Southold residents have long prided themselves on the environmental awareness that exists along the eastern spit of the North Fork, which still remains far less developed than the western portions of the East End.
Monday evening, Sept. 28, the town’s two candidates for supervisor this November — incumbent Scott Russell, a former town tax assessor who has served as supervisor for 10 years, and Damon Rallis, a plans examiner in the town’s building department and former journalist who has worked for the town for 15 years — shared their thoughts on Southold’s environment in a forum at Cutchogue’s Knights of Columbus Hall.
The forum, organized by the North Fork Environmental Council and the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, was uniquely formatted among the plethora of debates for local office this fall.
For one, each candidate addressed the audience directly while his opponent was out of the room and unable to hear his answers to the questions. For another, every topic discussed had something to do with Southold’s fragile environment.
NFEC President Bill Toedter moderated the forum, and the first question he asked was what the candidates would do to solve the town’s water quality and quantity problems.
Mr. Rallis said that, despite assertions by his opponent to the contrary, the town can require advanced septic systems that are not approved by the Suffolk County. The lack of county approval has been a major stumbling block in the East End’s effort to upgrade the area’s septic systems.
“There’s case law on that,” said Mr. Rallis. “We should be addressing an issue like this, as the town.”
Mr. Russell said Southold is planning to form a Water Resource Management Committee to look at some solutions to water issues, and a consortium of East End towns working on environmental issues could help fund a Cornell Cooperative Extension program that works with farmers to minimize their fertilizer use.
Mr. Toedter asked the candidates what they would to do to encourage youth involvement in the environment, and to encourage young people to not move away from Southold, but remain committed to living here.
Mr. Rallis, who has two sons and is a Cubmaster for Pack 51 in Greenport, said everything taught in scouting is about sustainability.
“We don’t do enough in Southold for our youth,” he said.
“Young people are leaving,” he said. “Twenty years ago, I left. It’s hard to make a life out here. It’s hard to raise a family and keep a roof above our heads.”
Mr. Rallis said the town should give employers incentives to bring industry to Southold.
Mr. Russell said he reconvened the town’s Youth Bureau shortly after he was elected, and he’s been encouraged by the number of kids who’ve come forward to be involved with community cleanups, recycling, showings of environmental films and helping to remove invasive species.
“Kids are far more knowledgable of the environment than when I was in school,” he said.
Mr. Russell said the town is facing one major problem with engaging youth — the town’s Special Projects Coordinator, Phillip Beltz, who has been very involved in the Youth Bureau, is retiring in October.
“With his retirement, it might languish or die,” he said, adding that the town may put out a call for a part-time Youth Bureau director, “someone who can take the kids and get them involved.”
Mr. Toedter then asked the candidates if they believed Southold should support a new peaker power plant that would provide electricity during times of high demand, but would end up costing ratepayers and the environment.
Mr. Russell said he supports a peaker pant at the town’s landfill, but he doesn’t think PSEG-Long Island is committed to the project.
“It would be nominally used and only at critical times,” he said.
Mr. Russell added that Sun Edison is already paying the town to lease 15 acres at the landfill where they hope to build a solar array to feed the electric grid.
Mr. Rallis said he didn’t know enough about peaker plants, but he does know a good deal about energy-efficient homes as a freelance writer for the green building industry.
He said the town could be involved in creating non-polluting affordable housing projects, and the town should encourage people to build more energy-efficient homes.
Mr. Toedter asked the candidates what they would do to protect the coastline from rising seas, storms, illegal clearing of wetlands, construction too close to the water, shoreline hardening and nitrogen-loaded salt marshes whose root systems begin to fall apart.
“The bottom line is code enforcement,” said Mr. Rallis, who has served as a code enforcement officer for Southold. “People will continue to do bad things. We need fair and balanced enforcement in Southold Town.”
Mr. Russell said he would like to make it easier for homeowners in coastal zones to rebuild their pre-existing, non-conforming houses on the same footprint, by allowing them to demolish their houses and rebuild without zoning board approval if they agree to put in properly sited and modern septic systems.
Mr. Toedter asked what the candidates would do to combat invasive species.
Mr. Russell said town law prohibits the use of herbicides that are often used to kill invasive species, leaving the town reliant on volunteers to help pull out the invasive plants. He added that the town had received a six-figure bid to remove phragmites from just two acres of the Soundview Dunes preserve.
“CPF money can be used for things like that,” he said. “But now is the time to preserve.”
“Education is key,” said Mr. Rallis. “We have to lead by example, making sure we are good stewards of our land the way we expect others to be good stewards. Similar to wastewater treatment on major development projects, we have the right as a municipality to ensure that these folks are using native species.”
Mr. Toedter asked the candidates how they believe Southold’s land preservation program is working and what they would do to improve it.
Mr. Russell said the town has not been working as hard as it should on management plans for preserves, after former Land Preservation Manager Laura Klahre left town government two years ago to open Coffee Pot Cellars winery. He said he hopes to refill her position in 2016.
Mr. Russell added that he’d like to see a greater commitment to land preservation from the county.
“The Community Preservation Fund was a resounding success, but it let the state and the county get out of the land preservation business,” he said. “It’s not a deep pool of unending money.”
Mr. Rallis said the town is doing a great job preserving farmland and open space, but they can also use Community Preservation Fund money for water quality projects and for historic preservation.
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