Riverhead supervisor candidates talk environmental issues

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter, and Angela DeVito, his Democratic challenger
Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter, and Angela DeVito, his Democratic challenger

The New York League of Conservation Voters is beginning to focus a lot of effort on the East End. Earlier this election season, they began by partnering with environmental groups to prepare a guide to candidates’ stances in East Hampton.

Last night, the League of Conservation Voters joined forces with environmental groups in Riverhead to grill Town Supervisor Sean Walter and his opponent, Angela DeVito on issues ranging from the town’s sewer plant to the care of the grasslands at the Calverton Enterprise Park to open space preservation to controlling light pollution.

Mr. Walter is an attorney and Ms. DeVito is a public health expert who studied toxicology in industrial settings and has served on the Riverhead School Board and the Riverhead Industrial Development Agency.

North Fork Environmental Council President Bill Toedter moderated the forum, held at Digger O’Dell’s restaurant in downtown Riverhead.

The two candidates shared the view that the town’s sewage treatment system, near the mouth of the Peconic River behind the Indian Island Golf Course, is less of a concern than the hundreds of thousands of individual cesspools surrounding the bay.

Mr. Walter said it will cost $22 million to upgrade the sewer plant to reduce the level of nitrogen in the effluent it releases from 30 micrograms per liter to 15 micrograms per liter, while the “19th century technology” used in cesspools surrounding the bay doesn’t do anything to control the nitrogen that ends up in the bay.

“The plant outperforms the standards it was built to,” he said. “It would be better to give the $22 million to communities around the bay…. We’ve been regulating point source pollution since the 70s. It’s not the pipe anymore.”

Attendees said they’d like to see areas of Southampton Town around the Riverhead traffic circle tied in to Riverhead’s sewer system, but Mr. Walter said he believes Riverhead was already burned by Southampton Town over its cost share of the Riverhead scavenger waste plant (Riverhead residents payed a tax for the plant, while residents of other towns didn’t have to pay the tax, even though the plant accepted waste from cesspool trucks from other towns and the cesspool companies paid a fee).

Mr. Walter also said the Suffolk County court and jail complex, which is tied into the sewer and is on the Southampton side of the river, pays less than its share for use of the sewer. He said he wasn’t sure he could convince other government officials to add Flanders or Riverside to the sewer taxing district. He added that the sewer plant can’t be made larger because it is surrounded by parkland.

Ms. DeVito, however, said collaboration with neighboring towns is essential.

“I’m a big proponent of intermunicipal agreements,” she said. “I’d work with the Town of Southampton. A lot of people view that as us giving up our individual autonomy as part of a collective, but you do retain your individuality. You don’t have to say ‘Southampton screwed us on the sewer at the jail’ and stick your head in the sand.”

The two candidates were also grilled on the town’s Dark Skies law, adopted in 2002, which was the second Dark Skies law on Long Island. Mr. Walter said all site plans that come before the planning board need to have light fixtures that don’t interfere with the visibility of the night sky, and urged environmentalists in the audience to call his office and let him know if they aren’t.

Ms. DeVito was asked by an audience member if she would look into making the law retroactive for existing shopping centers, which don’t currently have to comply if they were built before 2002. She said she’d be happy to revisit the law.

“At some point, everyone needs to be in compliance,” she said. “We let a lot slide. It doesn’t have to happen overnight, but it’s a dialogue that’s worthwhile. You’ve gotta be a good neighbor.”

She added that she believes site plans shouldn’t even be deemed complete enough for the planning board to examine until a lighting plan is included.

The two were also asked what should be done to manage the more than 2,000 acres of open space at the former Grumman plant in Calverton, now known as the Enterprise Park at Calvertion (EPCAL), which includes 600 acres of sensitive grasslands.

Mr. Walter said the town doesn’t have the money to maintain the property and he hopes it will be maintained by an environmental group.

He also said he’d like to ask the state DEC to allow the town to build a solar farm on the runways. The DEC currently wants the town to backfill the runways with topsoil and plant grass, but Mr. Walter doesn’t think the grass will grow there. He added that the asphalt of the runways would be an ideal surface on which to affix solar panels.

“I would like the support of the environmental community to bring that idea to the DEC,” he said.

Ms. DeVito said she believes a Youth Conservation Corps, like those instituted in several western states, could be charged with taking care of the grasslands. She added that the United Way runs such programs for at-risk youth.

“It’s a great opportunity for young people” to learn about land management and preservation work, she said. “They’re going to be the stewards after we’re gone.”

The town’s dwindling Community Preservation Fund reserves were also a major concern at Tuesday’s forum. Riverhead is paying $5.6 to $5.8 million per year on debt service to pay for land it purchased early on after the CPF real estate transfer tax was instated in 1999.

Due to the downturn in the real estate market, Riverhead is only bringing in $2.2 million per year and is using reserve funds to pay down the debt. Mr. Walter estimated that “unless real estate transactions really pick up in the next couple years,” there will only be $500,000 to $600,000 left in the town’s CPF fund by 2018.

He said if that happens, Riverhead will likely need the state to pass special legislation allowing the town to finance that debt.

Mr. Walter said he believes the CPF should be an East End-wide land preservation program, allowing money collected in areas with high property values to be spent preserving land in other areas.

“I’m not under any illusion we can convince the state legislature of that,” he said.

Ms. DeVito said Riverhead’s work at the forefront of land preservation in the early years of the CPF has landed the town in the situation it’s in today.

“We really were pioneers in buying land,” she said. “Bonding allowed us early on to ID, rank and preserve farmland…. Twenty-five percent of the land mass in Riverhead is preserved. That’s a tremendous record.”

She added that she wouldn’t hesitate, if elected, to ask for help from the state if the real estate market does not rebound. She ranked land preservation as her number two priority, after ensuring public safety.

Ms. DeVito said she would seek a brief moratorium on development along the Route 58 and Sound Avenue corridors in order for the town to re-examine how they’d like to see the land use continue there in the future. She added that she believes real estate speculators should understand the risk inherent in their investments.

“You don’t have a guarantee that it stays zoned that way forever,” she said. “Things change.”

She added in response to a question from the audience that she was aware of Mr. Walter’s 2011 statement that the town’s 2003 master plan was “a load of crap.”

She said she didn’t come to the forum to bash the supervisor over his choice of words.

“A plan is like building a house. You’ve got it framed out. Then you need to constantly revisit it,” she said. “It is not Moses coming down off the mountain….you need to keep updating it. You need to make that house a house everyone feels comfortable living in.”

Ms. DeVito added that she’s not the type of person to shoot from the hip.

“I rely on analysis,” she said.

Mr. Walter said he didn’t expect that anyone who opened up the dictionary to look up the word “environmentalist” would see his picture next to the definition.

“I consider myself a Teddy Roosevelt conservationist,” he said. “I’m a problem solver. That’s what I do.”

The candidates will meet again for a debate including town council contenders at the Suffolk Theater on Thursday, Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. That debate is sponsored by Riverhead Local and the Times/Review News Group.

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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