04/14/13 2:00pm
Organic lawn care on North Fork

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Master gardener Nancy Gilbert cuts back last year’s leaves on a Hellebore in bloom in her yard in Jamesport. Witch Hazel and Snowdrops are very early blooming plants next to the Hellebores.

To the editor:

Carrie Miller’s recent article on lawn care was excellent, but readers may have gotten the impression that “organic” lawns require more time and money. I disagree.

The most important tips I got from experts at Cornell take no time, require no products and cost nothing (they actually save money):

1. Raise the mower. Cutting grass to a minimum height of 3” yields a healthier lawn.

2. Mulch the clippings. Paying to have cuttings removed costs more in labor and more in fuel and creates a waste problem. Most important, it removes nutrients from the property. Steps 1 and 2 significantly reduce the need for fertilizer, whether organic or regular.

3. Water less. One or two deep watering sessions per week builds deeper roots and a stronger lawn than running sprinklers for short periods every day or two.

Many pros agree that these are the best first steps toward a natural, sustainable lawn. I’ve found the results have been striking in terms of lawn quality and maintenance costs. The one caveat is that some landscapers view mulching as a nuisance, as they need to change blades and habits. If more customers request mulching, it will become routine.

As for the comment that “there’s no organic thing to spray” on a dandelion, Burn-Out Weed Killer is very effective; it’s a convenient spray bottle and the main ingredients are citric acid and clove oil. There are plenty of similar options.

Larry Simms, South Jamesport

To read more letters to the editor, pick up a copy of this week’s Riverhead News-Review on newsstands or click on the E-Paper.

09/07/12 12:00pm

I don’t know Lisa Worthington, newly appointed to the Zoning Board of Appeals, but I have no problem with her accepting what she reportedly sees as an “interesting job opportunity.”

However, I take extreme issue with the Town Board members who thumbed their noses at the people of Riverhead in filling this critical post. Stunningly, board members don’t even pretend Ms. Worthington has suitable training or experience. In fact, they don’t suggest she has any qualifications whatsoever, other than a “fresh face.”

It’s not just qualifications that are lacking; Ms. Worthington appears never to have given zoning matters any thought. Yet what intrigues her (as told to this paper) is the idea of “deciding what should be granted and what shouldn’t be.”

Most of us would jump at the chance to play Solomon, getting paid $6,000 to sit at a handful of meetings and see our opinions become law, but we realize such opportunities must be earned. In a fair world, they come with lots of study, hard work and salient accomplishments in relevant fields. Sometimes, of course, such jobs are simply plums awarded to loyal party workers.

Yet, neither condition is in evidence here, and we’re left to wonder: Why Ms. Worthington?

Absent any other explanation ­— and none are forthcoming — Town Board members chose Ms. Worthington because they’re confident she’ll do what they expect, ask or even tell her to do.

Take the time to read town code and you’ll see that ZBA members wield more power over what gets built in Riverhead than do the Town Board members that appoint them. For example, the Town Board will eventually decide on zoning changes in the Wading River corridor, but the ZBA will have, in a practical sense, nearly unfettered ability to nullify the new rules by granting variances, project by project.

Riverhead has worked this way for a long time, but what’s particularly striking is the lack of balance. Looking at years of zoning decisions, in many categories nearly all variance applications are granted, and the ZBA’s reputation as a rubber stamp appears well-earned.

Riverhead voters deserve decision-making boards where contrary ideas and opinions are expressed and considered. Lively debate — not bloc voting — should be the norm.

CHANGE THE PROCESS

The candidate “search process” that brought us Ms. Worthington took four months, though Town Board members were thinking about this opening far longer. (Charles Sclafani resigned his ZBA seat in early May, but his Ethics Board situation was in review for a year prior.)

Yet all Mr. Walter tells us, based on last week’s News-Review report, is that she “was suggested by a couple of people.”

That’s offensive.

A few years ago, Southampton Town implemented a new law requiring that positions at the ZBA and other boards be filled by public interview. (Read the law below.) Anyone interested can submit a letter or resume and anyone interested can observe the Town Board’s vetting of candidates. The purpose “is to encourage transparency within town government.”

Riverhead taxpayers deserve no less.

Two ZBA appointments ago, Councilwoman Jodi Giglio expressed interest in opening up this process, and Councilman George Gabrielsen expressed support. They had the right idea; too bad it was squelched.

Our town is blessed with people possessing a wealth of directly relevant knowledge, who work tirelessly for the betterment of Riverhead. For them to be passed over for a “fresh face” and nothing more is sad, and does the town a disservice.

The fact that this particular ZBA seat wasn’t a swing vote (appointing an outspoken ZBA opponent would have suggested balance, but changed nothing) makes it even more embarrassing.

Consider Rose Sanders. In her time on the ZBA, Ms. Sanders spoke her mind, voted her conscience and was almost entirely irrelevant in terms of outcomes. Look at decisions during her tenure and you’ll see a long string of 4-to-1 votes.

In the best possible case, Ms. Worthington will similarly speak her mind and vote her conscience. Yet, lacking Ms. Sanders’ extensive experience, how will she garner the knowledge to take an opposing position against an architect, realtor or the former head of the buildings department now on the board? Lacking credentials, how will she find the courage to stand her ground?

The bottom line is that even if Ms. Worthington is a wonderful person and a fast learner, takes her ZBA responsibilities seriously and proves competent, steadfast and incorruptible, it won’t be enough.

For variances to become the exception rather than the rule, we need all future ZBA members to be questioned and qualified in open session.

For Riverhead to be governed by its best minds, rather than those with the best connections, future appointments to every board must be open to all and conducted in the light of day.

Larry Simms owns a home in South Jamesport, is a principal in a firm that licenses commercial flooring technology and is active in savemainroad.org, a preservation group.

ZBA Appoint SH Law

05/05/12 7:00am

This is part two of a two-part opinion piece. The first part ran last Saturday online and in the May 3 News-Review newspaper.

The reputation of a town is determined by its leaders’ behavior. Last week, we reviewed pretense and gall.

POOR JUDGEMENT

We now know that the “Village” applicant awarded special use permits a) doesn’t control the property in question, b) is being sued by his partners to dissolve the company that owns the land and  c) has been in foreclosure proceedings for two years.

Town Board members not only think this is OK, but feel nothing should have been done differently. They see no need to check an applicant’s standing before granting permission to change the face of a hamlet. “It doesn’t matter who the owner is.”

One board member reportedly said initially that this news would “change the whole voting process. It’s something we should have known about.” Several days later, he was back to the party line: “Everything we voted on, they have the right to get.”

Even more troubling was this comment: “I just don’t want it sold to someone who will do sand mining.” Many had reminded the board that the sand — six truckloads every hour, for months on end — is valued at $750,000. The obvious concern is that, with permits in hand, an owner desperate for cash will sell the sand and build nothing.

Determination of whether it’s a sand mine doesn’t hinge on who’s driving the truck, but on the simple fact that 66,000 cubic yards will be removed. That board members don’t get this is disturbing.

Separately — without casting aspersions on Mr. Klein or discussing his background — the man is 83. To his age, add the fact banks are suing him on two loans totaling over $7 million. Rational observers will conclude he’s most likely to add value via permits and then flip the property rather than fund and build this mega-project himself.

Here’s the kicker: Professing concern about whether a developer in foreclosure can see this through, plus apprehension about all the sand being removed, one board member simply asked: “I talked to Mr. Klein and he said he has the money to do this project and that he’s not going to sand mine. I take him for his word.”

However you define fiduciary duty for elected officials, “taking him for his word” won’t pass muster on questions of this magnitude and importance.

At every turn, the only judgment we’ve seen exercised on this project is poor.

INCOMPETENCE

Gross errors in plans and studies for the “Village” — including tax revenues overstated by 97 percent — have been widely discussed and will not be analyzed here. It’s enough to know that board members neither corrected nor explained these flaws — and did not ask the developer to fix them.

They did address whether the project would allow fast food. The spectacle of the supervisor horse trading with the developer’s attorney in a hall crowded with constituents made great theater, enabling board members to point to the revised resolution and say, effectively, “We listened to your concerns; see what we achieved!”

But the developer killed this idea in 2008. His attorney said, “There will be no fast food establishments at the site” and offered a covenant to that effect. Board members erred in accepting an FEIS that lacked the promised covenant. They deserve no praise for restoring this condition after public outcry.

The same thing happened with parking for existing Main Road shops. Dedicated space was promised, then it was gone. The accepted FEIS says only this: “The proposed parking is to serve the retail, office and bistros within the development.”

Some board members claim their vote restored dedicated parking for existing shops, and believe 15 spaces will be provided. The resolutions didn’t do this.

A bigger failure occurred with bistro parking, based on the number of restaurant seats. That requirement didn’t change when board members reduced bistro size, leaving 4,000 square feet of development with no parking at all. To comply with the law, 1 of 10 buildings in this project must go; that didn’t happen.

The most astonishing error caused bistros to multiply like rabbits. There were originally to be two bistros, comprising 100 seats in 8,000 square feet. Board members finally conceded the bistros were not viable as planned, and “solved” this by cutting their size in half … reducing the area-to-customer ratio from four times to just twice the industry average. An improvement? Yes. Viable? Maybe.

All they needed to do was halve the allocated area: 4,000 square feet with 100 seats. Instead, board members — behind closed doors — drafted a resolution retaining the original 8,000 square feet of bistro space. The developer can now build four bistros, with 200 seats. Quite a gift.

(The parking problem remains, but the project must lose a building anyway, providing room for the extra spaces needed.)

Board members and planners will say these numbers aren’t meaningful, and that all this will be resolved in the site planning process. The response to that is simply, hogwash. Riverhead’s approach is completely backwards.

When you have something someone wants, it’s foolish to give it away, then try to negotiate. Yet that’s what our town leaders do.

In Southampton Town, the board never votes on a special permit until site planning is complete, for the simple reason that members want to know what they’re voting on. The logic is irrefutable.

Here, the developer enters site plan discussions with coveted permits already awarded. He has his bistros (x2) and he has his offices; there’s no incentive to provide concessions to the community.

Board members absolutely have the power to fix this; they just need the resolve. Remember that all the sins catalogued here presume no ill-motive, meaning they can be corrected.

Riverhead is the new Brookhaven. Let’s all resolve to build a better reputation.

Larry Simms owns a home in South Jamesport, is a principal in a firm that licenses commercial flooring technology and is active in savemainroad.org.

 

04/28/12 7:00am

NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | The proposed site for a 42,000-square-foot project called the Village at Jamesport. The proposal has sparked fierce opposition from locals.

This is part one of a two-part opinion piece. The next will be published in the May 3 News-Review.

The recent special permits vote for the Village at Jamesport project afforded a good opportunity to view our Town Board members in action. Each of four principal problems that plague this administration was on view. The reputation of a town is determined by the behavior of its leaders. This week, we’ll look at “pretense” and “gall.”

What follow are fact-based observations; there will be no speculation as to motives.

PRETENSE

We’ll skip the question of whether Town Board members really studied the impact of this project and determined it would deliver net benefits to the community. It’s enough, for now, to compare their real vs. published reasons for approving the special use permits.

On one hand, we have nicely drafted resolutions that follow the format of the relevant Town Code approval procedures and list benefits the permits will deliver. Significantly, tax revenues are not given as an advantage for either the bistro or office uses.

On the other hand, we have the stated reasons of several Board members: “This adds to the tax base.” “My thing is tax base.” “I have to vote yes because of the tax base.” “We have to create some tax base in this town.” These are their actual statements to constituents, uttered as they voted to accept resolutions that said nothing of the sort. (One Board member was quoted in the press as also saying he was trying to make the project “nicer looking.” As exterior design of the buildings is disconnected from the special uses decision and was not addressed by this process, the meaning is obscure.)

What board members apparently didn’t understand — despite the fact that it was repeatedly stated by speakers at the meeting, and in previous correspondence — was that they were choosing between Plan “A” and Plan “B,” both of which yield the same tax revenues. The chair of the assessor’s office was in attendance during the vote and confirmed afterward that this was the case.

Each board member who pretended to support the resolutions as drafted while actually voting for other reasons committed an act of deceit. Each Town Board member who approved the special permits “because of the tax base” committed a gross error, ignoring the facts.

They gave away the store — and got nothing in return.

GALL

When all else fails, just make things up to support your case; that’s how some folks operate. And while it’s not known who actually penned the “justification” found in these resolutions, board members who voted presumably read them.

The most important determination was whether advantages of the special uses outweighed the disadvantages. While board members appeared to consider no disadvantages, they did identify three benefits for the bistro use and two benefits for the office use. In each case, one of those benefits was a “significant reduction” in weekend trips to the project site, “resulting in less traffic congestion and vehicle related noise.”

Sounds great, but there’s just one problem: The SEQRA findings on this project say the opposite. That’s right — the special uses will generate more weekend traffic. In fact, the plan the board just approved will generate more traffic every day. (Details of the SEQRA findings can be found below.)

In case the numbers weren’t clear, the SEQRA findings called the special uses traffic a “marginal increase.” The resolutions the board approved called it a “significant reduction.”

Only two advantages cited for the offices, and three for the bistros, and in each case, one of the advantages was actually a disadvantage. Pretty grim.

We’ve all seen this sort of behavior, when scientists “cook the data” to support their hypotheses. Here, our elected officials didn’t even bother to alter the data; they just stated the desired conclusion.

How could they do this? The same way they could pretend resolutions weren’t ready at the preceding Town Board work session, and then change them on the fly during the board meeting, so that the details of what they were voting on stayed hidden until after the dust had cleared. The same way they could simply ignore the multitude of substantive errors and omissions in the environmental impact statement. And all they told us, with each new problem revealed, was, “It wouldn’t have changed my vote.”

Quintessential gall. When facts don’t matter, the process is just for show.

And with all the professed concern for being fair to the developer, how can board members rationalize making him spend a fortune and eight years on impact studies, when in the end they ignore the reports and just shoot from the hip?

When elected officials are not held accountable for their actions, this is the behavior voters can expect. And it’s the reason Riverhead is the new Brookhaven: You can build anything anywhere, because we’ll either rewrite the rules or ignore them.

Brookhaven Blight is sure to follow.

Larry Simms owns a home in South Jamesport, is a principal in a firm that licenses commercial flooring technology and is active in savemainroad.org.

SEQRA Traffic Exhibit

01/25/12 5:00pm

LARRY SIMMS PHOTO | One of three vacant stores in a Jamesport shopping mall.

Debate on whether the proposed Village at Jamesport mall would fit the Rural Corridor character and zoning of the hamlet has raged for years. You won’t find any arguments — pro or con — about that here. What you will find is analysis of whether this 42,000-square-foot  project (a) can succeed and (b) will boost our tax base.

If this mall could be built as of right, I’d have no comment. I own a business and have long favored free markets; others may risk their money as they see fit. However, when special permits are needed because planned uses aren’t allowed, applicants must show that their projects warrant changing the rules.

As the Riverhead Town Board considers these permits, let’s see how the Village at Jamesport stacks up.

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Zero-Sum

A zero-sum system is one in which the sum of the gains equals the sum of the losses. To understand how this is relevant, look at restaurants, nearly 20 percent of the proposed mall.

There are six “destination” restaurants within one mile of the site: Bayview Inn; Country Kitchen; Elbow Room; Grana; Luce & Hawkins; Jamesport Manor Inn. And just a 10-minute drive adds many more. Despite fine reputations, not all are thriving; winters are hard for those that rely heavily on agri-tourism, and the economy has everyone eating out less.

If two new restaurants are added to the mix — each much larger than those mentioned — it’s unlikely all will survive. Our population base is growing slowly, so the number of meals eaten out will remain fairly constant, making this a zero-sum micro-economy. If we add two restaurants, we lose two restaurants.

That means we haven’t increased the tax base. We haven’t created jobs. But we have ensured that two more eyesores dot the rural landscape we rely on to draw tourist business. Think Fauna, plus two.

The zero-sum principle applies to retail and office space on a bigger scale: 34,000 new square feet would take a community this size a long time to absorb, even if current space were full.

And Jamesport is far from full. Start at Manor Lane and walk west. You’ll pass 11 shops on the north side of Main Road in 1/10 mile. Of these, five are empty. On the south side, three of nine spaces at Jamesport Center are vacant.

Continue another mile and you’ll hit Vinland Commons. At 29,000 square feet, it’s almost as large as the proposed Village at Jamesport minus restaurants. Though clean and well-maintained, it’s 43 percent vacant; over 12,000 square feet sit empty at this mall alone.

Even when the economy improves, the notion of filling a total of over 60,000 square feet of retail and office space in Jamesport seems crazy. Few businesses — and fewer shoppers — seek the no-man’s-land between Route 58 big box country and the East End; we can only support so many boutiques.

What happens if the Village at Jamesport gets built? Some tenants always jump to the newest mall, so property owners already plagued by vacancies can look forward to more. And as the occupancy rate sinks further, so will market rents. Some landlords will fold; some properties will deteriorate.

It fakes a village

The heart of Village at Jamesport is its bistros: two buildings, each 4,000 square feet. Town code defines “bistro” as a restaurant having 50 or fewer seats; let’s assume the maximum, a 4,000-square-foot restaurant with 50 seats. Think about that.

Both Jamesport Manor Inn and Bayview Inn restaurants are much smaller than each bistro planned for Village at Jamesport, but Jamesport Manor Inn has twice the capacity, at a spacious 26 square feet per diner. Bayview has still more seats, at 21 square feet each. Luce & Hawkins is smaller but is in the same mid-20’s density range, typical for “fine dining.” (Tables and chairs are packed much tighter in casual restaurants.)

The Village at Jamesport bistros will have 80 square feet per customer.

The fewer seats in a restaurant, the harder it is to pay the bills. Food costs and labor vary with the number of customers served, but rent, utilities and taxes are all fixed overhead.

This project’s numbers are so odd that I asked Technomic — a leading national food service consultant — whether they could cite a successful restaurant anywhere with 80 square feet per seat. They said no. I conclude this is either a business plan doomed to fail or the buildings labeled “bistros” are to be something else entirely.

When there’s a red flag as big as this one, it would be negligent to award special use permits without closer scrutiny.

We can’t know what the developer plans to do with these spaces. But it’s routine in Riverhead for property owners to submit plans, build structures, discover “necessary” changes and get retroactive approval for something different. We see it again and again.

A Sensible Option

Dear Riverhead Town Board members, the proposal on your desks is not what it seems, and it can’t work. There’s no net economic benefit to the community, other property owners will be harmed and we can’t handle more vacant buildings. Don’t inflict this project on Jamesport.

It often helps to visualize extremes. Would you green light another aquarium? No. One would obviously fail. It’s no different with restaurants and offices, and since special permits are needed, you’re obliged to exercise judgment.

Don’t be charmed by the illusion of growth. And remember that adding malls everywhere makes it far harder to revive downtown — your stated top priority.

Here’s an alternative. One Jamesport shopkeeper told me, “I thought there were laws against building anything new if there’s a certain percent vacant space.” Now, that’s an idea worth considering — for the whole town. Encourage developers to adapt, reuse and rebuild. Craft incentives. Where variances or special permits are needed, link new construction to removal of abandoned space.

Developers want to build, and should. But instead of rubber-stamping their conventional plans, be creative. Be bold. Innovate. Challenge builders to enhance the community in lasting ways. Our future depends on it.

Larry Simms is a principal in a commercial flooring technology firm. He owns a house in South Jamesport.