The Town Board is likely to make a choice Wednesday evening, with major impact in Riverhead for decades. A contentious months-long process will conclude with a vote on whether the Ghermezian family is deemed qualified and eligible to purchase 1,600 acres of land at EPCAL.
If advocates are correct, the town will benefit from a major economic development project, touted as the return of the aerospace industry to the old Grumman facility, involving hundreds of well-paying jobs and significant tax revenue.
If critics are correct, the town will be embarking on a risky path that could result in quick resale to other interests, in holding most of the land for future potential with little development, in pressure to provide tax and bonding benefits to a family-held company or in some as yet unknown mega-project that exerts political and economic pressure to access land currently listed as undevelopable.
The Coalition Against EPCAL Housing was formed early in 2017 by civic associations concerned that unnoticed changes in zoning would allow construction of housing at great cost to taxpayers and burdens to schools but bring little long-term economic benefit. In part due to our efforts, the current version of the sales contract appears to exclude the construction of housing. However, unless zoning is changed, we fear that prohibition could be too easily overcome by the power and money of the new and possible successive owners.
As a group, we have found ourselves increasingly involved with the larger debate over the future of EPCAL. At first it was just discomfort with the flim-flam of Daniel Preston and Luminati. When Mr. Preston was discredited, we encountered a larger scale, far more professional flim-flam from the Ghermezian family and Triple Five Ventures. While completely marginalizing Mr. Preston, they maintained the façade of a partnership in order to take advantage of his suspiciously low land cost, including the unexplained addition of 1,000 ostensibly undevelopable acres.
Our concerns increased when the Ghermezians totally rejected options to submit their own proposal in transparent competition with other offers and insisted on keeping the 1,000 undevelopable acres.
The Town Board should take warning from the arrogant and condescending attitude and behavior of this Iranian-Canadian family business at a stage when they ought to be at their most civil and responsible to the community they seek to join. Their demeanor does not suggest they have the “integrity and responsibility” to be “qualified and eligible.” Our experience to date echoes a pattern that was reported in a Las Vegas newspaper in 2000: “All of those who have dealt with the family describe them as deeply private, but also intensely combative. They also are described by journalists and politicians who have dealt with the family as hard-as-nails political and legal operators.”
In only four months, the Ghermezians have:
• taken advantage of and thrown under the bus the original contract recipient, Daniel Preston.
• maneuvered a barely-in-office supervisor and board to violate the spirit of the law by meeting privately in January in a snowbound Town Hall in small groups.
• threatened to take their money and go home if they lose Mr. Preston’s privileged deal.
• disrespected the ability of the town to judge their proposal in open competition with others.
• offered an inducement of $2.5 million for a town park if the board yields unanimous support.
• compromised the integrity and reputation of a board member by inviting her to a four-hour private meeting in New York in the middle of the hearing process.
• divided the board over whether recusal is required.
• refused to restore the 1,000 undevelopable acres to the town, also with a threat of withdrawal.
Prospective commercial clients and associates of the Ghermezians need to think hard on a record of pushing out their original partner at the Mall of America and complaints of manipulation and exploitation by tenants, reported in the Las Vegas Review Journal.
Then there is the whiff of political corruption. The Las Vegas Sun reported in 2000: “The family is often lavish with political contributions, in the United States and in Canada, to local officials who control land-use decisions, reporters familiar with the Gher-mezians’ business practice agree.”
The Review Journal wrote: “Former Commissioner Erin Kenny, the government’s star witness, testified in 2006 that Eskander Ghermezian delivered to her $3,000 a month in illegal payments over a three-year period after she attempted to push through a controversial casino in the Spring Valley neighborhood.”
This history makes especially problematic the secretive meeting the Ghermezians engineered with Town Board member Jodi Giglio. We have no reason to believe that she has compromised herself, but the appearance of impropriety cannot be ignored, legally or morally, and obligates abstaining from all EPCAL-related votes. There are also anecdotal reports that money from the Ghermezians is showing up in fundraising events. We won’t know for sure whether political contributions are greasing the skids until town and county records are published in July, unless the Town Board requires the Ghermezians to report all donations made between Dec. 1 and the Q&E vote.
What is clear is that the Riverhead Republican Party has married itself to making some version of this deal at EPCAL. The original contract with Mr. Preston was pushed through by then-supervisor Sean Walter at the last meeting of the fully Republican Board. The past and present heads of the party have been active advocates of the Ghermezian deal in op/eds and in online comments to articles in the News-Review and Riverhead Local. While Ms. Giglio and Tim Hubbard refused to go along with Mr. Walter in December, both appeared to embrace the Ghermezians when they voted May 1 for the abrupt cutoff of public comment after three days. Has support for the EPCAL deal become a matter of party loyalty?
The Republican argument is phrased in terms of revenue, taxes and jobs and trust for the intentions and capacity of the Ghermezians. They ignore completely interest from other buyers that was hidden by Mr. Walter or has recently emerged. We know that sPower will pay at least as much to put in solar panels. Another company has indicated it will pay $16 to $20 million for just one runway to again store cars on it. Neither of those projects offers much in employment potential but other options are in the wings.
If the Ghermezians actually deliver without seeking financial advantages from taxpayers, the Republicans will justifiably claim credit. If they don’t, and have misled the Town about financing, EPCAL will be an albatross on their party for years.
In either case, the potential loss of the undevelopable, unrecoverable land could haunt future generations.
Mr. Farr chairs the Coalition Against EPCAL Housing and was the head of the Calverton Civic Association for 18 years. Mr. McAuliff is executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, a non-governmental organization.