal with.”

Grier-Key also supports the creation of community land banks, which turn vacant, abandoned and tax-foreclosed properties into productive community assets, like affordable housing and preserved open space. She said land banks could help alleviate some of the pain that is brought by extreme weather.

“It will give us the power to have that insurance and the funding sources that we need to communally protect them. You know, in the future, I would rather [have that] than eminent domain…” she said, referring to the process when the government forces property owners to sell their land for the sake of building public works projects or preserving land.

Infamously, the state seized land through this process in the late 1920s to build roads out to what was eventually hailed as America’s first suburban housing development for — white — World War 2 and Korean War veterans and their families: Levittown.

Grier-Key said it's this racist system that built much of Long Island suburbia.

“Because me, personally, I do not believe that the government would not levy a massive, eminent domain against certain, and I'm using quotation marks, community,” she said.

But Grier-Key also acknowledges that some land on Long Island was set aside in the last century for people of color, where community building was done by non-white planners, who were left to their own devices.

“Before Levittown, there were already planned communities on Long Island. Specifically, people don't like to talk about Gordon Heights or Azurest in Sag Harbor,” Grier-Key said. “These were planned communities, planned tracts of land. So there were very many other communities that were planned before Levittown — he just happened to be the shiny penny."

And Grier-Key said there’s an even deeper historical perspective to all of this.

“Let us acknowledge that we are on indigenous land. And they have taught us long ago, but nobody listens to them, just like nobody listens to us, of how to be incorporated with nature. But we can change that. Earth can replenish itself, if we just stop abusing it. And so we need help to stop abusing it. We need to listen to the indigenous people and scientists about working on this,” she said.

More information about how the Long Island’s Indigenous people are responding to climate change is available on WSHU’s climate podcast Higher Ground — Subscribe to Higher Ground on Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher.

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.
Sabrina is host and producer of WSHU’s daily podcast After All Things. She also produces the climate podcast Higher Ground and other long-form news and music programs at the station. Sabrina spent two years as a WSHU fellow, working as a reporter and assisting with production of The Full Story.