Candidates for Riverhead Town Supervisor and Riverhead Town Board hashed out the many development issues facing the town at a candidate forum sponsored by the Long Island Farm Bureau, the New York League of Conservation Voters and the Long Island Builders Institute Oct. 26.
Before a packed crowd at Martha Clara Vineyards, the candidates shared their views on Luminati Aerospace’s bid to buy the majority of the land at the Enterprise Park at Calverton, on the proper redevelopment of downtown Riverhead, on the role of the town’s Industrial Development Agency and on traffic generated by booming agritourism.
The Future of Luminati?
Incumbent Town Supervisor Sean Walter, a Republican who is seeking his fifth two-year term, backed off in his comments Thursday on his initial cheerleading for Luminati Aerospace’s bid to buy EPCAL, after a summer of controversy over the drone company’s suitability as a buyer for the property.
Mr. Walter said he’d recently heard from a constituent that Luminati CEO “Daniel Preston is more Willie Wonka than Howard Hughes.”
“I get that,” he said, adding that Mr. Preston’s partnership talks with billionaire John Catsimatidis, of United Refining Energy Corp, have given him cause for hope for the deal.
“You’ve got a guy with vision and a guy worth $3 billion,” he said. “Do I think it’s going to happen? I’m skeptical, but we’ve gotta play the last hand.”
Mr. Walter’s Democratic opponent, Laura Jens-Smith of Laurel, who serves as president of the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District’s school board, has been critical of the Luminati deal since day one.
“Oh, where to start?” she said. “This is a bad deal for the town. Where do we stand? The letter of intent was supposed to be carried for 30 days, but it’s almost seven months later and we know nothing about this gentleman…. Why in god’s name would we have this person develop our largest asset?”
Ms. Jens-Smith and her running mates, retired health care union leader Michele Lynch and retired Riverhead teacher Catherine Kent, are also skeptical of zoning that allows housing for employees at EPCAL.
“People laughed when [former town supervisor Phil] Cardinale’s ski mountain deal blew up, but when that deal fell through, the town got their few million dollars back,” said Ms. Lynch. “Clearly the board didn’t do due diligence in their research.”
Ms. Lynch added that, at a press event announcing Luminati’s reopening of Grumman Plant 6, she asked how many people they would need to work in the building. She said she learned it would take four people to run the machines, while Luminati has promised Riverhead it would create 2,000 jobs.
“He just seems to be a flim-flam man,” she said of Mr. Preston.
Incumbent Republican Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, who initially shepherded Luminati’s plan to take over the former Skydive Long Island location at EPCAL, and arranged an agreement for the company to have controlling use of EPCAL’s runways, said she, like Mr. Walter, is also hopeful that Luminati’s partnership with John Catsimatidis will work out.
“We should know within 30 days whether or not that deal will come to fruition,” she said, adding that she is “dead set against housing” at EPCAL.
Ms. Kent said being dead set isn’t enough.
“The whole town expressed they don’t want housing at EPCAL,” she said. “My opponent said she voted no, but it takes more than to vote no. Write a resolution. Bring it to a work session. Get consensus on the board with others. That’s what’s called being an effective leader.”
Republican town board challenger Frank Beyrodt, who is a partner in his family’s DeLea Sod Farm, also said he’s hopeful for a deal with Luminati.
“I’m skeptical about the housing part of it,” he said. “Infrastructure there will be in the tens of millions, and that will come back to the town.”
The supervisor candidates were asked what they would do to ensure a diversity of voices are represented in town government, after Riverhead Town Attorney Robert Kozakiewicz’s wife, Dianne, posted a racist screed on Facebook earlier this month. While community members had asked Mr. Walter to call for Mr. Kozakiewicz to resign, Mr. Walter had declined to do so.
“It’s very disturbing, what’s happened the past couple weeks,” said Mr. Walter, who said he’d prayed for guidance on what to do. “This is the most troubling issue I’ve seen facing the town.”
Mr. Walter said he believes there should be a program in primary schools to help kids learn to talk about racial diversity.
“I as a white man am going to be treated differently in certain situations, but not everybody understands that,” he said.
“I think what happened recently in our community was horrifying,” said Ms. Jens-Smith. “As a municipality, we have a responsibility to the community.”
Ms. Jens-Smith said she believes Mr. Kozakiewicz should have been called before the town’s ethics board to ensure he could make inclusive decisions that affect the town.
“This community has a right to know we’re making decisions free of bias,” she said, adding that this is not the first time Mr. Kozakiewicz’s wife has made racist comments on Facebook.
She added that the town has an obligation to make sure its own workforce reflects Riverhead’s racial and ethnic diversity.
Downtown Parking vs Workforce Housing?
The Democratic candidates wondered aloud why the town has proceeded this far without a plan for parking downtown, while Mr. Walter said he’d pledged to create a parking problem downtown by bringing in new development. Now that he’d delivered on the promise to create a parking problem, he said, the town is now ready to fix that problem.
“I told you I was going to create a parking problem, and if I’m re-elected, I’m going to fix it,” said Mr. Walter, who added that he would have looked like “a damn fool” if he’d had the town bond to build a parking garage without first trying to attract development downtown.
Mr. Walter added that his son, who is 23 and makes a good living, can’t afford to move out of his house, and he understands the need for ‘millennial housing.’
“Republicans don’t usually support workforce housing, but this has all been flipped on its head,” he said, adding that he is also in favor of the Community Life Center proposal at First Baptist Church.
“Your concept of workforce housing and a vibrant downtown is a little skewed,” said Ms. Jens-Smith. “We need a mix of workforce housing, rentals and ownership. I want the parking problem to come because of the vibrant commercial district downtown. To have a parking problem solely because of housing is not a solution.”
Ms. Lynch said parking solutions will just continue to become more costly if they are put off, and added that it would cost about $8 per day for each spot in a 200-car parking garage.
“There’s no reason we shouldn’t be planning ahead for parking,” she said.
Ms. Kent said the idea of whether Democrats or Republicans favor certain ideas is “absolute political silliness.”
“We are not against housing downtown,” she said. “The issue is the way everything has been implemented without a plan…. It’s not silliness to do parking at the same time you’re doing development. It’s called planning.”
Mr. Beyrodt said the two workforce housing projects he’s aware of downtown “are well-conceived.”
Ms. Giglio said a five story parking garage would cost $35,000 per parking space.
“Building a parking garage before the need is silly,” she said.
On the IDA
Riverhead’s Industrial Development Agency has long been the source of public criticism for its use of property tax abatements to promote businesses, while residential taxpayers in Riverhead are paying more than in much of the rest of the East End.
Ms. Kent said she’d been asking to see Ms. Giglio’s “black book” of properties that had received tax abatements, and added that the IDA had not provided the Democratic candidates with information about which businesses received tax abatements.
“Why does the Hilton Garden Inn, a national chain, need tax abatement?” she asked.
“Our supervisor is bragging our hotels had the highest occupancy in Suffolk County,” said Ms. Jens-Smith. “I think having the highest occupancy is enough incentive without us having to subsidize them.”
She added that she thought it would be a good idea for Suffolk County’s IDA to step in and handle tax abatement requests for Riverhead.
“We’re better off marketing ourselves to the community instead of just giving away the store,” she said.
“Hotels are attracting a place for tourists to stay. That’s a good thing,” said Ms. Giglio, who added that Ms. Kent hadn’t asked her to see her ‘black book.’
Ms. Giglio added that businesses that receive IDA benefits, like the Long Island Aquarium & Exhibition Center, pay people who feed the fish better than the median income here.
“Abatement benefits the community. It’s something we need to embrace or our children won’t have a place to work,” said Mr. Beyrodt. “I think it’s a good thing.”
Ms. Lynch questioned whether the jobs at businesses that receive tax abatements are really well-paying.
“The IDA is a very convenient punching bag,” said Mr. Walter. “National hotel chains can go anyplace they want. They don’t have to come to Riverhead. If they go anyplace else in the country, the taxes are cheaper.”
Mr. Walter added that he doesn’t support tax benefits for properties on Route 58.
“If they don’t like the IDA, they should be able to vote us out of business,” he said of Riverhead voters.
The Future of Agritainment
The candidates shared the most common ground on the necessary role of agritainment — pumpkin picking, corn mazes, hay rides and other activities that have made the North Fork’s farms a destination.
“Agriculture has to reinvent itself,” said Ms. Lynch. “That’s why we have wineries and breweries. It’s something that’s really important. Farmers have to make a living.”
Ms. Kent said she grew up just off of Sound Avenue, surrounded by farm fields, and “I understand the importance for farmers of retaining their lands.”
“When it comes to traffic issues, we know about them ahead of time. we have to address those issues,” she said. “We want to see our farmers and farms continue to grow and thrive.”
“I would rather look at 3,000 acres of farmland than 3,000 acres of houses,” said Ms. Giglio, who added that farmland doesn’t increase the tax burden caused by families with children in school, police and hospital services.
“We do have traffic and we do have problems that every single town in Suffolk County that has a great farming community has struggled with for years,” she added.
Mr. Beyrodt, the one farmer on the panel, asked if he really needed to answer the question.
“We’re down to 600 working farms [on Long Island], he said. “These are people who have survived. They’re the biggest and the best and they will adapt because that’s just how they are. All we need is government to work with us, and that’s what I’m going to bring to town hall.”
Ms. Jens-Smith said she believes government representatives should engage in a dialogue with the community, explaining why agritourism is necessary.
“When you explain it, people are ok with it taking a little longer getting place to place,” she said.
Mr. Walter said that, now that Riverhead is on more solid financial footing than when he took office, he wants to start using the town’s Community Preservation Fund money to buy more farmland, and start a transfer of development rights program to buy the development rights of existing farms.
“We have to preserve farmland and the agricultural way of live because that’s why most of us are here,” he said.