Two years ago, Laura Jens-Smith ran for Riverhead Town Council. Now, she has her sights set on the supervisor’s office.
The Laurel resident, 54, announced her intention to challenge incumbent Conservative Sean Walter this November during a Tuesday night event at Diggers Ales ‘N Eats in Riverhead.
Ms. Jens-Smith, who finished third behind Republicans Tim Hubbard and Jim Wooten in the race for two council seats in 2015, said she believes Mr. Walter has failed to accomplish much of what he promised before taking office in 2010.
“For almost a decade now, the people of Riverhead have hungered for the realization of that potential,” she said before a crowd of supporters. “But instead, we’ve been led down a yellow brick road of dubious promises by Supervisor Walter and this Town Board.”
Mr. Walter could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday night. [On Wednesday, the News-Review interviewed Mr. Walter]
Ms. Jens-Smith, president of the Mattituck-Cutchogue Board of Education, said Mr. Walter discusses new projects at the beginning of each election year, but that those proposals never come to fruition.
“Like the man behind the curtain in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ Supervisor Walter teases us,” she said. “He hints about movie theaters and major employers. Sean spins yarns about mysterious developers that he can’t name, big buildings and unnamed investors and all of it is ‘coming soon.’ [His promises] melt away like the snow on a warm day.”
Three subjects Mr. Walter frequently talks about — downtown Riverhead, town finances and the Enterprise Park at Calverton — all came under criticism from Ms. Jens-Smith on Tuesday.
Ms. Jens-Smith said Riverhead is the only Suffolk County town to have pierced the state’s tax cap two years in a row, meaning people won’t receive the rebate check that’s awarded by the state to residents of towns that stay under it.
“Your property taxes have increased dramatically by almost $200 over the past two years,” she said. She blamed the town Industrial Development Agency for giving away tax breaks “to anyone who asks.”
Regarding EPCAL, Ms. Jens-Smith said Mr. Walter still hasn’t sold any property there, and that zoning enacted by the Town Board will permit “600-plus new homes and the equivalent of 50 super-sized CVS stores at EPCAL” at the site.
“These are homes that will come with children that will increase our property taxes and stores that will make EPCAL look like Route 58 west,” she said.
Ms. Jens-Smith also opposed the town’s plan of allow up to 500 new apartments in downtown Riverhead.
“If Sean Walter has his way, he will build 500 new affordable housing units downtown,” she said. “These are apartments that won’t have their own parking and will make getting around downtown a nightmare. These are apartments that are unaccounted for in our master plan. Our own consultants have told us that this is too much to be observed on our Main Street.”
A former nurse who has worked in the cardiac care unit at Beth Israel Medical Center, Ms. Jens-Smith has served also served as project coordinator for the North Fork Alliance, a community coalition that aims to reduce substance abuse among area youth. She and her husband, Robert Smith, have two children.
Since losing the 2015 campaign by 538 votes to the incumbent Mr. Wooten, Ms. Jens-Smith has regularly attended Town Board meetings, where she a frequent speaker.
Riverhead Town Democratic Committee chair Marge Acevedo said Ms. Jens-Smith was a “great candidate” in 2015, but that it will ultimately be up to the committee to vote on a candidate this spring.
“We have to go by the process,” she said. “Still, I think she’s a great candidate, and I think she’s a strong woman, and I think she needs to challenge Sean because Sean has made so many promises.”
Despite running without Republican backing in 2015, Mr. Walter still secured 40 percent of the vote in a three-candidate race for supervisor — 420 votes ahead of Republican candidate Jodi Giglio.
In addition to Mr. Walter’s seat, the Town Board posts currently held by Ms. Giglio and John Dunleavy are up for re-election, but Mr. Dunleavy can’t run again due to a term-limit law the board enacted last year.
Ms. Acevedo said four or five people have shown interest in running for council on the Democratic line. One of them is Catherine Kent, who was present at Ms. Jens-Smith’s event on Tuesday.
Ms. Kent, who retired as a teacher from Riley Avenue Elementary School in June, said she’s giving “serious thought” to running for councilperson, a position her ex-husband, Chris Kent, held for four years.
Another rumored candidate, Larry Williams — who just retired as assistant director at Calverton National Cemetery after 40 years — said he hasn’t decided whether he’ll run. Mr. Williams is a co-founder of the Stop the Violence basketball tournament in Riverhead, as well as a long-time member of the Riverhead Town recreation advisory committee, the Clearview Civic Association and the East End Voters Forum. He served four years in the U.S. Air Force.
On the Republican side, William Van Helmond of Jamesport said in an interview that he is definitely interested in running for town council. He owns WCVH Landscaping and has been involved with the North Fork Chamber of Commerce, the North Fork Promotional Council, the Jamesport-South Jamesport Civic Association, the Long Island Council of Churches, the Long Island Farm Bureau, Save Main Road and Maureen’s Haven, among other groups.
Bobby Hartmann Jr. of Riverhead has also expressed interest in seeking a Republican nomination for council, sources have said, but he told the News-Review he hasn’t decided if he will actually do so. Mr. Hartmann runs Mainstream House, which owns several addiction recovery houses in town, and is a member of the town’s Business Improvement District Management Association and its Parking District advisory committee. Mr. Hartmann also has a background working on his family’s farm.