The three candidates running for Riverhead Town Supervisor this November are a study in contrasts, and their different attitudes toward the environment were on stark display in a forum on environmental issues held at Suffolk County Community College’s culinary school in downtown Riverhead Oct. 5.
The forum was sponsored by the New York League of Conservation Voters and the North Fork Environmental Council.
Incumbent Supervisor Sean Walter, who said he wanted to be a park ranger when he was growing up, touted his personal sense of conservationism throughout the evening, while hedging on issues where he thought the government could step too far.
Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, who won the Republican nomination to run for supervisor in a bitter contest against Mr. Walter earlier this year (Mr. Walter still maintains the Conservative Party ballot line), repeatedly said that she would spend her time as supervisor balancing the interests of business and the environment.
And Anthony Coates, a financial advisor, lobbyist and one-time advisor to Mr. Walter who was chosen by town Democrats to run for supervisor, painted himself as a clear alternative to the other two candidates.
“I’m running against a permit expeditor who won’t tell you who her clients are and is funded by up-island developers and a man who doesn’t believe in global warming,” he said in his opening remarks.
On many issues, you’d have to dig a bit to see the nuances in the three candidates’ positions. When asked what the town could do about septic systems that leach nitrogen into the water table, Mr. Walter and Ms. Giglio both touted the current town board’s record of upgrading the Riverhead sewage treatment plant, while Mr. Coates said he would push the Suffolk County Health Department to approve more alternative on-site septic systems.
Mr. Walter went one step further and said he’d like to sewer the south side of Peconic Bay Boulevard all the way to the Jamesport/Laurel line.
Ms. Giglio said she wasn’t in favor of extending the town’s sewer lines, as evidenced by her vote against the First Baptist Church’s Community Life Center housing plan, which would have included 132 units of housing that would have to be connected to sewers, but are currently outside the town’s sewer district.
When asked by moderator Bill Toedter of the North Fork Environmental Council if the candidates would support a Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan in Riverhead, a set of guidelines for construction near the water already adopted by Southold and East Hampton towns and many villages on the East End, the candidates were vaguely supportive.
Mr. Walter said people shouldn’t live on barrier islands and bluffs all over Long Island.
“Everything you talk about, I support,” he said. “But the devil’s in the details. I would want to see what the results of that study show.”
Mr. Coates said he supports Governor Andrew Cuomo’s resiliency plan and plantings along the coastline. He said he would join with other East End towns in preparing resiliency plans.
Ms. Giglio said she believes Southold’s LWRP works well.
“I think it’s important to identify any potential hazards in the Peconic Estuary,” she said.
Mr. Toedter asked all three their position on “flyboarding,” essentially a jet-propelled hovercraft above the water, which had been proposed in the Peconic River.
“It’s a dumb idea, for a lot of reasons,” said Mr. Walter. “One, the river is not deep enough and it would be stirring up all the sediment in the bottom of the river. Stirring up all that sediment, whether it’s polluted or not, is going to create a situation that makes it uninhabitable for microorganisms. I’m very happy it’s now in Port Jefferson. It’s a much deeper harbor.”
Mr. Coates said that, along with flyboarding, medical marijuana and the town’s consideration of requiring people who want to buy beer at festivals to wear bracelets were the most talked-about stories in Riverhead this year.
“That’s pathetic that that’s what we spend time talking about,” he said. “I’m dead set against flyboarding next to the estuary. I’m embarrassed that we’re still talking about it.”
Ms. Giglio said she voted against allowing flyboarding.
Mr. Toedter asked the candidates if they would commit to producing all of the town’s power by renewable energy, as the Town of East Hampton recently did.
“We’re probably leading the East End in solar farms,” said Mr. Walter, but added that the question of whether agricultural land should be used for solar farms is “what the residents have to answer.”
“It’s not for me to answer,” he said. “There’s a lot of public outcry now against all of these solar farms. We don’t have a lot of space left.”
Mr. Walter added that the town is working on a contract to lease a portion of the EPCAL property for between a half million and $750,000 per year for solar energy.
Mr. Coates said he doesn’t understand why there isn’t already a solar farm at EPCAL.
“It’s a real benign use that would not create traffic or blight,” he said. “This town board quite often will say the right things, but it’s a question of follow-through. We can use the power of the sun to plug up Riverhead’s budget gaps.”
Ms. Giglio said the town’s capped landfill on Youngs Avenue was never used for solar power because LIPA couldn’t justify the cost of running a transmission line there to connect the power to the grid.
She said she thinks the town should allow solar panels on the runways at EPCAL, and added that she fully supports solar power on farmland.
None of the candidates were interested in a waste-to-energy plant, and all said they’d consider a single stream recycling program, but Mr. Walter and Ms. Giglio cautioned that the town might not be paid for its recyclables if they aren’t separated. Only Mr. Coates said he favored a ban on single-use plastic bags, already in place in Southampton and East Hampton towns.
Ms. Giglio was in the hot seat on one question, on who was responsible for a load of fill that was dumped on one of the runways at EPCAL in anticipation of being used for the bike path extension being built there.
The fill was dumped before the town received DEC approval, and was later found to have asbestos in it.
Ms. Giglio, who is helping to shepherd the bike path project along, said that the dumping was the responsibility of Highway Superintendent George “Geo” Woodson.
“The highway superintendent repeatedly in the media accepted and acknowledged that he is responsible for the dumping,” she said. “I worked with him to get that off the property.”
Mr. Walter said he doesn’t think it was Mr. Woodson’s fault.
“Councilwoman Giglio got the material for free to build the bike path,” said Mr. Walter, who said he believed the fill was “historic fill” from New York City that included the contents of demolished buildings. “She worked with the highway superintendent to go through the DEC to make sure the material was acceptable, but we found out it had already been dumped on the runway. I don’t think it was the highway superintendent’s responsibility. The moral of this story is you very rarely get something for free that’s good.”
Mr. Coates wasn’t quite as kind to Ms. Giglio.
“I’ve got a real problem,” he said. “One of my opponents has her office at EPCAL and holds court there. I don’t know who her clients are. She won’t tell you. And that’s a big problem…. There are a lot of bad things going on at EPCAL. It’s a place that’s ripe for mischief. I don’t understand why we didn’t get to the bottom of that.”
“I don’t buy that she didn’t know that was there,” he said of the fill. “My opponent’s fingerprints are all over it.”
Mr. Toedter asked the candidates what they would do to avoid a similar situation to the one in which Costco clear-cut their land when building a new store on Rote 58.
Ms. Giglio said she thinks it “is important that the town look at clearing plans and restricting the amount of clearing that could occur on a lot.”
“It’s a tremendous problem. We have had folks clearcut with impunity here around town,” said Mr. Coates, who said he recently was at a town board meeting where Costco was asking for permission to sell Christmas trees, when they haven’t even planted trees to replace the ones they clear-cut on their property.
“They should replant those Christmas trees,” he said, adding that BJ’s Wholesale Club, also on Route 58, “saw we had no teeth in our mouth and they tore down their trees.”
“When people get the impression you’re not serious about following the rules, they’ll violate rules left and right,” he said. “I wouldn’t permit that as supervisor.”
In her closing remarks, Ms. Giglio said she doesn’t believe the town needs to revise its master plan, which she said is working fine.
“I look forward to working with the environmental community and bringing forth good ideas for our environment,” she added.
Mr. Coates said that there are many special places in Riverhead that are threatened. He pointed out many historical examples, worldwide, of times people stood up to protect the environment.
“For a long, long time we’ve seen the need to preserve the environment that enriches us, and then there’s Riverhead,” he said. “I don’t think we have a great record on the environment.”
“You never know when they’re coming for your special place,” he said. “The fight for the environment is a daily struggle.”
Mr. Walter said he believes his record on the environment speaks for itself.
“The biggest thing we’ve done is we really listened to the community to subdivide the property at EPCAL,” he said, pointing out that 600 acres of that property will remain a wild grassland. “I love nothing more than dialogue between communities. Great ideas come out of debates. Debates with the environmental community have made this town a better place. We used to be known as the little town that couldn’t. You never hear that anymore.”