Bringing Back Riverhead: Laura Jens-Smith & Catherine Kent Share Priorities for the New Year

Laura Jens-Smith and Catherine Kent at the Blue Duck Bakery on Main Street in Riverhead.
Laura Jens-Smith and Catherine Kent at the Blue Duck Bakery on Main Street in Riverhead.

When new Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith takes office January 1st, she will not only be the first female supervisor in the town’s history — she will also be a member of the first female majority on the town board — along with her Democratic running mate, longtime Riverhead teacher Catherine Kent, she will be joining incumbent Republican Councilwoman Jodi Giglio on the board.

While there will be celebration of this milestone at their inauguration Jan. 1, personal identity politics are far from the minds of Ms. Jens-Smith and Ms. Kent, who, with their running mate Michelle Lynch, were constantly on the stump in 2017, sharing a clear message that they plan to end back-room dealings, revitalize downtown’s Main Street and curb high residential taxes that have left Riverhead the most dysfunctional of East End towns.

We caught up with Ms. Jens-Smith and Ms. Kent at the Blue Duck Bakery on East Main Street in mid-December as they prepared to take office, to talk about their plans to work to bring civility back to a board that in recent years has been plagued by infighting.

As Democrats, they will still be in the minority on the town board, and they said they’ve had good discussions in recent weeks with Ms. Giglio and Councilmen Jim Wooten and Tim Hubbard about how they can all work together for the people of Riverhead.

Ms. Jens-Smith defeated Sean Walter, a four-term incumbent Republican Supervisor and Wading River attorney who had pledged to turn around Riverhead’s economy. Mr. Walter’s bombastic style won him many enemies in town hall and among members of the public, whose opinions he often viewed with loud distain.

“It’s really important that we communicate well with each other and are respectful of one another,” said Ms. Jens-Smith, adding that she hopes for a relationship with the board that will be “respectful and productive.”

“The others on the board have expressed a commitment to working together,” said Ms. Kent. “Certainly it’s for the benefit of the town. There will be positions we disagree on, but that’s how the process works. Hopefully we can come to consensus on as many things as possible.”

Both women said they are devoted to increasing the diversity of the town’s workforce and committee membership, and making that commitment a part of their daily work, not just in response to crises, like a recent racist Facebook screed posted by the wife of Mr. Walter’s town attorney.

“Diversity is certainly always a priority in hiring and committee selection,” said Ms. Jens-Smith. “We need to be more transparent. We need to get the word out to a broader section of the community when we’re filling positions.”

“The campaign was eye-opening for me,” said Ms. Kent. “I’ve lived here all my life, and our town is a little more segregated than I had realized. Laura and I are committed to being more inclusive in every way, not just when certain issues come up,”

For inauguration day, a New Year’s Day bash at noon in the Howard Hovey auditorium at the Pulaski Street School, Ms. Kent has tapped Rev. Cynthia Ligon, the associate pastor of Riverhead’s First Baptist Church, as the master of ceremonies.

The Riverhead ROTC, Riverhead Cub Scout Pack 4041, Girl Scout Troop 3651, the Butterfly Effect Project and the First Baptist Church Choir will participate in the ceremony, which will include the swearing in of elected and re-elected officials, including Ms. Jens-Smith, Ms. Kent and Ms. Giglio, along with Highway Superintendent George Woodson and Town Assessor Laverne Tennenberg.

Then, the next day, they will get to work.

Ms. Jens-Smith said her top priorities in the new year will be following through on campaign promises to revitalize downtown Riverhead, bring a fresh set of eyes to proposed land deals at the town-owned Enterprise Park at Calverton, and to make sure, from a fiscal standpoint, that the town is working “efficiently and effectively.”

The outgoing town board voted at its last meeting of 2017 to hold a Jan. 17 public hearing on the proposed $40 million sale of much of the land at EPCAL to a new partnership between Luminati Aerospace and Triple Five Ventures (see story page 3), despite overwhelming public outcry that the decision would not be made by the new board.

Ms. Jens-Smith says she hopes the hearing will make clear “what everybody’s intensions are at EPCAL.”

“My biggest concern is that Luminati is the purchaser with another entity, and whether they are able to prove they’re a qualified developer of our largest piece of industrial land,” she said. “It’s one of the town’s biggest assets.”

Ms. Jens-Smith said that, regardless of the outcome, she’s committed to sharing details of the negotiations with Luminati with both the public and other members of the town board, after a year in which Mr. Walter’s secret dealings with the aerospace company were the subject of much public scrutiny.

The town had subdivided the 2,300-acre EPCAL site, a former Grumman aeronautical plant, into a 50-lot industrial park just before receiving the offer in April from Luminati to buy just over 1,600 acres of the site.

“It’s never really been on the market with the subdivision, so it’s difficult to say what buyers would be out there,” said Ms. Jens-Smith. “It’s been two years since it’s been on the market, and it would be interesting to see who would be interested, and for what reason.”

“It’s an urban renewal zone, so it’s not always the top market value that you’re seeking,” she added. “If you got $40 million and they did nothing with it, that would be way too low, but if they brought thousands of jobs there and more industry and economic development and growth to our community, it’s well worth the price.”

Ms. Jens-Smith said she believes leasing the lots in the subdivision is a good option, especially in light of New York State’s push to incubate new start-up companies in our state.

She and Ms. Kent said they believe partnerships with Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Laboratory could help the town encourage companies to start out at EPCAL.

“These are two huge research institutions, right in our midst,” she said. “How can we work with them to advance what we’re doing? It doesn’t need to be pie-in-the-sky.”

“EPCAL should be the golden egg in our basket,” said Ms. Kent.

Along with the development of EPCAL, both women said one of the most frequent concerns they heard from voters during the campaign was over the tax breaks given by the town’s Industrial Development Agencies to businesses that want to locate in Riverhead, where residential taxes are already higher than anywhere else on the East End.

“I still think we’re too small a town to support IDA tax breaks,” said Ms. Jens-Smith. “It’s a problem all across New York State. The intention with creating them was good, but the implementation is not reaching the original goal.”

“I talked to one business owner in Aquebogue who said ‘I work hard. I give benefits to all my employees. I’ve been here forever, and then I see all these tax breaks given away. What about me?’” said Ms. Kent. “I don’t know why we have to entice anyone to come here with a tax break. We’re not the only ones on the board. Others are echoing the same sentiments.”

As Ms. Jens-Smith and Ms. Kent have been going around town talking to department heads about their concerns, one thing that struck them both was the town’s justice court, cramped into a corner of the police station on Howell Avenue.

“I’d never been there, and as a resident, I was shocked at the condition,” said Ms. Kent.

“There’s no privacy. Lawyers have to talk to their clients and juries deliberate in the hallway,” said Ms. Jens-Smith.

Throughout town, they said, employees have grown accustomed to doing more work with fewer resources, and town facilities are suffering from short-term fixes that were never meant to last a this long.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of growth over the past 10 years, and that puts a strain on our infrastructure,” said Ms. Jens-Smith. “Now we need to look at issues long-term, but we have to balance that with taxes. We’ve been talking with a lot of dedicated people who’ve been holding and toeing the line for a very long time. That’s our challenge going in.”

“I don’t think anybody could have prepared for the economic downturn, but we haven’t bounced back as quickly as other towns, for sure,” said Ms. Jens-Smith, who added that, in addition to the town’s huge debt from closing its landfill, its Community Preservation Fund coffers ran dry when the real estate market tanked.

“We got stuck with the inability to preserve any more land,” she said.

Ms. Kent said, in an ideal world, the five East End towns’ Community Preservation Fund land preservation funds, paid for by a 2 percent real estate transfer tax, would be shared regionally, instead of governed by each town. Currently, South Fork towns are taking in revenue an order of magnitude higher than Riverhead.

But for now, they will be happy to best Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, the reigning champion, at the Riverhead Cardboard Boat Race’s annual Supervisor’s Cup.

“I will be in the race, hopefully as a winner,” said Ms. Jens-Smith. “We’re throwing down the paddle gauntlet. Get ready.”

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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