06/27/14 8:00am
06/27/2014 8:00 AM
The Gershow Recycling plant in on Hubbard Avenue in Riverhead. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch file)

The Gershow Recycling plant in on Hubbard Avenue in Riverhead. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch file)

Give me a moment, I’ll tell you a funny story.

Two weeks ago, Councilwoman Jodi Giglio went on WRIV radio to announce Riverhead can’t actually enforce town code at the Gershow facility because Riverhead doesn’t own a noise meter. You remember Gershow — they were approved by our Town Board to run a benign junk yard on Hubbard Avenue. Now they noisily “shred” cars there. The story gets better.

A few days after the councilwoman’s pronouncement, Supervisor Sean Walter stepped in to say it’s not true, the town does indeed own not one, but two decibel meters; they just happen to be located at police headquarters. Perhaps that’s why the Town Board might not think we have any.  (more…)

06/12/14 12:00pm
06/12/2014 12:00 PM
The Riverhead Charter School in Calverton. (Credit: File)

The Riverhead Charter School in Calverton. (Credit: File)

A little over three years ago, when my husband and I made the informed decision to enroll our son at the Riverhead Charter School, we were confident that we made the right choice for our child. We reviewed all of our options within the public and private school system and found that a charter school education was the right fit for us. As the school year comes to a close, we as a family remain confident in that decision — even amid recent controversy.  (more…)

09/30/13 8:00am
09/30/2013 8:00 AM
FILE PHOTO | Town officials have said the digital sign at the Valero station in Jamesport violates historic district codes.

FILE PHOTO | Town officials have said the digital sign at the Valero station in Jamesport violates historic district codes.

When the new bowling alley in Riverhead proposed erecting an animated billboard, it caused many people to wonder about the lit-up Valero price sign in downtown Jamesport, which similarly violates town code.

“What happened?” they asked. “I thought the town was going to make them take that down!”

Setting out to learn about town actions with regard to the Valero sign, I encountered a familiar roadblock: a FOIL request denial. I realized the town’s routine and cavalier obstruction of taxpayer requests for information is a far more important story than failure to enforce sign codes.

The opening statement of New York’s FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) statute says: “a free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public, and when the public is aware of governmental actions.” It couldn’t be more plain.

Why, then, does our town government so often fail to deliver requested information?

I haven’t kept track, but probably have had more FOIL requests rejected than filled. I’ve seen massive files withheld because they’re deemed “intra-agency material,” though exempt external correspondence was included. Another typical reason/rejection response: “It’s all being discussed with counsel, and is therefore privileged.”

Baloney.

My Valero request was sent to town code enforcement and the town attorney. Code enforcement rejected it, saying deputy town attorney Bill Duffy directed them to do so because the information, “if disclosed, would interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings.”

That’s a particularly lame excuse in this case. I contacted Mr. Duffy, but he didn’t return my calls. Because this rejection was so blatantly wrong, I thought about appealing it. I then remembered Mr. Duffy is also the town’s designated FOIL appeals officer; that battle was already lost.

Though an issue of minor consequence, this matter was so simple and straightforward that it made a great example; I contacted the Committee on Open Government (COOG), the state agency that oversees FOIL implementation. In response, the COOG assistant director made many useful observations.

Specifically on the denial of Valero information, she said: “If the agency has issued a notice of violation or a summons for violation of a zoning code, such notice would be required to be made public upon request for various reasons — one, it is likely that it is part of the public record at the courthouse; two, it would represent a final agency determination, which is required to be made public pursuant to section 87(2)(g); three, it would be difficult, if not impossible, in my opinion, for an agency to show that a record such as this if disclosed, would interfere with an investigation or judicial proceeding.”

(About the common “discussed with counsel” excuse, COOG said: “Merely because records are discussed with an attorney does not make them attorney-client privileged.”)

These are strong words, and it appears that Mr. Duffy is unequivocally wrong. If he returned my phone calls, I’d tell him so.

The point is not that secrets are being kept about the Valero sign (though they are); the point is that every day, residents are routinely and illegally blocked in their efforts to get information about the workings of this town.

It’s not always by denial. A taxpayer sought landfill records and was prepared to pay the 25¢ per page copying fee. The FOIL officer said the taxpayer must first pay $125 to have the 600-page file redacted … after which he could look at the pages, decide which he needed, and then pay copying costs. Outrageous. (Did the town charge this “redacting fee” multiple times for the same file?)

To be clear, plenty of folks working at Town Hall understand their job is to serve the public, and seem to enjoy doing so. Prompt and courteous assistance on some FOIL requests is not uncommon. The town clerk’s office, for example, is unfailingly helpful and incredibly efficient.

Yet, in some areas information is given grudgingly, and every request is treated as a nuisance. The town attorney’s office seems consistently prone to naysaying, foot-dragging, and abusive decisions. This must change.

Last year, Supervisor Walter and three council members joined town attorney Bob Kozakiewicz at a COOG forum on FOIL implementation. Was that just for show?

Back to Valero. The sign went up in 2008. In January 2009, Riverhead filed suit in state Supreme Court against the owner. Since that filing, there have been four motions, two conferences, 91 adjournments, and 0 decisions, with no activity since August 2010. (This info is from the court system website.)

Taxpayers deserve to know: 1) what actions code enforcement officers took before the lawsuit was filed; 2) whether the town sought injunctive relief to — at the very least — turn the sign off; 3) whether fines are being imposed and collected for this small-but-flagrant violation; 4) why there’s been literally no progress on this case in over three years.

The town’s position is that we’re not entitled to know any of these things, even though the state FOIL committee says that’s wrong.

Town attorneys are hired by, and take direction from, the Town Board. Voters who find this behavior troubling should remember that the incumbent supervisor and council members are extremely unlikely to fix this pervasive problem. We need representatives who will treat residents with greater respect, and who will obey the law.

Larry Simms owns a home in South Jamesport and is a principal in a firm that licenses commercial flooring technology. He is active in savemainroad.org, an advocacy group dedicated to preserving the character of the Main Road corridor and surrounding areas.

08/26/13 6:00am
08/26/2013 6:00 AM

MICHAEL WHITE PHOTO | The new Suffolk County jail facility in Yaphank.

When the plan to build a new Suffolk County county jail was first proposed about 10 years ago, the political and economic landscape in the county, as well as the nation as a whole, was dramatically different from what we have today. Even back then, when Suffolk County was running budget surpluses, opponents of the new jail project made good arguments that it was ill-conceived, from both budgetary and policy standpoints.

In retrospect, they were right.

Suffolk County is now facing budget deficits that may exceed $200 million in 2014. At the same time, county officials are considering moving forward with Phase II of the new jail in Yaphank, at an expected cost of $100 million, totally paid for by Suffolk taxpayers without any state or federal subsidies. It is madness.

During the past several years, analyses and studies by criminal justice experts have highlighted our flawed approach to crime and punishment nationwide. Accounting for population, the rates of incarceration in the United States are some of the highest in the world. This high rate of incarceration is largely created by our decades long “War on Drugs” and a get-tough-on-repeat-offenders strategy that mandated prison sentences for defendants regardless of the severity of their actual crimes. The result for states and other municipalities has been soaring expenditures for corrections and other related costs of criminal justice systems. These policies have had a crippling effect on state and local county budgets.

However, recent studies on a national level have indicated that this trend is being reversed. Most states have gotten smart about the cost of incarceration and the need to reduce jail populations through less costly alternatives. Even here in New York State, the prison population has decreased during the past few years, with state prisons being closed and costs statewide being reduced. In contrast, Suffolk County has been moving in the opposite direction, with more and more jail cells being built or proposed and increased numbers of people being incarcerated. It has to stop as soon as possible, or it will send this county into a fate similar to that of Nassau County, or worse, Detroit.

Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco has been pressing forward with a plan to reduce the inmate population through less costly alternatives to jail and diversions from incarceration that could eliminate the need for the $100 million Phase II of the new Yaphank jail. Suffolk County legislators and taxpayers should heed his call.

By expanding current jail diversion programs through the Probation Department and the courts, along with implementing new, cost-effective initiatives to divert low-level offenders from incarceration, we can significantly reduce the inmate population here in Suffolk County without jeopardizing public safety. These alternatives to incarceration programs can save taxpayers both the cost of expanding the Yaphank jail, as well as the annual increase in operating expenditures associated with running and staffing this new jail, which would include both hiring more correctional officers and increases in overtime pay.

Suffolk County needs to get in step with the rest of the nation and avoid the costs associated with high rates of incarceration.

Jerry Bilinski is a case manager with a non-profit group that advocates for incarcerated and mentally ill people. He lives in Riverhead.

08/18/13 10:00am
08/18/2013 10:00 AM

TIM GANNON PHOTO | A new 16,700-square-foot building on this site off Miller Way in Calverton will be home to Allied Building Products’ first East End site.

As Riverhead Town residents, our property taxes pay for the services we receive, such as town water and sewage systems, schools, police, sanitation collection, recreation and road maintenance. Our personal property taxes are supplemented by taxes collected from businesses within the town. Having a strong economic base is a necessity; therefore, new businesses should be encouraged to come to Riverhead.

The original purpose of the Riverhead Industrial Development Agency was to promote, develop, encourage and assist in acquiring, developing and equipping various business facilities, thereby advancing job opportunities and resulting in an increase in the general prosperity and economic welfare of the people of the town. The IDA has the power to abate property, sales and mortgage tax. Under federal tax law, IDAs can issue tax-exempt bonds to cover manufacturing facilities, governmental projects, nonprofit projects (a YMCA or civic facility) and exempt facilities (airports, solid waste facilities). The creation of new, well-paying jobs was expected to be a direct result of this exchange.

Adchem Corp. is one of Riverhead’s success stories. The company’s IDA process worked according to criteria that had to be met in order to be eligible to apply for tax exemptions. These included local and regional economic conditions, the creation of new jobs, the type of industrial or commercial activity, the benefit afforded to residents and the project location. After the company’s abatement period was over, substantial local jobs were created and they continue to make a significant contribution to our tax base.

I have been attending IDA meetings for almost a year. I can truthfully say that many of the projects approved met very few of these criteria. Two new businesses come to mind. In June 2013, Theriac Enterprises was granted tax abatements for the renovation of the old PC Richard & Sons building on Route 58. This company has offices in 28 states and seven foreign countries. It is well-established and its 21st Century Oncology facility will compete with a local business, North Fork Radiology, right around the corner on Roanoke Avenue. Theriac plans to occupy a third of the new building and rent out the remaining two-thirds. What criteria they met to be granted their abatement is unknown. This is outrageous!

Then, last week, Allied Building Products was granted IDA tax abatements. The public commentary was unclear but it seemed the Riverhead IDA was under the impression that, if not granted, the company would locate in Westhampton, where it was being offered Suffolk County IDA abatements. However, David Doran of Allied Business Products later admitted the company had not filed with the Suffolk County IDA at all. Again, Allied Building Products has over 180 locations and employs 3,100 people. It is well-established. Why does it need tax abatements from us to expand the business?

Has the current IDA board ever seen a proposal it didn’t like? Are we granting every application in order to create a salary base for an employee? Over the past year I have been attending IDA meetings; this board did not deny a single application, with board members often failing to ask pertinent questions along the way.

New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has continuously been critical of IDA practice statewide. You can access actual NYS IDA audits online and read how few real jobs have been created for the large tax breaks received. Mr. DiNapoli is currently sponsoring legislation that would provide taxpayers with the ability to evaluate if the IDAs are deriving the promised economic benefits, as they state. In cases where criteria are not met and jobs are not forthcoming, benefits can be “clawed-back.”

There are many fine regional examples of IDAs that share, and are proud of, their ability to grow their town’s economic base. If one were to access the Town of Islip, there is a transparent website explaining their projects, current and past, at islipida.com. They celebrate and share their success stories openly; financial reports and projects are there for all to see. In Islip Town, IDA board members and Town Board members are one and the same. They are directly responsible to the taxpayers.

Contrast theirs with ours at www.riverheadida.org and click on the “Projects” tab. There is nothing there. Information is unknown. There is no transparency for the taxpayer. This has become another runaway train.

Here’s the bottom line: Businesses that come to town immediately create the need for the additional services listed in my opening paragraph. Since the business’ taxes are abated, the burden of providing those services fall on the taxpayer. It’s time to re-evaluate the Riverhead Industrial Development Agency and send the responsibilities of the Riverhead IDA back to the Town Board.

Ann Cotten-DeGrasse is a Riverhead resident and current president of the Riverhead school board. She is running a Democratic primary for town supervisor.

08/24/12 8:00am
08/24/2012 8:00 AM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Vince Taldone and his put bull, Champ, just a few weeks before Champ was put down.

In the fall of 2010, I read an article in the Riverhead News-Review about the Town Board reconsidering the town’s animal shelter euthanasia policy.

In the article, Supervisor Sean Walter was quoted as saying, “Some of them have been in there for close to six months. The more humane thing is not to leave them in there for another six months.”

In part, I agreed. Certainly warehousing animals is not very humane.

Councilman Jim Wooten, the town’s liaison to the shelter, noted that most dogs do get adopted, but the less desirable animals, primarily pit bulls, remain.

Pit bulls (including the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier and the Staffordshire bull terrier) are some of the gentlest breeds of dogs. The American Temperament Test Society (ATTS.org) gives the pit bull a very high passing rate of 90.6 percent, which is better than the beagle, the cocker spaniel, the miniature poodle and more than 100 other breeds.

I decided that I had to save one of the dogs, so I visited petfinders.com and saw a photo of a senior pit bull mix named Champ, who had been at the shelter for more than one year.

With Supervisor Walter’s comment in mind — as well as my 92-year-old mother’s recent comment that she was lonely — I went off to the shelter.

I fell in love with Champ as soon as I met him. He was quiet, friendly and had a funny walk. A kind volunteer named Pat Lynch explained that Champ never barked and was a very gentle animal who was found abandoned.

When I looked at Champ, standing in the prison-like atmosphere of the shelter, I could almost hear him saying, “Take me home, please!”

So I did.

My mother expected me to return with a small fluffy dog that could sit on her lap. She took one look at the 70-pound Champ and immediately decided that she was afraid of the gentle dog. In time, though, he would win her over.

Shortly after we brought him home, we discovered that he had Lyme disease, hook worm, advanced heart worm and a bladder infection. I could have returned him to the shelter because of medical treatment costs, which the town certainly would not cover (euthanasia is much more affordable). Champ was so loving that I couldn’t imagine parting with him. He had quickly become part of the family. He stayed.

Champ survived the treatments. I was thrilled. So thrilled that I installed a new back door with a sturdy doggie door especially for Champ.

He became even happier when I started taking him on two long walks a day.

I think I enjoyed the walks as much as he did. After living in my neighborhood for almost 12 years, I recognized many but knew almost none of my neighbors. Champ loved every one them and soon my neighbors began to recognize us. We had conversations and I got to know them better.

As for my mother, she started spending her time reminding me (as if I needed to be reminded) to make sure that the water bowl was full and to feed Champ on time. Champ made her giggle like a little girl whenever he would charge out his doggie door and run around the yard to meet me by the grill when I cooked chicken.

He made both of us smile every day and brought us great joy when he lived with us.

In addition to spending more time with Champ, I also started spending time walking dogs as a volunteer at the Riverhead animal shelter. I got to know a number of volunteers who selflessly spent much time and effort to walk, play and otherwise socialize the dogs to keep them from going crazy being locked up for long periods without human contact. Animals need a comforting, human touch as much as we humans do.

Initially, I joined in discussions with the town’s animal shelter advisory committee but the politics were overwhelming and the town was clearly not going to spend any additional monies to make things substantially better for the dogs. I decided to focus on the animals at the shelter and also on Champ.

Over the past almost two years, Champ’s “funny walk” became worse. It was, as we suspected, neurological damage (either from the Lyme disease I treated him for or his previous home). On the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 8, Champ went out of his doggie door for the last time. He fell and lost the use of his hind legs.

We had no choice but euthanasia. We adopted him so he wouldn’t be euthanized but the choice was the only responsible course of action.

The next night, I closed Champ’s doggie door. He was gone from our lives and changed the way I thought of pit bulls, as well as many of my friends, family and neighbors who all fell in love with this kind and loving animal. Although he lived only two more years after adoption, he certainly had a loving home that he deserved.

For all of Champ’s buddies at the Riverhead shelter, as well as other town and private facilities, I can only hope that other people will skip the puppy mills and find a place in their lives for the unconditional love of a shelter dog. For me, I will take a little time and surely find another kind, loving animal for whom I can open that doggie door again!

If you are interested in adopting a dog, visit the Riverhead animal shelter. You also may want to visit the YouTube site for New York Bully Crew (a rescue group on Long Island) where you can watch videos of dogs who need a loving home: youtube.com/NewYorkBullyCrew.

Vince Taldone, a retired urban planner, is an executive board member of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association. He lives in downtown Riverhead.

10/13/11 4:00am
10/13/2011 4:00 AM

Recent News-Review headlines such as these have been striking: “Riverhead planners rebuke two Town Board requests, angering supervisor” and “ZBA ruling has Town Board scrambling.”

The supervisor’s warning followed: “If the Planning Board won’t do what the members of the Town Board request of them to do [sic], then the Town Board is going to have to seriously look at replacing Planning Board members, because they are not doing the will of the elected officials and the people.”

What’s happening here?

The Town Board appoints all Planning and Zoning Board members. Everyone knows that. But many — including some Town Board members — don’t grasp just how powerful these appointees are. Planning Board member Ed Densieski said, “They don’t have the authority to tell us what to do.” He’s right.

It’s no accident that state law gives these appointees terms longer than the elected officials who choose them. Or that the Town Board can’t remove members because they dislike their decisions, but only “for cause,” which sets a very high bar. Or that only one term on each board expires per year, making it impossible to “clean house.” Appointed members are clearly intended to be autonomous and beyond the reach of political pressure, so they can decide issues before them purely on their merits.

And yet the Town Board keeps trying to control them. Mr. Walter is reported as saying, “In my world, we’re the elected officials, but when we ask the Planning Board to do something, we sort of expect them to do it, because we’re the ones people vote in.” He also disagreed with his town attorney’s opinion, saying: “I do not want [the Planning Board] processing the application … until the Town Board interprets the covenants.”

The supervisor’s perspective is fundamentally wrong; these boards are empowered to proceed as they see fit. If appointees simply did the bidding of those in office, the boards would be superfluous.
The battles illustrate how crucial it is that those appointed to these key posts have useful experience, sound judgment and a commitment to enforcing our laws objectively. That raises another problem: the tone set by those doing the hiring.

The supervisor proclaimed at a public meeting: “I personally don’t like the master plan; I think it’s a load of crap.” There can be no doubt about his message to officials who will enforce that code, or about his inclination to appoint members that share his extreme views. Could we expect anyone appointed in this atmosphere to be an objective interpreter?

When the term of a highly experienced ZBA member — a career city planner — ended last year, Mr. Walter said he “wanted to go in a new direction with the ZBA,” choosing a replacement that “more reflects the ideas and values of this Town Board.” That new direction has consequences.

There’s also constant “tinkering.” Last year, the Town Board redefined “floor area” so developers can build bigger hotels while preserving less land. How? By not counting bathrooms, closets and hallways! The argument was “hotel rooms produce the revenue.” Mr. Walter observed developers were “not receiving a benefit” from those other things. (Would you stay in a hotel without them?)
And one Town Board member apparently wants to redefine dictionary terms, so the ZBA can allow an “accessory” use to be larger than a “principal” use.

Some taxpayers believe the Town Board isn’t really upset at the latest planning and zoning decisions, thinking it’s just useful to seem indignant at election time. “Planning committed a travesty!” — (wink).
I prefer to take people at face value. In any case, where we need unified agencies smoothly coordinating town business, we see constant infighting and chaos. There’s even been talk of more lawsuits, with one board suing another. At taxpayer expense. Swell.

Much has been written about a new house in South Jamesport, under construction for a year without required variances. Here, the planning department lost two court fights over a ZBA ruling, after which they and the town attorney faced off against the buildings department, which ignored both. As it turns out, that same project lacks wetlands and floodplain permits, too.

That brings us to the stepchildren of the planning and permitting process: the Conservation Advisory Council and the Landmarks Preservation Commission. No one bothers to consult the former and no one is obliged to listen to the latter. Both entities look good on paper, but they sometimes seem just for show — to give the illusion that the town favors landmarks and conservation. The record suggests otherwise.
This still-illegal house in South Jamesport is typical of the dysfunction our town is known for. Why not have a single agency or department responsible for ensuring that every project in town adheres to the laws on the books? Why not provide for enforcement, and accountability? It’s not that hard.

As for zoning — we labored for years, in an open and lawful process, to implement a plan to govern and guide future development. Anyone wanting to amend that plan should campaign openly and invite public participation. The “stealth” approach of disparaging the law, altering codes so they’re ineffective and trying simultaneously to stack boards with biased appointees while tying their hands so they have no freedom to act is reprehensible. We deserve better.

Recently, Town Board members saw a video promoting development in Brookhaven; the supervisor said he’d like to see Riverhead do the same. Sadly, local officials weren’t paying attention. The film narrator plainly stated “Brookhaven Blight” was caused by “haphazard zoning and a lack of code enforcement” and “unrestrained business development.” Those words precisely characterize what happens in our town. To avoid Brookhaven’s fate, we need government that respects and enforces the law.
Larry Simms is a principal in a commercial flooring technology firm. He owns a house in South Jamesport.