Pictured Above: Riverhead Town Supervisor Candidates Tim Hubbard and Angela DeVito
To get to the Riley Avenue Elementary School in Calverton, you will likely pass through some of the most picturesque and hard-working parcels of farmland in Riverhead Town, dotted with rusting potato trucks that serve as a reminder of this area’s agricultural history. Walk through the front doors and a chorus of elementary school cheerleaders with blue and white pom poms may be shouting out “Action! Action! We Want Action!” while in the room across the hall, a crowd of adults are gathered because they want action too.
This bucolic hamlet, which just happens to contain much of the still-undeveloped industrial land in Riverhead, will prove highly influential in this November’s election, where the fate of that industrially zoned land is very much in play. Several proposals for large logistics warehouses, and the potential for an air cargo hub and up to 10 million square feet of industrial buildings to be built at the Enterprise Park in Calverton (EPCAL), top residents’ concerns.
More than 80 members of the community gathered in the school Sept. 21 to hear the first of three candidate forums for two Town Board seats, and for Town Supervisor, organized by civic associations throughout Riverhead.
Councilman Tim Hubbard, a retired Riverhead Town Police Detective who is attempting to get the current town board to pass a moratorium on industrial development, is the Republican candidate for Supervisor. His Democratic opponent, Angela DeVito, a longtime public health professional and civic leader, is leading a ticket, including attorney Andrew Leven and music educator Rene Suprina, that has been united in its opposition the current deal at EPCAL and the warehouses, and to a moratorium on industrial development while the town completes an update to its Comprehensive Plan.
Mr. Hubbard’s running mates are current Riverhead Planning Board chair and title examiner Joann Waski and Denise Merrifield, a retired Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney and law professor who had worked in both the county’s Homicide Bureau and as the Deputy Bureau Chiefs of the Child Abuse and Domestic Violence and Major Crimes bureaus and is “absolutely against unvetted migrants coming to town,” she said at the forum.
There were some sharp divides and some agreement among candidates on both sides of the aisle at the forum, which was organized by the Greater Calverton Civic Association and the Wading River Civic Association.
All said they were opposed to so-called mega-warehouses, though there was nuance in how they would control them.
“The zoning needs to be changed in areas where they’re asking for mega-warehouses,” said Ms. Waski. “I am for smaller warehouses. We need to find a balance. This is how we bring money from tax revenue into our town. Taxes going up, up, up — we don’t want that. We’re going to end up like a town like Southampton or East Hampton that doesn’t have anything going on and people can’t afford to live there.”
Ms. Merrifield said she believes recent proposals to limit the size of industrial buildings from the town’s comprehensive plan consultants “would be a very good way to go with our future.”
“I would never vote for anything that is going to abut your street or neighborhood and have trucks going down it,” she said.
Mr. Leven, a former federal prosecutor, said he and Ms. Merrifield were both trial lawyers before going on the attack against her position.
“I know a little bit about public service, and I also know, as she knows, that actions speak louder than words. What actions has Ms. Merrifield taken to stop EPCAL?” he said. “Will she break with Tim Hubbard on 10 million square feet? … Will she call on relevant state agencies like the DEC to help our leadership understand the laws? Yes, I’m against massive warehouses, and I’m also prepared to get out there and try to stop them, and not just put a slogan on my palmcard.”
“I’m 100 percent opposed to warehouses being built in our community,” said Ms. Suprina, his running mate. “We’re not Brookhaven. We’re not Islandia. The negative impact outweighs the benefits. Our roads can’t handle that, and I would be hard pressed to be convinced the jobs that are offered are jobs that our own Riverhead residents would benefit from.”
Mr. Hubbard said he also believes the town code should be changed.
“The town definition of a warehouse is a bad definition,” he said. “Maybe people come and go and they stack things up in it, but logistics warehouses are something completely different… I don’t want the truck traffic coming and going on our local roads.”
Mr. Hubbard added that he believes he has the support of the majority of the town board for a six-month moratorium on industrial development.
Ms. DeVito said the public has been pushing the town board for a moratorium over the course of the past year, with no progress until election season.
“We see signs everywhere. No Warehouses,” she said. “We’ve heard your voices raised in opposition countless times, and yet we wait until September of 2023 before we’re once again looking at having a moratorium…? There wasn’t support originally to even let us have a public hearing on it. What we do need is a code. We need to keep developing codes in this town that are clear and concise. We have to differentiate what is a traditional warehouse from the cubes and the distribution centers. We have to address the issue of how much of this do we want and where do we want them.”
Democratic candidates were in favor of doing away with the contract to sell 1,643 acres of land at EPCAL to Calverton Aviation & Technology, a company that plans to build 10 million square feet of industrial buildings, and whose consultants had presented a plan last year to use the property, a former Northrup Grumman airplane testing site, as an air cargo hub. The project is currently being vetted by the town’s Industrial Development Agency to determine whether the developers are qualified and eligible to build the project.
Republicans said that, even though they didn’t like the deal, they believed the town was contractually obligated to follow through with it.
“I absolutely would love to terminate the contract, but being in real estate, I understand it’s not that easy,” said Ms. Waski. “I will do whatever I can to try to get rid of this horrific deal, and I believe the current town board feels the same way.”
Mr. Leven said he doesn’t believe CAT would succeed if it filed suit against the town for breaching the contract.
“You have to have two things to have a lawsuit,” he said. “Someone violates a duty, and there are damages…. I’d like someone to explain to me what the damages would be to CAT if the contract was simply ended… And when I am trying to get a problem solved, I don’t look to the people who created it to help. When a plumber screws up my toilet, I don’t call him back to fix it. I’m a little simple that way. I’m from New Jersey.”
Ms. Merrifield asked why Mr. Leven, if he liked details, didn’t file his campaign finance paperwork by the most recent deadline, as reported by Riverhead Local.
“Maybe that’s not the way it’s done in New Jersey,” she said.
She added that she will “pray the EPCAL deal doesn’t go through, and they’re found not qualified and eligible.” She added that CAT has already invested $1 million in the deposit for the contract, which would qualify as damages.
“I’ve been opposed to EPCAL from day one,” said Ms. Suprina. “I would do away with the contract. I’m willing to see what happens and just throw the dice.”
“My opponent and her camp like to purport that I am responsible for this,” said Mr. Hubbard, the only sitting board member in the race, of the EPCAL deal. “If I were on the IDA board, I would not be comfortable saying they are qualified and eligible. Their true colors have show up, and I think we can do much better. I strongly advocate for the development of that property, however this is not the right deal.”
“In my 23 years living here, there has never been a project before this town of this size and impact…. be it a cargo airport or an air freight airport, or it’s just mega-warehouses, what we’re looking at at this point is a project that is 100 percent on speculation,” said Ms. DeVito. “We need a fully detailed development plan, so we are not dealing with speculation.”
Disband the IDA?
Most of the Democratic candidates said they were in favor of disbanding Riverhead’s Industrial Development Agency, which is currently being charged with vetting whether CAT is qualified and eligible to build what they plan for EPCAL, while Republicans said they believe if the town abdicates their role, the Suffolk County Industrial Development Agency would not act in the interest of Riverhead residents.
“No. The IDA does not go away. It would be taken over by the county, and they would be in charge of who gets IDA incentives and who doesn’t,” said Ms. Waski, adding that the “IDA sparks economic growth and improves blighted areas.”
“The IDA has been a very good thing for Riverhead,” said Ms. Merrifield. “If we don’t have home rule, you know who takes over? Suffolk County. I don’t want the mayor of New York City deciding who is going to be relocated to Riverhead, and I don’t want people who lived in New Jersey for 25 years coming into this town to tell us how to do things.”
Mr. Leven, a Republican who is running on a ‘fusion’ ticket on the Democratic line because he believes the current Republican-controlled town government is opaque and under qualified for the challenges they face, said he doesn’t think Riverhead should throw the baby out with the bathwater, but “we really need to understand how the IDA is reaching its decisions and why the public is being excluded from the process.”
“I do think we should decommission the IDA,” said Ms. Suprina. “Other towns around us use Suffolk county, and they’re doing fine. I think the Suffolk IDA is better equipped to help us, and I don’t think there would be any personal conflicts of interest.”
“There’s no evidence, whatsoever, that the Suffolk IDA would harm the town of Riverhead,” said Ms. DeVito, adding that she believed Republicans were unnecessarily raising fears about losing control. “They have not harmed Southold, Shelter Island, Southampton or East Hampton.”
“I’m much more comfortable having people that live in the Town of Riverhead, care about the Town of Riverhead and want to see what’s best for Riverhead,” said Mr. Hubbard. “I do not support getting rid of the Riverhead IDA.”
Should Riverhead Prepare a Climate Action Plan?
Both Town Supervisor candidates said they believe the town should prepare a Climate Action Plan to prepare to meet the challenges of emergency response and coastal resilience.
“We need very simple, straightforward things,” said Ms. DeVito. “During Superstorm Sandy, we were evacuated, where I live in South Jamesport, and we were told we could go up to the high school, but when we got there it was very crowded, and people couldn’t bring their pets. We need plans for evacuation, how we’re going to deal with the loss of our coastline. We need to see how we are going to still have our green lawns, which we all want, but not overburden our water systems or over-utilize fertilizer. We need a huge infusion of education about how we can live within this beautiful space.
“We have, living in our town, many residents who have an immense amount of skills and training,” she added. “We need to develop this process, and we need to do it now.”
“Climate change is real. We all understand that,” said Mr. Hubbard, adding that Mark Haubner, co-chair of the town’s Environmental Advisory Committee, who was in the room, had done a lot to help the town reduce its emissions and transition to LED lighting.
“I do favor putting a climate change control program together for the town,” he added. “We know the river comes up, and the new Town Square is going to be raised up above the high tide level. We’ve done many things to rectify the situation.”
Short Term Rentals and Affordable Housing
M. DeVito and Mr. Hubbard’s positions on whether short-term rentals were affecting affordable housing also diverged.
Mr. Hubbard said he is working with the town’s code revision committee to reduce the current minimum stay in a rental house from 29 days down to 14.
“Who can afford to rent a house for 29 days?” he asked, adding that he stays in Airbnbs when he travels. “I understand people living in communities near the waterfront have people coming in for parties, and it upsets the neighborhood. But a qualified Airbnb program, run correctly, can be successful and work out for everybody.”
Ms. DeVito said she’s not sure the town can prove that Airbnb’s are a significant economic generator for the town.
“A lot of people who come here eat here, but they also go out east. They go to Southold,” she said. “Housing is an issue for residents in town. I am a proponent of accessory apartments. They would be a great way to create housing opportunities. We need to have comes to encourage, foster and maintain accessory units. The homes accessory units are in must be owner occupied, and if the apartment is listed as affordable, should we maybe be giving owners a tax break?”
A full video of the candidate forum is online here.
A second debate, hosted by the Heart of Riverhead Civic Ass ociation, was held at the Riverhead Free Library Saturday afternoon and the third debate, hosted by the Jamesport Civic Association, will be held Wednesday, Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. at the Jamesport Meeting House.
We will post a link to the Jamesport video when it is available.