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Will the election swing Riverhead Town’s key issues?

11/17/2017 6:00 AM |

Some of the biggest issues before the Riverhead Town Board over the past eight years are now within one vote of potentially being reversed thanks to the Nov. 7 election results, which saw Democrats Laura Jens-Smith and Catherine Kent elected, pending the final count from the Suffolk County Board of Elections.

Those issues include: the potential sale of more than 1,000 acres of town-owned land at Enterprise Park at Calverton to Luminati Aerospace; the zoning at EPCAL, which currently allows some residential uses; the zoning downtown, which currently allows five-story buildings on both sides of Main Street; and doing away with the Industrial Development Agency or having Town Board members take over its role.

On each of these, the two newly elected Democrats would likely need a vote from only one of the three Republican incumbents to reverse the town’s position.

“That’s the platform we ran on and those are the things we’re going to try and accomplish,” Ms. Jens-Smith said of the four issues.

Ms. Jens-Smith said she feels the Election Day vote reflects the public’s opinion on these issues.

Unofficial election night results showed Ms. Kent ahead of Republican Frank Beyrodt by 93 votes with 505 absentee ballots yet to be counted. Ms. Kent would replace incumbent Republican Councilman John Dunleavy, who was forced out of office by term limits.

Ms. Jens-Smith defeated Republican Sean Walter — who has held the position since 2010 — by 610 votes on election night, unofficially. The newly elected officials take office in January.

The Town Board has been all-Republican since 2010 and will have its first Democrats since 2009 with Ms. Kent and Ms. Jens-Smith.

Ms. Walter took essentially the opposite position from Ms. Jens-Smith on each of those four issues.

The votes of Republican Town Board members Jodi Giglio and Tim Hubbard alone could be enough to swing the vote on all four issues. Councilman Jim Wooten supports reducing building heights on the south side of Main Street in the downtown area but doesn’t support changes to the IDA or the zoning at EPCAL.

The Luminati deal to purchase property at EPCAL may not even have to wait until the new board members take office to be overturned, according to Mr. Hubbard.

“We should know something real soon,” he said in an interview. “I have to wait to get the final word, but I think we’re going to totally terminate the letter of intent with [Luminati CEO] Daniel Preston. It hasn’t moved forward. I think it’s time to open it back up to other people.”

Luminati, which Mr. Walter initially championed, is an aircraft manufacturer that seeks to make solar powered “unmanned aerial vehicles” at EPCAL that will beam wireless internet down to earth, according to Mr. Preston.

He purchased the former Sky Dive Long Island property at EPCAL in 1985 and received town permission to use the eastern runway in 2015.

Then, in April 2017, Luminati announced that it was seeking to buy more than 1,000 acres at EPCAL from the town for $40 million. About 600 of those acres could be developed.

“My goal is quite simply to use it for its intended purpose, which is an aviation manufacturing base,” Mr. Preston said at the time. “My focus is going to be on getting the greatest economic impact locally, and the largest number of job creations, which is between 800 and 2,000 people by the end of the fifth year.”

At the time, it was billed as a “$40 million cash payment” to the town, with closing anticipated in late 2017.

Since then, support for the proposed sale has waned as reports surfaced that most of Mr. Preston’s “dream team” of scientists were leaving the company and that he was facing a number of lawsuits.

At one point, a majority of the Town Board said they did no longer supported the project, but then ,in July, billionaire John Catsimatidis, CEO of United Refining Energy Corp., issued a press release indicating he was “highly interested” in providing financial resources to help Luminati purchase the property from Riverhead.

That deal has yet to be finalized, as Mr. Catsimatidis is said to be in ongoing negotiations with Luminati.

A spokesman for Mr. Catsimatidis did not return a call seeking comment.

Ms. Giglio said there is a Nov. 30 deadline on the Luminati contract, but she opposes it regardless. She said she sent a letter in June to the attorneys handling negotiations with Luminati for the town that included “a whole list of demands” she wants to see in the contract before she would support it.

These demands include giving the town the right of first refusal, meaning it would get to make the first offer to buy the land back if Luminati decides to resell. She said that under the current proposal, Mr. Preston “could sell the property a day after he buys it.”

“I also thought there should be some requirements of job growth included in the contract,” Ms. Giglio said. “He would have to create, say, 50 jobs, for instance, within the first two years or 200 jobs within the next five years.”

None of those demands were included in the contract, she said.

Mr. Walter has said in recent weeks that he would not support the contract if it did not include Mr. Catsimatidis.

For his part, Mr. Wooten said he doesn’t feel there should be any rush in signing the Luminati contract and feels the town should instead concentrate on “doing it right.”

“We have to get in there and talk about it,” Ms. Kent said of the proposal. “But certainly, the Luminati deal doesn’t look like something that’s going to happen.”

Ms. Giglio has opposed housing at EPCAL, as do Ms. Jens-Smith and Ms. Kent.

“I don’t think we should have housing in the zoning there,” Ms. Kent said. “We said that on the campaign. Certainly we’ll be standing by that.”

The EPCAL zoning permits up to 300 residential units, so long as they are “supportive uses” to the primary uses of non-retail commercial and industrial development.

The owners of some existing businesses at EPCAL, as well as some environmental groups, also opposed housing uses there during a public hearing on the zoning in 2014, when it was first proposed.

“I’m going to make a move to remove it from the zoning before they [the two Democrats] take office,” Ms. Giglio said.

Mr. Hubbard says he’s also opposed to housing and retail uses at EPCAL. He said the board will have to wait until the letter of intent with Luminati is terminated before making any changes to the EPCAL zoning, in order to avoid being accused of breach of contract by Luminati.

“Once it’s terminated, I can put up a resolution to call for a public hearing to remove it from the zoning,” Mr. Hubbard said. “And after that, there’s a whole process is has to go through.”

Mr. Hubbard also said the environmental review process would have to be restarted.

As to the construction of five-story buildings downtown, both Mr. Hubbard and Ms. Giglio oppose the current zoning and want changes to reduce the height of buildings on the south side of Main Street, closest to the Peconic River.

Mr. Wooten is proposing to reduce the maximum height on the south side of Main Street from five to three stories, and to allow four-stories from Second Street to the railroad between Ostrander and Griffing avenues.

Mr. Hubbard voted against the recent Riverview Lofts proposal for a five-story apartment building with two restaurants and retail on the ground level.

“Basically, I’m not crazy about five stories on the south side of East Main Street,” he said. “I want to look into doing something to alter that and restrict it to maybe three stories.”

He also said residential developers should be required to provide their own parking. Currently, that is not required for projects located within the town’s public parking district.

Ms. Giglio abstained on Riverview Lofts votes because she is an owner of Summerwind Square, a four-story apartment complex on Peconic Avenue. She said she abstained only because people were accusing her a conflict of interest, which she doesn’t believe she has.

“I asked for a moratorium six months ago and I had three votes supporting it,” she said of her effort to halt new downtown projects so the zoning could reconsidered.

Ms. Giglio thinks the height limit on the south side of Main Street should be two or three stories, and taller buildings should be allowed between Second Street and the railroad tracks. She also feels the town should issue a request for proposals from private companies interested in building a parking garage on the town-owned parking lot north of the Woolworth building, and leasing that land from the town.

“Whatever proposals we have downtown, there should be accommodations for parking,” she said.

The Town Board is currently considering a law that would require the developers of new residential projects downtown to pay into a fund for the creation of new parking locations.

Ms. Kent said she’d prefer to have a three-story limit on apartments on the south side of Main Street.

While she and Ms. Jens-Smith have advocated for eliminating or restructuring the IDA, which can grant tax incentives designed to lure new businesses to town, Ms. Giglio has not, although she said she would support having the Town Board take over the IDA’s role. Currently, IDA board members are appointed by the Town Board.

If the town didn’t have an IDA, she said, applicants could still seek IDA tax incentives from the Suffolk County IDA, which would take control out of the town’s hands.

“Right now, I still have to do more research on the IDA,” Mr. Hubbard said.

He said he’d be more inclined to have the Town Board take over the IDA than to eliminate it altogether.

For his part, Mr. Wooten said the IDA should remain an independent body appointed by the Town Board. He doesn’t think the Town Board should also be the IDA board.

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Photo: The newest members elected to the Riverhead Town Board, Catherine Kent (left) as councilwoman and Laura Jens-Smith as supervisor. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

CORRECTION: The Summerwind Square apartment complex is four stories, not five.

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