01/16/14 1:30pm
01/16/2014 1:30 PM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | The Kujawski's farm land on Herricks Lane in Jameport.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | The Kujawski’s farm land on Herricks Lane in Jameport.

It’s good to see county government update its 1996 Agriculture and Farmland Protection Plan with a more recent and comprehensive study. It’s often said that having only two representatives in an 18-member legislative body puts the five East End towns at a political disadvantage. And while there’s plenty of truth to that, an in-depth update to hone in on concerns and legislative priorities in the area’s most vital industry should not go overlooked.

Related: Plans for the future of Suffolk farms in the works

With nearly two-thirds of surveyed farmers in the county engaging in some form of agritourism — a number that’s not likely to drop anytime soon — perhaps the most obvious area of study would be how local governments can plan for growth of that aspect of the industry while maintaining the quality of life that characterizes the area.

It’s imperative that farmers be able to earn a living moving forward, though the North Fork consists of a diverse and well-rounded community that extends beyond those tilling the fields. While the final product remains to be seen, it’s a positive sign that the county is exploring and encouraging the growth of Suffolk’s farm industry. And looking ahead. Updating the county’s comprehensive approach to agriculture and farmland protection bodes well for the future.

01/09/14 7:00am
01/09/2014 7:00 AM

New York State Capitol

In his State of the State address Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced plans to make marijuana available in 20 New York hospitals for patients with cancer, glaucoma and other illnesses. An executive order creating an interim medical marijuana program could allow him to bypass the state Senate, which has been blocking medicinal marijuana legislation efforts.

This is welcome news for those seeking relief from pain and discomfort caused by illness. It’s also promising for those who consider this an important step toward modernizing state marijuana laws by taxing and regulating its sale and use, as with alcohol and tobacco. Our current system has done much more harm than good, most notably through the imprisonment and restrictive criminal records of countless non-violent offenders over the course of decades — not to mention the violent drug trades the laws have helped create.

Historic references to marijuana as treatment for various ailments go back thousands of years, and even today approximately 76 percent of doctors worldwide sign off on medical uses where it is legally available, according to survey findings recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Marijuana can be used to treat more ailments than prednisone, for example, yet isn’t nearly as harmful to the body. Something seems amiss when we live in a state where morphine is legal for medicinal use but marijuana isn’t. This contradiction can be explained by the fact that marijuana became a scapegoat drug beginning in the early 20th century — fueled by headline-grabbing politicians — without evidence to prove any real dangers or benefits. The argument that has evolved since holds that marijuana, though itself not especially dangerous, is a gateway drug that leads to other drug use. Prominent experts debunk this theory again and again, pointing out that marijuana is predictably the first illicit drug chosen by people who go on to use other drugs only because it’s the most readily available. In fact, most people consume alcohol before ever using marijuana.

Relaxing marijuana laws isn’t just something being promoted by those on the left. Fiscal conservatives point to the huge amount of money and resources being wasted on policing, prosecuting and imprisoning offenders. Many people readily recognize that marijuana use in and of itself does not infringe upon others’ health or safety, thus its use should be a personal choice and no business of the government’s. An exception would be the operation of a vehicle after having used marijuana, which is still illegal even in Colorado and Washington State, where recreational marijuana use has been decriminalized.

In the new year, New York State lawmakers, especially Senate Republicans, should rethink their knee-jerk stances against pot and pass a law that permit medical uses of marijuana. They should also reconsider the real benefits of proposed tax-and-regulate legislation versus the real costs — and imagined benefits — of the status quo.

12/31/13 12:00pm
12/31/2013 12:00 PM
Suffolk Theater in Riverhead

KATHARINE SCHROEDER FILE PHOTO | The historic Suffolk Theater in downtown Riverhead reopened earlier this year.

On the fast track at EPCAL

A monumental hurdle was cleared in the effort to finally bring economic development to the Enterprise Park at Calverton. That hurdle came in the form of state legislation, passed in October, designed to fast-track development proposals for 600 subdivided acres of town land at the former Grumman site. Several EPCAL proposals have fallen apart in the past, usually because they found themselves in a jurisdictional purgatory among governments. This legislation should solve the problem. Though nothing was built this year, the work of state and local lawmakers, namely Sean Walter, Ken LaValle and Fred Thiele, should pay dividends later in the form of jobs and tax base.

Little more than a land grab

Riverhead Town had set out to subdivide 800 acres of town-owned property at EPCAL, yet the subdivision map that’s been sketched out shows 600 acres that will be sold. The loss of 200 acres comes because the state Department of Environmental Conservation outlined land that could not be developed at EPCAL due to protected species. While we’re not about ruining sensitive habitats, the last we checked, preserving huge swaths of land usually involves some sort of financial transaction. If the state doesn’t want this acreage developed, it must compensate the town accordingly. The proceeds could help fund necessary sewer plant upgrades and other infrastructure improvements at the site.

ThumbUpBye-bye sex offenders

Six years is an awfully long time for one community to house the county’s entire homeless sex offender population. In fact, it’s six years too long.

But we were happy to report this year that the homeless sex offender trailers in Riverside were finally moved and the sex offenders were placed in shelters across the county.

The trailer system was never a good idea and the county’s handling of the situation was appalling.

The only good that ever came of it was the day the trailers finally left.

ThumbdownA clear-cut disaster at Costco site

The town gave away the store by granting developers of the Route 58 Costco project the OK to clear-cut an entire 41-acre property in 2013, including 11 acres in which there are no immediate plans to build. The measure saved the developers money but short-changed taxpayers $374,100 in fees on imported fill. The reason given by the developers was that they didn’t want to disturb neighbors twice (should they build more later). Somehow this argument held water with the Planning Board, which approved the site plan in 2012, and the Town Board, which granted an excavation permit this year. Neighbors in the Foxwood and Millbrook communities now enjoy views of sand pits and strings of small arborvitae.

ThumbUpThe Suffolk Theater reopens

The history of the Suffolk Theater is too long and fraught with ups and downs to fit into this space but in 2013, the art deco-style theater saw a big “up” as it reopened after years of effort from Bob and Dianne Castaldi.

In the wake of the opening of the theater, which has hosted events from concerts to comics to debates to psychics, a variety of other businesses have opened their doors in the area on Main Street — exactly the hope of many who awaited the theater’s return.

The Castaldis were named People of the Year by the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce for their efforts, with East End Arts executive director Pat Snyder calling the anchor site a “point of pride” for the town.

ThumbdownRotten to the Common Core

New York State has agreed to adopt high-stakes testing and controversial teacher evaluation systems tied to Common Core State Standards in exchange for a one-time installment of $700 million in federal Race to the Top grant money. That’s less than 3 percent of what the state spends in a single year on education, experts say. Hardly seems worth the money to tie ourselves to a system that, at best, may help already college-bound kids attend marginally better colleges but will likely cause at-risk youths, English language learners and students with disabilities to fail in school in even greater numbers. Since the overhaul wasn’t created by legislation, lawmakers can, and do, deflect blame.

12/13/13 1:31pm
12/13/2013 1:31 PM

Town of Riverhead signYou typically see a lot of space in these pages devoted to the institutions that make up Riverhead and help shape the society in which we live: the local schools, government, business, nonprofits, etc. And they deserve this ample coverage; they form a large part of the day-to-day, week-to-week lives our publications aim to capture.

But, to use a cliché, people are the heartbeat of those organizations — and Riverhead itself. Probably because they themselves have heartbeats, while institutions do not.

In this week’s paper, you’ll find profiles of a few people who embody the best of Riverhead. It’s by no means a definitive list but it is an illustrative snapshot of the Riverhead community, and we want to use this space to recognize some people who’ve made special contributions to that community.

We’ve included, in no particular order, a radio host, a soldier returning from war and a school custodian. But there’s much more to the way Johnny Niecko, Fred Ligon and Carl James make Riverhead hum.

All three are veterans. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ligon returned from duty recently, arriving in Riverhead last Wednesday night after a tour in Afghanistan. A Little League coach, father of three and husband of a school board member, he came home on a cold night to find a crowd awaiting him in a parking lot, with a full fire and police escort.

Johnny Niecko hosted 1390 WRIV’s “Sunday Polka Time” for over 30 years, celebrating the area’s musical roots. The 76-year-old Polish immigrant, who says polka “puts a smile in your heart,” stepped down at the end of last month, though the show will continue.

Anyone who has attended Pulaski Street School in the past 50 years has certainly seen Carl James roaming the halls — or, more specifically, helping to keep them clean. We recently learned that the school’s head custodian, who graduated from the school himself back when it was the high school, is the longest-tenured employee of any North Fork school district.

These folks are just a small representation of the Riverhead community but, we hope, will provide readers with a sense of the caliber of the people who live here.

12/06/13 1:00pm

Downtown2_BE_R11

People can say what they will about Route 58 being overrun with big box stores. It’s still a fact that family-run businesses (some not so small anymore) continue to be the backbone of the North Fork economy. And they’re also a huge part of what makes the region such a unique place to live and visit.

Small-business owners also serve as de facto community leaders. They sit on boards of local nonprofits. They run for office. Above all, they get involved. Their names, or those of their businesses, appear on Little League uniforms, hospital facilities, programs and pamphlets for charitable events. When a local family faces a tragic circumstance, local business owners are usually the first to open their hearts and wallets. These are hard-working men and women of vision who truly help the region thrive.

But they need your support as well.

In the pages of this family-run newspaper and on our news websites, you’ll find dozens of ads from area businesses, some funny, some pretty, some just informative. They make it possible for our editorial staff to disseminate news and information day and night and to keep the community engaged.

Even if you are the most dedicated of newshounds, please take time also to notice what your friends and neighbors are offering through their print and online ads. What you’ll find is a wide range of products and services no big box store could ever match.

What you won’t find is midnight madness, fights over doorbuster sales or, with some necessary exceptions, Thanksgiving or Christmas hours.

And isn’t that nice?

We at Times/Review are challenging all our readers this holiday season to visit North Fork stores and pick up at least one gift from a small-business owner. Then tell us about your experience — send us letters, online comments or Facebook posts. We want to know what you bought, where you bought it and who it was for. We’ll be sure to publish some of your feedback online and in print.

Tell your fellow readers why you love a small business and would hate to see it close and move away.

Because when that happens, we lose much more than we think.

11/27/13 11:59am
11/27/2013 11:59 AM
TIM KELLY PHOTO | Suffolk County Democratic Chairman Rich Schaffer, County Executive Steve Bellone, Legislator-elect Al Krupski and Legislator Wayne Horsley.

TIM KELLY PHOTO | Suffolk County Democratic Chairman Rich Schaffer, County Executive Steve Bellone, Legislator-elect Al Krupski and Legislator Wayne Horsley.

In signing Suffolk County’s 2014 budget last week, County Executive Steve Bellone put his John Hancock on a plan devised by a majority of county legislators that calls for borrowing nearly $33 million from its sewer stabilization fund. This revenue stream was created as part of the Drinking Water Protection fund — a tax county residents voted to impose upon themselves for the purpose of preserving their underground aquifer in years to come.

With the county’s decision to dip into this reserve fund, environmental groups have raised a red flag . One is even ready to go to court on the issue, noting that the sewer fund, as part of the Drinking Water Protection program, was created with explicit uses — and that “balancing the county’s books” is not listed among them. The tax has been renewed by voters several times, most recently in 2007, extending it through 2030, indicating the public’s support for ensuring the future health of their drinking water.

While a court may someday rule on the legality of this issue, it won’t be anytime soon. A court case over a similar action taken by the county in 2011 is still moving slowly through the justice system, so it looks like the sewer stabilization fund will be down by $32.8 million come next year. Legal or not, it’s happening.

Until the day a court mandates replenishment of the fund — if that day ever comes — Suffolk County leaders have a chance to get ahead of the curve and mandate it themselves. The language in the approved budget states that “it is the intent of the Legislature to replenish the [fund] beginning in fiscal year 2017 with an appropriation in the General Fund.”

Legal questions aside, it’s encouraging to see a plan that could save county taxpayers over $40 million in interest payments as opposed to Mr. Bellone’s plan to borrow to close the budget gap in next year’s $2.7 billion spending plan.

But we all know what road is paved with good intentions.

If leaders truly intend to start repaying the funds in 2017, they should be comfortable passing further legislation, with teeth, that specifically mandates repayments from the general fund.

Such a requirement would protect the integrity and original goals of the sewer stabilization fund — and others dedicated for specific purposes.

11/21/13 8:00am
11/21/2013 8:00 AM

Preparing for the unknown in any circumstance is challenging indeed. Go too far and you overprepare, creating unnecessary work. Don’t go far enough and you’ll always be left wondering, “What if we’d done more?”

And readying Enterprise Park at Calverton to market to the public is about as hard a task as any facing Riverhead right now.

So what’s to be done when the firm conducting the EPCAL planning study asks for an additional $162,390 to complete its work — a 35 percent cost overrun on the $464,000 originally allocated?

The Town Board OK’d the additional funding (see related story). It’s nearly impossible at this point to tell what will be right and what will be wrong in the long run but at this point we agree with the decision, reluctantly.

The time required to negotiate a proposal acceptable to the Department of Environmental Conservation surprised everyone. And the town did ask planning firm Vanesse, Hangen, Brustlin to do additional work, for which it now has to pay if it wants the final product.

But VHB should not be asking for additional money to cover expenses that are strictly limited by stipulations in the original contract — for example, the number of people they can bill the town for sending to public meetings. They’ve been around the block and surely knew when they signed the contract how many people it takes to properly represent their clients at meetings.

The town and VHB both knew long ago that more money would be needed to complete the work and the town should have parceled out the payments in smaller installments. So VHB’s request for such a large lump sum all at once seems unfair, leaving some — at the very least, Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, who voted against the allocation — with understandable sticker shock. And, coming two weeks after Election Day, the timing of the request could also be considered curious by some.

But the fact remains that this study is vital to the plans the town has started at EPCAL, making the land marketable in ways previously impossible — especially in light of recent legislation passed in Albany.

It would be a shame to be left wondering years from now, “What if we had just paid that extra $162,000” in 2013 to finish that study?

We just hope we won’t have to revisit this question in 2014.

FILE PHOTO | The southern entrance into the already-developed part of EPCAL, referred to as the industrial core.

FILE PHOTO | The southern entrance into the already-developed part of EPCAL, referred to as the industrial core.

11/15/13 9:00am

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO |  Grapes & Greens will yield tangible results in terms of jobs, which will allow other businesses to grow.

Grapes & Greens on Sound Avenue in Calverton has all the components of a good and wise public investment in private enterprise.

Here’s why. Unlike so many other government-funded initiatives, the shared storage and processing plant for locally grown produce and wine will yield tangible results in terms of jobs — and not just those at the facility itself. This project allows other businesses to grow, something especially important for the agricultural industry so central to the North Fork’s way of life.

Jim Waters of Waters Crest Winery told this newspaper that smaller winery owners have known for years that a shared facility would be needed to help grow the industry. Without one, individual winery owners would have had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each on storage space in order to expand.

It’s hard to imagine the building of such a facility would ever have been possible without public money. Like a lighthouse it offers a public benefit that couldn’t be achieved without government involvement. (This is why our local growers are so fortunate to have a strong advocacy group in the Long Island Farm Bureau, which secured a $500,000 state grant for the project.)

Perhaps what’s most promising for the project is that the right people are on board. The state and local farmers have partnered with an established Long Island-based company in J. Kings Food Service Professionals. This is not some fly-by-night startup or national conglomerate either. Owner John King has an interest in seeing this project succeed that goes beyond turning a profit. This is his home, too. As Joe Gergela of the farm bureau often says, the best way to preserve farmland is to help make farms profitable. And this project helps, especially as the small farms that dot the North Fork brace themselves for daunting new federal regulations under the Food Safety Modernization Act.

It also helps that Grapes & Greens set up shop in an existing vacant warehouse rather than clearing more trees to build.

Of course, the facility has yet to be fully operational, so the jury is still out on whether Grapes & Greens will prove to be the huge success so many are expecting. Either way, this project is a shining example of how public investment should work. Unlike so much government spending <\h>— be it in the form of grants, tax incentives or (once upon a time) legislative member items — this makes perfect sense to the average person and doesn’t appear to be about chasing unrealistic ideals or simply spreading money around to help keep politicians in office.