It is an indictment of Jennifer DeSena’s failed leadership and incompetency as North Hempstead’s supervisor that the Great Neck Historical Society is appealing to the National Park Service to withdraw the town’s stewardship of the historic Stepping Stones Lighthouse, which the town has had since 2008, and find a more responsible steward.
My problem with DeSena is not only her lack of competency, her willful ignorance and fecklessness, but her intentional sabotage of an earnest, decade-long effort by the historical society and Great Neck Park District, and her contempt for Great Neck altogether.
(Full disclosure: As of this writing I am a Great Neck Historical Society board member and member of its Lighthouse committee, but my remarks are solely my own opinion.)
It is more than DeSena’s claim that she was unaware of the issue months into her tenure. Or, according to Councilwoman Veronica Lurvey, DeSena asked her to pull from the agenda approval for a contract, almost entirely funded from grants ($547,000), to build a dock the town deemed critical to even begin the preservation project.
That meant the loss of a full year of work (now two) to shore up the structure from battering storms.
Indeed, in advance of publishing, on July 5, I asked DeSena directly if she intended to save the Lighthouse, and she actually said that 18 months into a two-year term, she still needed to study the issue, but intends to hold a meeting of “stakeholders.”
It is more than the gross incompetence of the town’s Public Works Dept. for failing to even file for the necessary permits from the Corps of Engineers or the mandated annual reports to the National Parks Service as a steward is required to do, resulting in the town having to give back grant money won by the Bosworth administration that would have paid for the dock work and emergency repair.
It is the deception, essentially stringing along the Great Neck Historical Society – ostensibly the town’s “partner” in preserving the Lighthouse and its major advocate for restoration – with claims she was “studying,” ‘learning,” “considering” – when in fact she had/has no intention whatsoever of saving the lighthouse.
She likely hopes the delays would result in the Lighthouse collapsing into the Long Island Sound altogether, so that the 19th century brick structure would be replaced by the U. S. Coast Guard with a metal pole. Problem solved.
Her antipathy is related to a general hostility to Great Neck epitomized by one man’s frequent appearances at town meetings: Why spend town money on a Great Neck landmark reached from a park that is exclusive to Great Neck Park District taxpaying residents? (The answer is that preserving the landmark benefits the entire town and community, and that the ultimate goal would be to make access to the Lighthouse available to the public, which would also be an economic boon for the Peninsula and the town.)
DeSena, as recently as this week, complained that saving the Lighthouse was never supposed to be at town taxpayer expense. Well, the vast bulk of cost was supposed to be borne from fund-raising as well as grants.
The town could have been more aggressive in seeking grants, but has not, and now the unprecedented pots of federal, state and local infrastructure funding will be emptied by the end of the year, while interest and bond rates are more than triple from historic lows.
Out of its own fund-raising efforts, the Great Neck Historical Society in 2017 paid for a study to determine the feasibility, cost estimate and work schedule to shore up the Lighthouse. But after nothing was done and season after season of restoration work was lost, GNHS funded another study in 2022 to counter the “rumor” being spread that the Lighthouse was not salvageable (to justify a claim that spending town money would be fiscally irresponsible). The study found that while the Lighthouse needs extensive work, it can be preserved and ultimately restored.
“The present Town administration has clearly and repeatedly demonstrated opposition to the restoration project; has shared no information, including permit issues with the Historical Society; has effectively and unilaterally killed restoration of the Steppingstone Lighthouse; has allowed promotion of an anti-Great Neck atmosphere within the Town; fails to appreciate the benefit to future generations and has missed an opportunity to preserve a valuable piece of history and its legend,” the Historical Society said in a press release calling for the Town to be removed as steward.
Lurvey said she presented a resolution in April, supported by the Great Neck Historical Society, to advance the restoration process, with costs covered by grants, but was ultimately defeated when the supervisor surprisingly produced previously undisclosed correspondence regarding the rescinding of a Maritime Heritage Grant.
“Why this information was not shared earlier with the Historical Society or other members of the Town Board remains a mystery,” Lurvey wrote in an emailed response. “Regardless, the supervisor’s wish was granted: the resolution failed to pass, the restoration efforts came to a grinding halt, and now we find ourselves in a state of uncertainty as the structure continues to deteriorate.”
Lurvey added that by withholding crucial details, the supervisor effectively obstructs any possibility of collaboration with those who are advocating to save the Lighthouse.
“This administration has shown no inclination towards fostering partnerships. Progress was admittedly sluggish under previous administrations, but at least there was positive momentum. Now, unfortunately, we find ourselves at an impasse,” she said.
Lurvey pointed to the irony that the Town’s official website extols the significant historical value and rich heritage of the Stepping Stones Lighthouse. “It is a compelling testament to its importance and should not be overlooked. I also extend this suggestion to our supervisor, who has had 18 months to educate herself on the subject.” Town Website – Lighthouse Information.
If DeSena decided she was unable or unwilling to preserve the Lighthouse, she should have been honest about it and more aggressive in finding a worthy successor to be its steward, instead of leading on preservation advocates (as she is doing even today), hoping the next storm would be the one to finally topple it altogether.
Now the Historical Society has taken up the mantle to try to recruit a steward who actually cares.
And the town should find a new leader as well.