09/08/11 5:36am
09/08/2011 5:36 AM

I read with a chuckle Phil Cardinale’s column last week on how to improve downtown Riverhead. Listening to Phil Cardinale lecture about how to improve downtown is like listening to a blind man describe the wonder of an evening sunset.

As our former town supervisor, Mr. Cardinale had the luxury of presiding over downtown during the best real estate market Long Island has ever seen. Yet, while Mr. Cardinale was supervisor, I could have set up a table and chairs, lit candles, placed down formal china, held a quiet dinner party in the center of Main Street and not worried about being hit by a car.

When Mr. Cardinale took over from prior supervisor Bob Kozakiewicz, downtown was filled to the brim with stores, shops and offices. Mr. Cardinale’s administration brought us a multitude of “For Rent” signs and the return of the tumbleweed. Mr. Cardinale’s grand plan for Main Street was the Apollo project. You may remember a gorgeous artist’s drawing that appeared on the front cover of Long Island’s daily newspaper when Mr. Cardinale outlined his “comprehensive” development plan. Mr. Cardinale painted a vision of a downtown that would look like something out of the Jetsons or the ’64 World’s Fair, but all of that balderdash never came to pass because the plan wasn’t real. It was public relations.

Under Mr. Cardinale, Riverhead was constantly subjected to a litany of “It’s coming soon” press conferences, false hopes, idle thoughts and artist’s renderings. If Mr. Cardinale has such brilliant ideas for how to improve Main Street why was it a ghost town during the six years he served as supervisor?

Enter Sean Walter. His administration has a novel plan for improving Main Street; the old fashioned way; hard work, and a store-by-store, block-by-block approach. In one of the worst economic times this nation has ever seen, this administration has brought you The Red Collection antique store, The Riverhead Project Restaurant, expansions at Dark Horse Restaurant, Cody’s Barbeque, Long Ireland Brewery, The New Hyatt Hotel, an expanded Aquarium, kept the Blue Door Gallery in town, a newly expanded Athens Grill and a refurbished Riverhead Grill. Last Friday, I was proud to witness the lighting of the new marquee at the Suffolk Theatre and as I watch that treasure rehabilitate itself to its former majestic grandeur I think of how Mr. Cardinale tried to close it down.

If Mr. Cardinale actually had any interest in downtown he would attend the many events that have brought new life to Main Street, as this summer has seen car shows and concerts, antique shows and festivals, parades and progress. Grangebel Park is renewed, the sidewalks are getting fixed, the street lights work, there is a new community garden and there is a new spirit downtown. Mr. Cardinale, that didn’t happen when you were in Town Hall. The only ribbon Phil Cardinale ever cut was on a Christmas gift.

There is an old saying that “those who can’t do, teach.” After 10 years in Town Hall and a track record of not getting it done during the best of economic circumstances, Mr. Cardinale now apparently feels a need to “teach.”

I for one will skip this dry lecture and run across campus, to where the action is.

Mr. Coates is a downtown resident and political advisor to Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter. He is also on the downtown Business Improvement District Management Association’s board of directors.

07/27/11 1:09pm
07/27/2011 1:09 PM

I would first like to introduce myself; my name is Mason Haas and I am one of the three Riverhead Town assessors. After reading last week’s Guest Spot article titled “Here’s a better approach to assessing taxes,” written by Riverhead Town Democratic Committee member Vasso Patrikis, I believe a response from our office is warranted to give a better understanding of how the assessor’s office assists town property owners. I feel I am the best one to respond because I have been Ms. Patrikis’s next-door neighbor for 26 years and was personally involved in her grievance at the Small Claims Assessment Review (SCAR) hearing.

The job of an assessor is often misconstrued. We do not assess the taxes; we simply determine the market value of property and homes in a normal real estate market, and as everyone knows we are currently far from a normal market. Not only do we assess for market value, but we also approve Real Property tax exemptions such as the Star, Senior, and Agriculture exemptions, as per New York State law. The property taxes imposed are a result of the budgets to operate the town, schools, fire, and other special districts, and are not part of the assessor’s duty.

The author of the article goes on to discuss her experience grieving her property assessment. I believe she put forth some misconceptions in the process, so allow me to explain it further. I would first like to say that every property owner has the right to file a grievance if they feel their property assessment is too high. We are here to help you and urge you to come in and speak to us directly. The steps that you may follow are such:

• Come in and sit down with an assessor. We encourage this as we have an open-door policy and are here to assist the property owner. If we are unable to decrease your assessment after looking at all the data, you may present it to the BAR.

• The Board of Assessment Review is a “bi-partisan” board that is independent of the assessors. We encourage property owners to file an appeal with them.

The author stated she submitted her paperwork and said our office “turned me down flat.” Ms. Patrikis never came and spoke to one of us, skipping over that vital first step. We will do all in our power to help out property owners. She, instead, went right to the BAR, a board that is chaired by a fellow political party member of Ms. Patrikis’ and they turned her down, not the assessor’s office. A letter was then sent to Ms. Patrikis from the BAR, not from the assessor’s office.

“I wondered why the assessors wouldn’t talk to me about the merits of my case. I suspected they had their orders from Mr. Walter not to help me.” This is a direct quote from her article. If Ms. Patrikis had asked to meet with an assessor we would have gladly done so. Our office has never denied any property owner a meeting and we never will. Ms. Patrikis did have a conversation with an assessor previously, but it was simply to discuss her exemptions.

Had Ms. Patrikis come into our office I would have most likely been the one she met with. I would have reviewed her file and her data and told her that:

• She made no adjustments on the sales she used as she claimed in her article.

• What she submitted was not an appraisal. It was simply a letter from a realtor stating, “I am not a certified appraiser; this is only an opinion based on recent sales.” No appraisal was submitted, as Mrs. Patrikis claimed.

• One of the recent real estate sales she references in her column was an estate sale and was sold as is, as advertised in the listing. Another sold without a kitchen, and the second bath was without a commode and sink. This, again, was as advertised. Only one sale was a legitimate sale.

Mrs. Patrikis continues in her article by writing, “Faced with the immediate prospect of a hearing before a truly independent judge, the assessors suddenly offered to settle my case for approximately 90 percent of the highest possible reduction I could have gotten.” That statement is simply untrue. After the BAR denied the author, she filed for a SCAR hearing. It is at this time the assessor’s office had the first opportunity to review and work up fair and honest adjustments for differences, similar to an appraiser. As to the so-called 90 percent settlement, she was offered an 8.9 percent reduction at the hearing, and even admitted “I was delighted to settle…”, as the reduction given was truly warranted after presenting all of the data.

As to the author claiming Supervisor Sean Walter inserted himself into her particular case to further some sort of party-line agenda is just completely absurd. In no way, shape or form do politics ever come into play in our office. We assess all property owners fairly, and I can assure you, the taxpaying property owners of Riverhead, we will never ask for, or care about, your party affiliation when trying to help you save money in these tough economic times. We work for the taxpayers, not for any political party.

Mr. Haas is a Riverhead Town assessor and was elected as a Republican.

06/22/11 12:30pm
06/22/2011 12:30 PM

Two weeks ago, Brian Mills, president of the Riverhead Republican Club and a member of the Riverhead Republican Committee, had some harsh words for the Riverhead Neighborhood Preservation Coalition and others who believe in the rule of law. I was actually quite surprised to read his  Guest Spot, “In defense of development projects.”

Mr. Mills spoke in glowing terms about Kenney Barra’s proposed “lovely village” in Wading River and the “gourmet” meals and “highly expensive suites that cater to Manhattan’s elite class” at Jedediah Hawkins Inn in Jamesport.

Then he said civic opponents were making entrepreneurs a “punching bag” and dragging them through the mud for some obscure purpose.

What didn’t seem to matter to Mr. Mills and what matters a great deal to the people of Riverhead is the rule of law. These proposed developments are among several that simply don’t conform to the zoning that we all depend upon to prevent over-commercialization and to keep our hamlets rural. That zoning guarantees that we can enjoy our homes in peace, maintain our property values and retain the quality-of-life that drew us to Riverhead in the first place. That’s what the RNPC is out to protect.  There’s nothing obscure about our purpose and that’s why a growing number of people like me are joining this group and getting involved.

Though I know some prefer to call it a shopping village, that doesn’t change the fact that Mr. Barra’s mall proposal is for the type of retail that is intended to draw more people into the Wading River hamlet for shopping. Mr. Barra himself admitted his project had a food court and a tourist information center. I don’t think that’s for Wading River residents. Clearly this project is not allowed under Riverhead Town’s zoning and is not appropriate on Route 25A and Sound Avenue in the peaceful hamlet of Wading River. The project is part of 130,000 square feet of new development proposed for a 1.5-mile stretch.

Add to this, the proposed construction of still another catering facility in Wading River at the Great Rock Golf Club in a residential community zoned for two-acre housing. Zoning and covenants make this illegal, too. How would you feel if you purchased a home in this development, in part because of covenants in place that prohibited additional expansion and uses of the property, only to see them ignored?

Furthermore, it is irrelevant what the rooms or food may be like at the Jedediah Hawkins; the continued growth of this business breaks the town’s promise to residents. Riverhead zoning code prohibits the use of the barn on the property of Jedediah Hawkins House in Jamesport for more rooms, for catering, etc. Besides, this country inn has already exceeded the zoning through previous expansions.

Manning the civic booth at Duck Pond Day and walking a recent petition around town, I have personally spoken to many, many people about the proposed commercial development, and what I’ve learned is that most people do not want more retail stores here. They were attracted to the hamlet of Wading River because it was rural, just like it was 33 years ago. And they do not want Wading River to look like Route 58 in Riverhead or 25A in Rocky Point.

Fortunately, local law should prevent inappropriate commercial development in our communities. Unfortunately, local government seems to be looking the other way. So, literally hundreds of citizens, like me, are rising up to see that the town obeys the laws and protects our neighborhoods instead of doing the bidding of builders with big bucks at the expense of the rest of us. Insisting that the laws are enforced is hardly using developers as a punching bag or dragging them through the mud.

For most of us, our homes are the biggest investment we’ll ever make, so forgive us for trying to protect our hamlet and our property rights relative to those who would break the law. And I’m referring to our government, not the property owners and would-be developers. Our problem is less with those who are making these proposals than with a town government that seems poised to let them do something that’s not just inappropriate but illegal.

That’s why we’re using the court, including the court of public opinion, to protect this place we all call home. The rule of law proclaims that no person is above the law, and this includes all of us: residents, landowners, developers and Town Board and Planning Board members.

The issue is not about how lovely or “charming” a political operative thinks something is or about making someone’s business more profitable. It’s about citizens’ rights to enjoy the rural quality of life the town’s master plan envisioned and to enjoy their properties in peace as explicitly provided for under the law.

Dr. Fontana is a psychologist and Wading River resident.

05/11/11 1:08pm
05/11/2011 1:08 PM

Last week’s News-Review Guest Spot column (“Why a school bond is so hard to swallow” by Janet Bidwell) contained statements that require additional information for the residents of the Riverhead Central School District.

The rate of contribution is set by the New York State Employees’ Retirement System and the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System through existing state laws. Local districts have no control over the rates. The percentage increase for retirement contributions from this school year to the 2011-12 year will be the same for every district in the state.

When comparing Riverhead’s taxes to taxes in Water Mill, Quogue or even Southold, one must look at Combined Wealth Ratio (CWR), the property wealth and income wealth supporting each student in the schools. According to the New York State Education Department’s latest available data, Southampton schools have 6 1/2 times the wealth behind each student, Quogue almost 10 times and Southold almost 2 times the wealth behind each student, resulting in lower taxes in those districts, per household.

New York State has reduced state aid by $2.3 million dollars for the residents of Riverhead schools for 2011-12. This represents the major reason for the property tax increase.

Riverhead’s Board of Education has cut over $4 million from next year’s budget and at the same time maintained all programs for 2011-12. The budget increase of 1.26 percent for 2011-12 is below accepted cost of living increases.

The buildings do not need “repairs,” as the column asserted, they need total renovations and upgrading. The average age of the schools exceeds 60 years. They have outlived their expected life spans. Riverhead has a fine custodial and maintenance staff, but you can only patch a roof so many times.

The reason the operations and maintenance budget is relatively flat is because the residents of the district approved a $10 million capital program in 2005 to make limited improvements in the buildings.

A separate proposition for a $5 million dollar repair fund is on the ballot to provide for repairs, pending approval of permanent financing of improvements later this year.

By separate funding in a capital program or in a repair fund, the district is able to maximize state building aid.

Ms. Carney is the Riverhead Central School District superintendent. She lives in Aquebogue.

02/21/11 5:08pm
02/21/2011 5:08 PM

I read with a bit of a chuckle former Riverhead supervisor Vinny Villella’s column last week regarding Supervisor Sean Walter’s pay package and law practice. In outlining the supervisor’s compensation package, Mr. Villella got the numbers correct but other than that there were few facts in his missive.

Shall we say the rest of the column was an attempt to put a “high-gloss shine” on the story?

Yes, Mr. Walter does receive a pay package as outlined in town law. Mr. Villella received the same type of package, adjusted for inflation, when he was supervisor and so did Mr. Walter’s predecessor, Phil Cardinale. Mr. Villella rails against the fact that Mr. Walter still has his law office open in Wading  River, yet I seem to remember that Mr. Cardinale kept his law office open in Jamesport during his 10 years in town government. Mr. Villella also calls Mr. Walter a “part-time supervisor.” Well, Mr. Walter has been town supervisor for 13 months and in that time we see the earliest buds of turning downtown around. One can hear circular saws and hammers at the Suffolk Theatre, while under Mr. Cardinale the theater was shuttered. The new Hyatt grows closer to reality daily. The former owner of the Frisky Oyster restaurant is developing a beautiful new restaurant in the old Chase building. The Red Collection sells antiques and furniture in the old Ben Franklin building. Dark Horse Restaurant is open for business and looking great. The planned Summerwind project will bring foot traffic to  Main Street. A Long Ireland Brewing brewery and tasting room is coming to Polish  Town. The Blue Door moved to Roanoke Avenue and a new eatery is going in its place. Cody’s barbecue restaurant moves in, replacing the eyesore that was Casa Rica. Athens Grill and Riverhead Grill have had impressive makeovers and all this has happened in this poor economy.

And reality is finally setting in at the Enterprise Park at Calverton, as the town has shed two of Mr. Cardinale’s pet projects — the Rechler housing deal and the mother of all bad ideas, the Riverhead Resorts project and its indoor ski mountain. The Town Board recently sowed the seeds for a reuse plan that will bring clean and high-paying technology-related jobs to EPCAL.

Working with the DEC, Mr. Walter successfully pushed through reform of the Wild Scenic Rivers Act that will allow commercial development on West Main Street. Mr. Walter stood by the courage of his convictions to make dramatic cutbacks and reduce the size of town government, something Mr. Cardinale said “needed to be done” but never had the political courage to do. Mr. Walter cut through the chatter and finally got the rail spur to Calverton. Mr. Walter fought off noisy helicopters over Riverhead, has taken the first steps to reform our animal shelter, got Wading River Creek dredged and, working with Suffolk County in a bad economy, he has preserved more farmland and open space than any 13-month period in the Cardinale or Villella administrations.

Whew! With that track record of results, if you want to wrongly call Mr. Walter a “part-time supervisor” give me a part-timer any time.

Mr. Pickersgill owns Robert James Salon & Spa in downtown Riverhead and is president of the downtown Business Improvement District management association.

01/25/11 10:03am
01/25/2011 10:03 AM

As a child you probably have memories of turning over your Etch-a-Sketch and shaking it to get a blank screen so you could draw new pictures. That is, in essence, what the Riverhead Town Board is about to do at the Enterprise Park at Calverton, or EPCAL. The former Grumman property has been at the core of many bad plans and dreams. We had the failed Wilpon housing proposal and talk of a movie studio and a full-time carnival. Most recently, two transactions fell by the wayside as the Rechler deal became a housing proposal and the ski mountain folks could not meet their contractual deadlines.

So now the slate is clean and we begin anew. With EPCAL unencumbered let’s craft a real plan that will tap the site’s true potential as a high technology economic generator for our region — one that is tied to the institutions we know, such as Stony Brook University, Brookhaven National Laboratory and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. The wonderful part about this is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel to get such a vision accomplished.

Recently, the Town Board and I visited Devens, Mass. Devens is a stretch of land cut across four towns and is the site of the former army base, Fort Devens. Upon the fort’s closing, the land was sold to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for reuse. What we saw in Devens were attractive, well-maintained buildings housing companies like Bristol Myers and a host of other clean employers. Unlike Riverhead, Devens got it right, and local and state officials have turned their land into a productive parcel that creates clean jobs and tax base.

Why did Devens do it right and we are floundering? I think for two major reasons.

One, we tend to politicize EPCAL. Each campaign season brings with it new gimmicks and schemes for projects that “might be coming soon” to the former Grumman site, all of which have no real backing, plan or prayer of ever coming to fruition. For all too long, EPCAL has been the place you go if you have a dollar and a dream. That might make for good headlines but it doesn’t make for sound development and tax base.

Two, our approach to EPCAL has not been all that comprehensive. Right now if a potential developer has a project they’d like to bring to Riverhead they have to visit our planning department, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, New York State Department of Transportation, Suffolk County Department of Health and Human Services and myriad other agencies before the developer can receive approval to stick a shovel in the ground. This is a two-year process loaded with red tape. There are too many competing agencies and too many voices in the mix, and the approval process is too cumbersome.

So how do we put EPCAL on a path that will yield results and create clean, well-paying jobs that will create tax base for

Riverhead? I think we need the following simple action plan:

One, we need to update our reuse plan for EPCAL that will once and for all make certain what uses shall and shall not be permitted, along with a defined set of development criteria . Once we have put the use debate to an end we can begin to recruit businesses that match our vision for the land, a vision I believe should be tied to hi-tech innovation clusters.

Two, we need to create a clearinghouse agency that will unite all the voices in the permitting process under one roof. At Fort Devens, a potential business owner can go from the concept stage to obtaining building permits within 75 days. It is a sad day when New York State cannot even compete with Massachusetts.

I am not advocating that the town lose control over development at EPCAL, but, look, we have been at this for 12 years and we have not even come close to recreating what the town lost when Grumman left. The streamlined approval process will allow developers certainty as they look to invest in these tough economic times. If a CEO knows he or she can receive approval for a project by a definite date, that will go a long way toward the selection of Riverhead as a future home.

There is nothing unique in Massachusetts that means the people there can develop Devens and we in Riverhead and in New York cannot develop EPCAL. It simply takes a vision and follow-through. Recently, I met with Senator Charles Schumer to discuss his plan to unite the strength of Brookhaven National Lab, Stony Brook University and Cold Spring Harbor Lab under one roof to create a “Silicon Valley East.” Given our resources and people, there is no reason such a plan cannot become a reality. These are the kinds of projects we should be angling for at EPCAL so that our valuable land brings us wealth, tax base and prosperity — and is not just a field of dreams.

Mr.Walter is the Riverhead Town supervisor and an attorney. He lives in Wading River.

01/17/11 11:37am
01/17/2011 11:37 AM

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Reading a follow-up story last week on the tragedy in Tucson in The Other Times headlined “Sadness aside, no shift seen on gun laws,” I was drawn to a comment from Congressman Mike Pence. When questioned about the prospects for new gun restrictions, he was quoted as replying, “I maintain that firearms in the hands of law-abiding citizens makes communities safer, not less safe.”

The assertion of the Indiana lawmaker, who until this month chaired the House Republican Conference and is considering running for president, was hardly remarkable; indeed, it was the kind of knee-jerk response from defenders of gun rights to which we’ve become all too accustomed after someone commits mass murder in this country.

Isn’t it time for some fresh thinking on this matter of life-and-death importance?

America has more firearms per capita than any other leading industrial democracy. So, if widespread firearm ownership does, in fact, make a country safer, ours should be among the safest. Right?

OK, you’ve already guessed the answer. But since it warrants relentless repetition so that even politicians like Mike Pence become receptive to new approaches to reducing firearm deaths, I’ll give it to you anyway. Here goes, courtesy of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which found that the U.S. firearm homicide rate per 100,000 people was:

• 5 times that of Canada.

•13 times that of Germany.

•19 times that of Australia.

•24 times that of Spain.

•44 times that of England and Wales.

The organization’s findings are reinforced by a study of firearm deaths from all causes, homicides, suicides and accidental deaths, that found that among 23 populous, high-income countries four in every five such deaths occurred in the United States.

“Compared with other high-income countries, homicide is a particular problem for the United States, largely due to firearm homicide,” concluded Erin G. Richardson and David Hemenway, the authors of the study published last year in the Journal of Trauma, Injury, Infection and Critical Care.

Their study showed that the U.S. had an overall homicide rate nearly seven times higher than the other nations, reflecting a firearm homicide rate that was nearly 20 times higher. And, as we know, some who commit murder with a gun in America do so with a weapon they obtained legally, as apparently happened in Tucson.

Moreover, although the non-firearm suicide rate in America was only 40 percent as great as in the other nations, the study found that the firearm suicide rate in the U.S. was nearly six times higher, more than offsetting the lower number. And the accidental firearm death rate in the U.S. was 5 1/2 times higher than the rate in these other countries.

Surely such profoundly sobering statistics should be part of a national conversation about whether there’s safety in numbers where firearms are concerned.

Let the conversation begin.

Mr. Henry resides in Orient.

01/10/11 2:58pm
01/10/2011 2:58 PM

Before the Riverhead school board considers terminating me at its meeting Tuesday night, effectively ending my career as a school business official, I would like to list some of the cost savings I have generated for the taxpayers of Riverhead. First, I should receive some acknowledgement for initiating the bond refund (or refinance) process for the district’s 2002 bonds.  Moody’s upgraded the district after they reviewed our financials and talked to me for over an hour on a conference call. Through this the district will save $443,000 over 8 years.

Other area of savings over the last 2 years:

• Pre-K grant. This grant was administered by then-deputy superintendent Nancy Carney in 2008. The district was applying for $166,000 of the  $266,000 alloted by the state. Mr. Carney was leaving $100,00 “on the table.” During a high level review, I suggested that district provided transportation costs could legally be charged to the grant which would result in a $100,000 savings from the general fund. Ms. Carney thought that this would not be allowed by the state but it was and the district will have saved $300,000 over this three-year period.

• Jail education billing errors. By researching invoices and meeting with members of the state Department of Education. In Albany, I discovered that charges of approximately $50,000 a year were being erroneously billed to Riverhead. Student inmates considered homeless were being classified a Riverhead residents and the district was being charged. This practice has now ended.

• Review of state aid that district receives for transportation costs. I have been conducting a review with Amala Cain and believe the Riverhead district will receive an additional $300,000 in transportation aid in 2012.

I believe I have also saved at least an additional $500,000 by purchasing off of State Contracts and by joining the Long Island Child Nutrition Co-op.  I feel I have made great strides at Riverhead in the areas of cost savings and cost control. I haven’t even addressed the area of special education costs and Medicaid reimbursement. There is still a lot of work to do and I am willing to do it. I believe the taxpayers, students and staff feel I am a good fit for Riverhead.

Too bad the superintendent and board don’t see it that way.

I also was responsible for bringing in the “bold systems” election management tool that computerized the election process for the district. This helped the district clerk  to get away from the old paper books. The district can now track who voted in each election in real time. It is also a great tool to have during close elections.

I am a worker who gets things done. I admit that I do need to improve my skills at office politics.

Mr. Ivanoff of Lindenhurst is the deputy superintendent of finance in Riverhead schools. He was dismissed from his post Dec. 1. His recommended termination will be voted on at the Jan. 11 school board meeting.

See previous coverage:

Embattled school administrator: Fire me and I’ll sue

Ex-Riverhead schools boss takes assistant superintendent post