Pictured Above: Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell discusses work done during his tenure while Democratic candidates look on.
This year’s Southold Town Board elections have pitted incumbent Republicans against a new crew of Democrats who believe the current town board isn’t keeping up with the pace of change on the North Fork.
Republican Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell, who has been in office for nearly 14 years, said he believes his experience is an asset, while the Democrats say they believe they can do better, at the first candidate forum of the season, sponsored by the Mattituck-Laurel Civic Association at the Mattituck American Legion Sept. 30.
“I work in what I believe is a non-partisan manner. I try to maintain a fair and balanced approach to all issues,” said Mr. Russell in his opening statement.
Mr. Russell added that he believes in supporting local businesses and would like to continue protecting the environment, touting his endorsement by the League of Conservation Voters.
His opponent, Greg Doroski, grew up in Mattituck, and has had a career as a managing partner and head brewer at Threes Brewing in Brooklyn. He has since returned home to Mattituck, where he planned to open a satellite brewery in Cutchogue, which he says was stymied by the town.
“I believe we can do better. I think the current administration is consistently behind the curve,” he said, adding that the town’s comprehensive plan update, originally scheduled to be completed in 18 months, has taken nearly a decade to prepare, and Southold was recently one of the last communities on Long Island to sign a pledge to become a Climate Smart Community.
The two candidates butted heads on the town code, which does not allow breweries and distilleries on farmland.
Mr. Russell said he is against allowing the breweries and distilleries on farmland here because state law only requires that such facilities buy 20 percent of their agricultural products from a grower in New York State, and has no requirement that the products — like potatoes, wheat, barley or hops — be grown on site.
“I don’t really care about the agricultural health of Herkimer County. I care about the agricultural health of Southold Town,” he said. “We have commercial operators spending a lot of money to operate in commercial areas here.”
Mr. Doroski said the 20 percent guideline from the state is just in the early years of an operation, and is an effort to “strengthen farmers so they can start producing ingredients.”
“For farmers to scale up, it takes time,” he said, adding that he would be in favor of a provision, like in Riverhead’s town code, that requires agricultural products to be sourced within the town.
On the purpose and implementation of the town’s comprehensive plan, Mr. Doroski said many of the development pressures the town is currently facing highlight the problems with not having a plan.
“We waited so long to get a plan that we can’t waste any time,” said Mr. Doroski.
Mr. Russell disagreed, saying the town has been implementing suggestions in the plan throughout its drafting.
“We didn’t sit around and wait for it to be done,” he said, pointing out that the town has purchased a parking lot and is renovating another parking lot adjacent to Love Lane in Mattituck, and is investing $500,000 in sidewalks there.
“You can’t always rely on a plan. You need to rely on bold decision-making,” he said.
On the town’s transportation and traffic issues, Mr. Doroski said he’d like to see more focus on industrial rail transportation, a local regional bus service and protecting roads from climate change.
Mr. Russell said he agrees with his opponent 100 percent, and added that the town has created a capital plan for road improvements and is investing $1 million each year. He added that a 2009 regional study of intermodal transportation, which relied on creating a new transportation authority using tax money and infrastructure currently under the control of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, has been mired since in the details of how to get the MTA to cede control.
“Uber has been very good for Southold Town in providing inter-town transportation, but it has to be looked at as a bridge to get us where we need to go,” he said.
On preserving community character, Mr. Russell said Southold has preserved 38 acres for every acre lost to development during his tenure, and the town is focusing on concentrating development in existing village centers.
Mr. Doroski said the town needs affordable and accessible housing.
“Fifty apartments over the next three years doesn’t match the scale of the problem,” he said. “We need to get much more comfortable looking at how we can facilitate the creation of smaller units.”
Mr. Russell said the town has been pressuring the Suffolk County Department of Health Services to allow small developments that don’t require connection to a sewer system, adding that a 50-unit project underway on Route 48 in Greenport was only feasible because it was able to tie into Greenport’s municipal sewer system.
“Eight to 12 size apartments are viable, feasible and would stay within community character,” he said. “We need to get the Suffolk County Department of Health to see it that way…. We are confident we are going to get them to understand.”
On renewable energy, Mr. Russell touted the town’s work to put a solar array atop the dog runs at the town’s animal shelter, saving $30,000 annually in electric costs, placing electric car charging facilities at town buildings, making their buildings more efficient and updating their automobile fleet with an eye toward more fuel efficient vehicles.
Mr. Doroski said he doesn’t understand why the town hasn’t found a new company to build a solar array at the town’s capped landfill after its contract with the bankrupt firm Sun Edison ran out 18 months ago, and added that he doesn’t understand why the town disbanded its renewable energy committee in 2014.
Mr. Russell said the town is working to find a new company to put solar on the landfill.
In closing, Mr. Doroski said he believes the town is experiencing “unmanaged change.”
“We say we can do better because we must do better,” he added. “It seems this administration is not doing enough to give the people of our community a fighting chance.”
He added that he helped build a brewing company from a raw 10,000-square-foot warehouse space to “one of the most successful breweries in the country,” going from five to 50 employees.
Mr. Russell said he would like to continue building on the work he’s already done, adding that the town currently has the highest bond rating it has had in its history, allowing it to leverage large projects.
“We’ve checked all the boxes. Can we do more? Yes,” he said. “When you can drive up to Oregon Road and see all that open space, you know what? Southold is doing a great job.”
Incumbent Republican Town Board members Jill Doherty and Bill Ruland are facing Democrats Bob Hanlon, a longtime civic leader in Orient, and Sarah Nappa, who runs a farm and bed & breakfast in Southold.
Ms. Doherty, who grew up in East Marion, came up in politics through the Town Trustees, who work to protect the town’s waterways and access to the waterways, serving as the Trustee President for two years before being elected to the Town Board in 2011. She has also been a member of the Mattituck Fire Department Ladies Auxiliary for 29 years.
“The community is ingrained in me. My passion is to continue to move forward, to keep Southold Southold,” she said.
Mr. Hanlon, who currently serves on the boards of the Orient Association, the Oysterponds Historical Society, and is an Orient Fire District Commissioner, said “we need planning that looks at what’s coming down the road so we’re ready for it before it becomes a crisis.”
Ms. Nappa, who has two young sons ages 3 and 6, said she comes at the campaign from her role as a business owner.
“The issues are not partisan issues,” she said. “It’s about education, small businesses, tourism, agriculture, the environment and keeping young families here. I’m deeply involved in the farming community and I understand what the next generation of farmers needs.”
Mr. Ruland, a farmer who is in his fifteenth year as a town councilman, currently serves as Mr. Russell’s Deputy Supervisor. He had previously been on the Mattituck School Board for 24 years, 13 of those years as president.
After Ms. Nappa’s discussion of her support for farmers, Mr. Ruland joked that he was the “other farmer” running for office, whose family has been working land in Mattituck since 1716.
“I was taught when I was brought up that you have to give back to the community that has provided for you,” he said. “My leadership style is I involve everyone.”
Throughout the debate, moderator Pat Arslanian referred to the other candidates by their first names, but repeatedly referred to Mr. Ruland as ‘Mr. Ruland,’ despite his joking insistence that she call him ‘Bill.’
The Democratic candidates both pledged to involve more committees made up of community members in town government.
Mr. Hanlon criticized the current town board for disbanding its Water Conservation Committee several months ago.
“I don’t understand how its mission is complete,” he said.
Ms. Nappa added that she would like to see the renewable energy committee reinstated, and would like to see the town’s Housing Advisory Commission built up.
“If we have a direct communication with our community in an environment where they feel like they’re heard, we can achieve so much more,” she said.
Mr. Ruland said he agrees there is a need for more committees, adding that goals like updating the town’s vehicle fleet and stormwater recharge have come from volunteer committees.
“Certain committees are given a task, and they move to get it done, and then we work with other agencies,” said Ms. Doherty, adding that it’s the role of town board members to bring the suggestions of committees to other agencies that they need to work with.
On the town’s transportation and local business issues, the incumbents touted their successes while their challengers urged more be done.
“For local businesses to thrive, people who want to visit the businesses have to be able to get here,” said Mr. Ruland. “The fact that we live in a place where there are only two major roads that serve it makes it somewhat difficult.”
He added that Greenport Village has benefited from the fact that the Long Island Rail Road train line terminates in the walkable center of the village, but the “other hamlets don’t really have that ability other than for a third party to move people places.”
He added that Southold needs to work with other government agencies and stakeholders to solve traffic problems.
Ms. Doherty touted the town’s work around the walkable center of Mattituck, but added that, because the two main traffic arteries down the North Fork are owned by New York State and Suffolk County “a lot of ideas are not easily implemented. It takes a lot of entities to work through.”
Mr. Hanlon said the town doesn’t have any information for business owners who might want to locate in Southold, adding that there should be brochures in the building department explaining what kinds of businesses can be in different zoning districts.
“When you grow businesses, it increases the tax base,” he said. “It doesn’t cost something to foster a business.”
“If somebody’s business doesn’t fit in the current code, that doesn’t make it illegal,” said Ms. Nappa. “We need to work with tourism boards on transportation and we need to plan our infrastructure for the future. Our traffic is not going to get better.”
On the role the agricultural community should play in planning for the future, with an eye toward preserving natural resources and protecting against climate change, the candidates were all passionate.
“I live across the street from a big farm. I don’t mind the dust, noise and bird guns. That is what this town is about,” said Mr. Hanlon. [But due to climate change] I may have waterfront property some day and I don’t want it. I want the farm there.”
“We have to make sure the water we have is prioritized,” he added. “I don’t want to spend time and money watering my lawn when the farmer needs it. Food and farms come before grass.”
“The North Fork is unique. You could eat 99 percent of your food from the North Fork year-round. It’s worth investing in,” said Ms. Nappa. “We need to incentivize farmers to work the land that’s already preserved.”
She added that she was happy to see the town just approved allowing shellfish farmers to have roadside stands, but “it did not have to take six years” for that to happen.
“Shellfish farming is the only industry that’s growing right now,” she said. “We need to be promoting these kinds of things in our town. We’re at a really critical point…. We need to keep small farmers here.”
Mr. Ruland, who has been farming for 53 years, said there’s “no question our town supports farming,” adding that farming of animals is something he remembers from his childhood here that has recently begun to come back.
“There’s no question in my mind we have to be flexible,” he said. “As time goes on, you’ll be seeing more change. Eventually farmers with 53-plus years will go away and it will be up to the young ‘uns.”
Ms. Doherty said she grew up near Sep’s farm in East Marion, where her family would often barter services for vegetables.
“That’s what this community, Southold Town, is based on,” she said. “People helping people. I’m proud to live in a place where we say we produce food not just for ourselves, but that goes out in to the world.”
In their closing statements, the Democrats pledged to listen to the community, while the Republicans seemed hurt, saying they also listen to the community.
“Now there’s a top-down approach to everything,” said Ms. Nappa. “We will bring in new people. This is how real leadership approaches the future. You will see better results, and officials will listen with empathy for the citizens.”
Mr. Ruland said that when he was young he “started out with a lot of ideas for a lot of new things, and I was told by my grandpa and my dad that I was crazy and these things would never work.” But, he added, he kept at it, learning how to innovate throughout his life.
“I listened to everyone and I never treated anyone disrespectfully. That’s not who I am,” he said. “When you do listen, you can truly be educated. I bring my wealth of experience and ability to work with anyone to get the job done.”
Mr. Hanlon said he’s attended thousands of community meetings and pointed out that, even though he isn’t a firefighter, when he became a fire commissioner he worked hard to learn how his decisions there would improve the health and safety of the firefighters and the community.
Mr. Hanlon added that the Orient Association brought a nine-point plan of things they needed to the town board three years ago, and “we didn’t get as warm and active a reception as we wanted.”
“In town government, the first thing we have to do is go out to you and bring you in,” he said.
Ms. Doherty touted her business and accounting background, and said that she believes the current administration brings good business sense to government.
“This whole board has been respectful and listens to people,” she said. “My father taught me to respect everyone… You call me and I’m going to call you back…. Working for the town government is a pleasure. I’m proud of it. It’s seven days a week. I will continue to work hard for you.”
Election Day is Nov. 5.