East End Beacon

Meet the Southold Town Board Candidates

Southold Town Board candidates Bob Ghosio, Jim Dinizio, Debbie O'Kane and Mary Eisenstein.
Southold Town Board candidates Bob Ghosio, Jim Dinizio, Debbie O’Kane and Mary Eisenstein.

by Jinsoo Henry Oh

The North Fork’s recent surge in popularity has been a boom for business, but that popularity brings with it a crush of development pressures that are quite a new experience for the once-bucolic Town of Southold.

With so much at stake right now for the future of the North Fork, the East End Beacon recently conducted interviews with the four candidates running for two Southold Town Board seats this fall, to gain a better understanding of the issues facing Southold Town and how each candidate plans to address the challenges that lie ahead for the region.

Incumbents Jim Dinizio, a Conservative Party member, and Republican Bob Ghosio will be facing off against two Democratic challengers, Debbie O’Kane and Mary Eisenstein.

We asked each candidate how Southold is coping with its popularity as a tourist destination and what can be done to address traffic and affordable housing.

We also wanted to know their positions on short-term rentals and how they feel about the town’s comprehensive plan process, which has now been in the works for the better part of a decade and is currently slated to be completed by the end of 2018.

We also asked them to describe the three biggest challenges they feel are facing Southold, how they’d define a sustainable future for the town and what they believe is Southold’s most threatened resource.

Bob Ghosio
Bob Ghosio

Bob Ghosio

Background and Philosophy

Bob Ghosio is a registered Republican and currently sits on the Southold Town Board. He is also owner of Jarzombek Energy and service manager at Flanders Heating and Air Conditioning. His educational background is in zoology.

He cites a long history of being involved in public service, back to high school years, where he was involved in community activities and school government. He attributes his path in life to being taught about volunteerism from an early age in a church-going family.

He lists his establishment of a wildlife manager’s commission and working on the water conservation committee as his biggest accomplishments thus far.

The New Vs. The Old

Mr. Ghosio says there’s some friction and tension between Southold Town’s long-time residents and the tourist economy. In a small town with limited natural, economic, and workforce resources, he says, any problems that may arise can be amplified.

While he says locals appreciate how tourism has propped up the local economy, he argues that there might be a point of diminishing returns, when the effects on quality of life may be more than the benefit of tourism dollars.

Mr. Ghosio has closely watched how the South Fork has changed from the early 1980s to the present.

“Is that a balance?” Mr. Ghosio cautioned.  He stressed that back on the North Fork, the town must keep aware that problems exist.

Big 3 Challenges

“Traffic, Helicopter Noise, Deer.”

Traffic issues have no “silver bullet”, but a variety of things need to be done, says Mr. Ghosio.

He suggests altering traffic patterns and supports changes suggested by the Mattituck-Laurel Civic Association for the intersection at Love Lane and the Main Road in Mattituck. He voted to appropriate funds to complete a study on the proposal.

He also likes the idea of building tasteful and properly placed parking facilities on the North Fork to help alleviate some of the congestion on the roads.

The county’s bike program and added train service on the LIRR may help alleviate some traffic, he said, but also noted that suburban residents are used to driving and he’s not sure if they’ll adapt to more urban transportation methods.

Mr. Ghosio also sees helicopter noise as a significant issue facing the region, along with the overpopulation of deer.

He cited not only damage to crops and car accidents as major reasons to control the deer population, but also the health issue of tick-borne diseases. Mr. Ghosio has a background in zoology and says he has an inherent love for animals, but he “understands ecology enough to know, that left unchecked, any herd can become a problem…. It’s not healthy for the herd and not healthy for us.”  He considers his work to establish a wildlife manager position as one of his biggest accomplishments for the town.

Tourism & Resources

Mr. Ghosio believes the town’s resources are being overwhelmed, but also believes that Southold’s popularity as a tourist destination is a good thing for the local economy. Figuring out how to handle the interest in the area remains one of his key priorities and challenges, in order that “people stay safe and the quality of life stays here.”

Sustainable Future

Mr. Ghosio believes economic sustainability is crucial for Southold, and he places a high priority on water conservation. As the liaison to the town’s Water Conservation Committee, his priorities include having an aquifer to drink from and bays that people can fish in. He also wants to educate the public on alternative wastewater treatment systems that can remove nitrogen, and would like to keep on top of grant opportunities for such systems, but expressed reservations on mandating people to install them.

Workforce Housing

Mr. Ghosio sees the lack of workforce housing as critical to the viability of Southold Town. He argues that, if you work and contribute to what the town has to offer, it does not seem fair that you cannot also live in and enjoy the lifestyle that exists in Southold. He also stressed that if the workforce cannot afford to live in Southold Town, not only does it put additional cars on the road and potentially create another “trade parade,” like the one on the South Fork, but it also puts a big strain on business owners, who have difficulty staffing their operations.

Comprehensive Plan

Mr. Ghosio said he is concerned that the town’s comprehensive plan will be outdated by the time it is complete, but pointed out that it has taken quite some time to be conducted because the town is taking input from many stakeholders. Coming from the private sector, Mr. Ghosio says one of the things that bothers him most about government is the amount of time it takes to get things done.

Short Term Rentals

Feeling compelled to protect the property values of people who live in Southold, Bob Ghosio supports the current 14 day minimum stay rental law. He believes it limits the transiency in neighborhoods that many residents witnessed as services such as Airbnb took off. He believes short term rentals are still unsettling for some people and that there is still more work to do.

Debbie O'Kane
Debbie O’Kane

Debbie O’Kane

Background and Philosophy

Debbie O’Kane’s professional and volunteer background spans a number of organizations and causes. She has worked for universities and multiple sclerosis societies, but has spent most of her time and energy working in the environmental community since being on the North Fork full time for the past 25 years. She believes her background in non-profit management is a real segue into serving in public office. She has worked as executive director and is currently the program director at the North Fork Environmental Council, and is also the volunteer president of the North Fork Audubon Society.

She believes her past experiences developing shoestring budgets, educating the public, advocating on issues, and developing policy put her in a position to lead. She holds a certificate from Columbia Business School for non-profit training, and sees serving on the town board as a natural progression of public service.

The New Vs. The Old

Debbie O’Kane said her skills as a problem solver would come into use when addressing friction between long-time residents and visitors, and said she would look for solutions “outside the box.” Traffic is a top concern from a quality of life perspective for residents, workers, and visitors, she said.

She would like Southold Town to look at other places as models for development. She cited Mount Desert Island in Maine, where Acadia National Park is located, as a community similar to the North Fork, which has relatively small towns with low year round populations, but attracts several million visitors a year.

Ms. O’Kane said Mount Desert Island has taken one million cars off its roads each year with the implementation of an eco-friendly bus system that operates year round for local residents, the workforce, and visitors alike. She would ideally like to develop a similar solution, customized for the North Fork, and thinks she brings creativity to the problem solving process.

“I get the trolley, but I think we can do better,” she says of the town’s new trolley pilot program.

Big 3 Challenges

Transportation and traffic, losing community diversity, and maintaining quality of life

Debbie O’Kane sees dwindling school populations, seniors moving away, and young workers unable to afford to live in the area as big problems. She would like to address the situation with a mix of affordable rentals, starter residences, and adaptive reuse of existing buildings. She says fears of “riff raff” in Southold Town are unfounded.

“People don’t realize we need to support our service workers, people working in hospitals, service industries, our volunteer fire departments,” she says.

She sees environmental preservation and protection as being the factor that’s single-handedly created the quality of life the North Fork enjoys today, and says protecting surface and ground water are essential.

Tourism & Resources

Beaches and surface waters are “literally being trashed,” says Ms. O’Kane. She believes enforcement needs to be stepped up, stating that more people need to be on the code enforcement team, more coverage is needed at town beaches, and stiffer fines must be put in place to prevent people from polluting. She noted that Southold’s boat ramps are also being over-used because anyone can access them free-of-charge. Other towns charge for boat ramp access, she said, and Southold can too.

Sustainable Future

Ms. O’Kane said she believes sustainability is a three-legged stool – environmental, social and economic sustainability all have to be in balance.

She puts the demographics of the town front and center, saying that the town needs a good mix of young people, seniors, working people, middle class, and full-time residents.

On the environmental front, Debbie O’Kane believes alternative wastewater treatment systems are a step in the right direction, but should be made mandatory for all new builds. She said there is an urgent need to reduce nitrogen entering the bays, and is in favor of the newly-adopted water preservation component of the Community Preservation Fund. She said she worked to help get the original Community Preservation Fund proposition passed by voters back in 1995.

Ms. O’Kane says she was very taken aback that the Southold Town Board decided not to introduce any regulations on single use plastic bags, recommended by the North Fork Audubon Society, even after Southampton and East Hampton towns successfully implemented the regulations. She would also like to see more walkable communities in the town and adaptive reuse of existing buildings as apartments or condos.

Comprehensive Plan

“There needs to be a commitment to move it forward. It’s taken too long,” she says of the town’s Comprehensive Plan.

In addition to the comprehensive plan, she believes Southold needs to develop a Climate Action Plan and a Coastal Resiliency Plan and become a Climate Smart Community. Given our geographic location, we are just like a bowling pin waiting for a strike, she says, adding that it’s important to educate residents on the need to transition to renewable energy.

Short Term Rentals

The code enacted two years ago was supposed to control the short term rental situation, said Ms. O’Kane, who added that there are still people breaking the law and renting their properties on a short-term basis.

“I felt very strongly about this two years ago. I’m still an advocate for a permit process, with a fee for a permit,” she says. “There should be a lottery for permits if many people are applying for them. If they do anything that is not permitted, their permit should be revoked.”

Workforce Housing

“There are so many people out here who have speculated and purchased houses with the intent of renting, and that drives up the cost of housing,” says Ms. O’Kane.

Educating residents so they can rent out accessory apartments in their homes to family members or anyone on the affordable housing registry is another of her priorities.

Jim Dinizio
Jim Dinizio

Jim Dinizio

Background and Philosophy

Jim Dinzio, a registered Conservative Party member, currently sits on the Southold Town Board, and has a long history of public service, serving on the town’s zoning board for more than 30 years. Mr. Dinizio was appointed to the town board in 2013 to fill the vacancy left by former Councilman Al Krupski, after which he won his first four-year term in elections that fall. He has a background in the telecommunications industry, where he worked for Cablevision for 20 years.

Mr. Dinizio’s political philosophy is limited government. “Do not expand government one iota,” he says. He believes government should be small, but stresses the importance of enforcement of the laws on the books.

The New Vs. The Old

Mr. Dinizio doesn’t see a schism between long-time residents and new visitors. He believes the area is experiencing growing pains, but the economic benefits that have come along with the boom in tourism have helped local residents.

“Our economy is not bust and boom, like other places,”  he says, adding that town government’s decision to get involved in the real estate market by purchasing development rights and protecting open space was a good idea, despite his belief that government should stay out of the private sector.

Big 3 Challenges

“Traffic, nitrogen in the water, the usual day-to-day things,” says Mr. Dinizio of challenges facing the town, adding that “all our challenges are good challenges… growing pains are a good problem to have.”

“Our roads are full,” he says, but adds that he is skeptical of projects such as bike shares and trolley services, stating that wineries would not want services that could send business to their competitors.

He believes vineyards are not playing by the rules established by their occupancy limits, with outdoor picnic tables and buses full of tourists contributing to extra traffic on the roadways. He would like to see more code enforcement.

Mr. Dinizio lists the nitrogen problem in the town’s water as a high-ranking issue, which he says must be attacked “not in a small way.” He doesn’t want to see credits for installing waste treatment systems on new construction, saying that most nitrogen is coming from creeks, where homes already exist, and that credits would simply be transferring money to property owners. Mr. Dinizio said he would like to see more conservation money put towards water, and hinted that maybe it’s time to start thinking about municipally using pipes to move nitrogen away from creeks.

Tourism & Resources

Mr. Dinizio believes Southold Town’s code enforcement is completely overwhelmed, and this summer’s parking issues at beaches could have been mitigated with proper parking enforcement. Residents with permits complained they could not park at beaches legally because drivers without stickers filled the lots before beach attendants arrived for work.

Sustainable Future

Mr. Dinizio said he is not a planner, but a troubleshooting type when asked about a sustainable future.

“When things are broken, I try to fix them,” he said, adding that much of what has happened on the North Fork is out of his control.

Workforce Housing

The lack of places to live for the town’s youth and working population is a serious problem, says Mr. Dinizio. He believes the solution is to increase the allowed population densities in the proper areas, but he does not believe government should be involved in any significant way in the housing market. Mr. Dinizio says projects like the Cottages in Mattituck allowed couples to find an affordable place to live, but gave them no room to grow their families or equity. He says he prefers solutions where people can grow their equity.

Comprehensive Plan

Mr. Dinizio said he’s frustrated by the length of time its taken for Southold to finish its Comprehensive Plan, and the situation in the town has changed even since the project began. He believes the town is attempting to make the code so specific that it addresses too many minute details. Hiring a professional to complete the plan would have been better than using in-house planning staff, he said, despite the likelihood the town would have received more generic advice.

Short Term Rentals

The reduction of the short term rental law in Southold Town from 30 to 14 days created an enforcement nightmare, said Mr. Dinizio, though he views short-term rentals as taking a lot of the housing stock away from ordinary renters. “We promised our young [people] that you’d have a nice place to live, but we never gave it to them,” he says.

Mary Eisenstein
Mary Eisenstein

Mary Eisenstein

Background and Philosophy

Mary Eisenstein remembers clearly when she first became interested in public service. After returning on a trip from Asia more than 20 years ago, she took notice of the abundance of the Earth and the harvest as she was crossing Route 105 in Riverhead on the way home. She penned “A Love Letter to Farmers” to a local newspaper from that inspiration, an acknowledgement of her joy at returning home.

Ms. Eisenstein, a professional mediator, ran for a seat on the town board in 2013, and has since become a founder of the Mattituck-Laurel Civic Association, where she has been actively engaged in community discussions.

She borrows her campaign slogan from a quote by John F. Kennedy — “Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”

The New Vs. The Old

Ms. Eisenstein says she’s looking to create win-win outcomes between visitors and locals. As one of the last undeveloped places on Long Island, she noted that the town must be “mindful” in how it addresses this balance.

“We bring ourselves with us wherever we go,” she said, and stressed the importance of setting good examples of the behavior North Fork residents wish to model for the area. Maintaining the cultural values of the North Fork – agriculture, being good neighbors, sensitivity to and respect for the land, and humbleness – she says, is essential in creating the environment that makes the North Fork a destination, and is also essential in keeping it from being spoiled.

Big 3 Challenges

“Zoning, zoning, zoning. And also Traffic and the Aquifer”

Ms. Eisenstein believes strongly in the need for traffic calming measures, and she also believes that making hamlets walkable and pedestrian friendly would help reduce traffic, and improve quality of life.

At the Mattituck-Laurel Civic Association, she has been working on recommendations to remedy the dangerous intersection at Love Lane, Old Sound Avenue and the Main Road. The town has now embarked on a formal traffic study of the area.

Ms. Eisenstein would like to see more public education on managing our water supply, and on the importance of new septic systems that remove nitrogen from effluent before it can leach to the bays and cause algae blooms on the “economic engine” of our waterways.

Tourism & Resources

Tourism is absolutely challenging the infrastructure in Southold Town, said Ms. Eisenstein, who wants to bring ideas for traffic calming to the community, including pedestrian-friendly hamlets, not widening roads, installing bike racks and bike lanes and a trolley.

Sustainable Future

Ms. Eisenstein said, to have a sustainable future, the North Fork needs to protect farms, “every square foot.” She believes the Main Road and Route 48 need to be kept open as scenic byways and alternative septic systems need to be made mandatory.

“We need the younger generation to live, work and raise families here,” she added, saying she’d like to work to repurpose commercial space for good-paying jobs for young generations. She pointed out that small towns in Japan are also shrinking because young people are leaving, and she’d like to keep that from happening here.

Workforce Housing

Ms. Eisenstein said she believes the town can make use of the housing supply that already exists, and residents should be educated about their ability to install accessory apartments.

She envisions “pockets” of workforce housing throughout town – a mix of townhouses, condos, apartments, and says that affordable housing must remain affordable in perpetuity. She stressed the need to be creative, using commercial spaces for apartments in walkable, pedestrian-friendly hamlets.

Comprehensive Plan

Southold Town is still operating from the comprehensive plan that was completed in 1987, says Ms. Eisenstein, who said she’d like to speed up the process of finishing it.

Short Term Rentals

Ms. Eisenstein says she’s “of mixed opinion” on Southold’s short-term housing law. Short-term rentals changed communities, as people come and go from houses where they only stay for a few days, but she also believes homeowners have a right to rent their houses. She added that people have always rented their houses short-term in Southold, but rental websites have made this much easier to do, and it has led to the reduction in housing inventory on the North Fork.

“We need to be educating the public while also enforcing the code,” she said. “We need to catch up on what exists.”


Comment ( 1 )

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  1. William October 29, 2017 Reply

    Why are fertilizers left out of the equation for drinking water and bay waters? There should be a ban on chemical fertilizers in favor of sustainable agriculture, for homeowners as well as farmers. These chemicals have an effect on the nitrogen content of the bays. Why is this point so absent in the conversation?

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