The Riverhead Town Board remains divided about decisions to enact term limits in Town Hall and whether or not to allow leaders of town political committees to hold elected and appointed positions in town. (more…)
The Riverhead Town Board remains divided about decisions to enact term limits in Town Hall and whether or not to allow leaders of town political committees to hold elected and appointed positions in town. (more…)
After explaining over the past week how closed-door political caucuses are necessary to prevent Riverhead Town Board members from fighting with each other in public, the members spent much of Thursday’s work session doing just that. (more…)
Students in fifth through ninth grades and live in Riverhead Town will have an opportunity to win a free bicycle and helmet in an upcoming essay contest. (more…)
You don’t have to be a 5,000-square-foot farm market for Riverhead Town to cite you for violating town code. In fact, your main draw could be as small as a hummingbird or box turtle.
While Riverhead Town Board members recently split on their decision to take the owners of a Jamesport farm stand to court, Riverhead Town’s code enforcement unit recently issued notices of violation to The Baiting Hollow Hummingbird Sanctuary and Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons in Jamesport because neither operation is a permitted use under the zoning of the property where it’s located, according to Riverhead town attorney Bob Kozakiewicz, who is in charge of the code enforcement unit.
Supervisor Sean Walter said he couldn’t speak about specifics of the enforcement actions, but echoed Mr. Kozakiewicz’ sentiments.
“It’s not our intention to chase away the hummingbirds or the turtles. We just need people to come into compliance,” Mr. Walter said.
Mr. Kozakiewicz said the turtle rescue organization has been issued a summons in town Justice Court because it is not a permitted use in the Agriculture Protection Zone in which it’s located.
As for the hummingbird sanctuary, Mr. Kozakiewicz said a notice of violation was issued in order to cover the town in the event neighbors of the sanctuary filed a lawsuit, which they have since done.
The notice of violation states that operation of a hummingbird sanctuary that is open to the public is a prohibited use, and that continuing that use would require a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals as well as site plan approval from the Planning Board. It further states that if no remedy to the violation is made before Jan. 18, the town may follow through with legal action, though Mr. Kozakiewicz said he does not intend to and the town has not issued a summons to the hummingbird sanctuary.
Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said she was surprised to hear that the town had taken any action at all against the organizations.
“Are you kidding me?” she said when told of the enforcement actions. “We have overcrowded houses all throughout this town and code enforcement is writing tickets to the hummingbird guy?”
Ms. Giglio said she was unaware of the notices issued to the Baiting Hollow Hummingbird Sanctuary, run by Paul Adams on his property on Sound Avenue, and Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons, run by Karen Testa Lombardo from a home on Manor Lane in Jamesport.
Mr. Adams has run the sanctuary for more than a dozen years at his Sound Avenue property , which overlooks Long Island Sound and where he has planted flowers that attract hummingbirds. The sanctuary is open to the public only during the month of August and, according to the orgnization’s website, does not accept donations or an admission fee. Mr. Adams requires visitors to sign a waiver.
Nonetheless, a group of neighbors living along the road leading to the property have recently filed a lawsuit against Mr. Adams and the hummingbird sanctuary.
The lawsuit was filed by Frederick and Debra Terry, Kamal and Sabita Bherwani, and Shawn Hamilton against Paul and Rafael Adams.
Mr. Adams said they are seeking to have the sanctuary closed and they are seeking $3 million in damages. The lawsuit, filed Dec. 23, was not on file at the county center as of Tuesday morning, except for the summary page identifying the litigants. Anthony Tohill, the plaintiffs’ attorney, did not return a call seeking comment and Mr. Terry could not be reached for comment by presstime.
Mr. Adams said the lawsuit raises two key questions: “Does the town code permit me to maintain my property in a natural state as a bird sanctuary? And does the code permit me to receive invited visitors at my residence there, via the established, deeded and surveyed right of way from Sound Avenue?”
He believes the answer to both questions is yes.
As for the turtle rescue, Charles Cuddy, the attorney for Ms. Lombardo, said she brings turtles to the site that have been injured and need to be rehabilitated. She is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator and her work is recognized and endorsed by the state, Mr. Cuddy said, adding that she does all the work as a volunteer and receives no money for it.
There are usually about a dozen turtles on the property at any one time, he said, and she has other volunteers who help.
When a report of an injured turtle comes in, Ms. Lombardo goes out and brings it back to the Manor Lane house.
“The rehabilitation consists of medicating the turtles. It doesn’t consist of her conducting any surgery,” Mr. Cuddy said at a June 27 town Zoning Board of Appeals hearing on the turtle rescue operation. Turtles that need surgery are taken to a veterinarian, he said.
“She keeps turtles that are essentially without any odor, without any noise. They don’t do anything to the neighborhood,” Mr. Cuddy said. “They are without any impact that I can see, and I’ve been there many times.”
Mr. Cuddy said there are many wildlife rehabilitators in the state and many of them operate out of homes.
The turtle rescue had gone before the town Zoning Board of Appeals last year seeking an interpretation as to whether a such an operation can be considered an accessory use.
There was one hearing, during which no one raised any opposition to the operation, and the ZBA application was withdrawn a few weeks later. ZBA members had indicated they wanted to inspect the facility.
Mr. Cuddy said it was withdrawn because one ZBA member, whom he didn’t identify, had indicated that he or she would not support the application.
Mr. Kozakiewicz said he is not aware of any complaints from neighbors about the turtle rescue operation. Mr. Cuddy said one person has complained about it.
The Justice Court case against the turtle rescue is still pending, Mr. Kozakiewicz said.
Riverhead Town officials are hoping to get more money out of the leases the town has with cellphone companies with antennas on top of water towers.
A company called Bench Strength Partners says it can examine lease agreements the town has to determine if the town should be making more from them.
According to Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, every time a cell company upgrades its equipment on a town facility, it is supposed to notify the town, and the town, according to its contracts, should be paid more.
“We are not getting our fair share of the fees for these devices,” Ms. Giglio said at a work session earlier this month, where the issue was discussed.
The town’s 2014 budget anticipates $655,000 in revenue from leases on town water towers.
Bench Strength Partners, which contributed to Ms. Giglio’s re-election campaign last year, only gets paid only if it generates more money for the town, according to deputy town attorney Ann Marie Prudenti.
If Bench Strength negotiates up to 20 percent more than $655,000, the town doesn’t have to pay anything. If the town makes between 20 and 30 percent more, BSP gets 15 percent of the increase. If the town makes between 30 and 40 percent more, BSP gets 20 percent of the increase. If the town makes 40 to 50 percent more, BSP gets 25 percent of that, and if the town makes 50 percent more or higher, BSP gets 30 percent, according to Ms. Prudenti.
Any money the town makes as a result of contracting with Bench Strength would go to the water district, which issues the leases to cellphone companies, according to Supervisor Sean Walter. However, since the water district is in debt to the general fund, the town general fund will benefit, according to the supervisor.
The tax bill on Riverhead Councilwoman Jodi Giglio’s Baiting Hollow home increased by 43 percent for 2014 — amounting to a $5,200 increase due in part to a $2,300 payment owed on a previously untaxed finished basement and second-floor addition. The bill bump comes months after a contentious Republican primary for her council seat, during which news surfaced that the home improvements lacked proper town approvals.
The $2,300 represented an increased assessment for the current and prior tax years, based on those improvements, which is all the town can collect from Ms. Giglio and her husband, Mike, said Riverhead Assessor Laverne Tennenberg.
Even though the improvements, a second-story addition to the house and a finished basement, went unassessed for several years, the town by law can only go back one year in recouping unpaid taxes. Nevertheless, Ms. Giglio said, she and her husband will voluntarily pay the rest of the back taxes owed on those improvements, a figure Ms. Tennenberg estimated at about $15,000.
It was revealed during last year’s primary that the Giglios had failed to pay taxes on additions to the property dating back several years. However, because the town is only legally allowed to collect back taxes a year after they were due, the rest will come in the form of a donated gift to the town.
“Under the law, she has no obligation to pay that,” Ms. Tennenberg said. “We can only legally go back one year, on anybody.”
But Ms. Giglio says the couple will begin making gifts this year, spreading the payments over several years once the amount owed is pinned down. She said, however, that she believes the total will be lower than $15,000.
“I believe elected officials should be held to a higher standard,” Ms. Giglio said in an interview Tuesday.
The additions to the home, and the fact that Ms. Giglio hadn’t received certificates of occupancy for them or paid property tax on them, came to light last summer during the town election campaign, in which Ms. Giglio ran in both a Republican primary and in the general election to retain her council seat. GOP primary candidate Anthony Coates — who ultimately finished third in a field of three candidates — had called for her resignation at the time.
“That was stuff we hadn’t picked up,” Ms. Tennenberg said of the oversights.
The additions were never figured into the Giglios’ assessment but that fact didn’t come to light until after March 1, which is the cutoff date for determining what property improvements will be assessed. The assessors then had to petition the town’s Board of Assessment Review in September to add those items to the Giglios’ assessment, Mr. Tennenberg said.
Normally, it’s the property owners, not town assessors, who appear before the Board of Assessment Review, which is independent of the assessors. But the assessors have the option to appear, Ms. Tennenberg said. Ms. Giglio could have challenged the additional assessment at that hearing, but chose not to.
Board of Assessment Review hearings usually deal with homeowners trying to lower tax bills.
The Giglios’ exact property bill for 2014 is $17,222, up from $12,051 in 2013. They are being made to pay back $2,317, which represents taxes from the previous year. New assessments are typically triggered by building permits. The finished basement, completed around 2009, was permitted in 2013 and the second-story addition first received a building permit in 2009, records show.
An in-ground swimming pool that first received a building permit in 1999 but didn’t get a certificate of occupancy until 2013 was already being assessed, Ms. Tennenberg said.
The assessment on the Giglios’ home increased from $77,200 to $91,500, an increase of 18.5 percent. The town assesses property at about 15 percent of market value, and the property’s market value increased from $505,556 to $572,591 as a result of the improvements, records show.
The assessor said it’s common for people to avoid being assessed on improvements made to their homes, and it’s very rare that anyone voluntarily agrees to pay back taxes once they don’t have to.
Ms. Giglio said she was unsure if the Town Board would have to pass a resolution to accept the gifts.
“Nobody else in my 26-year history has ever paid back voluntarily any taxes they didn’t have to,” Ms. Tennenberg said.
The proposed “Community Benefit” overlay zone needed for First Baptist Church’s Family Community Life Center will soon be revised since it doesn’t have the support of a majority of Riverhead Town Board members in its current form.
Councilwoman Jodi Giglio and Councilmen George Gabrielsen and John Dunleavy said at Thursday’s Town Board work session that they could not support the proposed zoning as currently written.
Supervisor Sean Walter and Councilman Jim Wooten did support it at Thursday’s work session, where the proposed overlay zone was discussed with representatives of the church, which has proposed building 132 affordable apartment units intended as “work force housing” for the area.
Mr. Gabrielsen opposed the requirement in the zoning that a project have 800 feet of road frontage on a state or county road in order to qualify for the overlay zone.
First Baptist’s Northville Turnpike property has 807 feet of frontage on a county road.
“That just seems like it was site specific,” Mr. Gabrielsen said.
Mr. Walter said the proposal will need to be revised to meet Mr. Gabrielsen’s concerns so that a new public hearing can be held in early January.
Another change Mr. Gabrielsen proposed is a requirement for a 50-foot vegetative buffer between the project and neighboring homes, instead of the 25 feet in the proposed code.
“When you have something this dense and this high, I think neighbors have the right to a 50-foot buffer,” he said.
Ms. Giglio said the proposed 10 units per acre of residential housing is too dense, and she also feels the project should not be exempt from taxes, and should pay either taxes or payments in lieu of taxes.
Mr. Dunleavy agreed with the concerns of his fellow council members.
Mr. Walter, who has consistently supported the project, said he thinks Mr. Gabrielsen’s requests “are reasonable and they are doable,” but the tax issues raised by Ms. Giglio and Mr. Dunleavy probably cannot be addressed.
Ms. Giglio also raised the question of what other properties in town would meet the criteria of the proposed zone.
A map produced by town planning and building administrator Jeff Murphree shows about five other properties.
“A couple are owned by the county, and one has an approved site plan on it, so the way I’m looking at this is that there is only one other piece of property in the town that could possibly benefit from this zoning,” Ms. Giglio said.
The proposed overlay zone, which will now be rewritten, would have allowed a community center and workforce housing on land that meets certain criteria, including having 10 or more acres of land with at least 800 feet of frontage on a county or state highway, as well as public water and sewer connections.
The proposed Family Community Life Center would include an Olympic-size indoor swimming pool, a 25-seat theater and media center and 24-hour adult and child day care services. The proposal also includes an indoor walking track, gymnasium, fitness center and classroom space.
It would be located on the 12-acre church property on Northville Turnpike. The Rev. Charles Coverdale has said the income from the apartments is needed to subsidize the rest of the project, which would be open to the community.
The allowed number of housing units would be one per acre, but the proposed zone would allow additional units with the purchase or either transferred development rights from farms, or open space development credits from Suffolk County, which are dedicated for use in affordable housing and would be made available to such projects at no charge.
The church is hoping for the latter and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has publicly pledged support for the project.
The Family Community Life Center project, which has been in the works for more than 20 years, received overwhelming support from speakers at a Nov. 6 public hearing.
Reached for comment after the meeting, Mr. Coverdale said, “We have to go through the process. We want things to be right.”
In June 2012, Councilwoman Jodi Giglio filed a harassment complaint against Supervisor Sean Walter.
Months later, Mr. Walter put out a political hit on Ms. Giglio, which came in the form of a primary challenge from the supervisor’s friend and longtime political adviser, Anthony Coates.
During that contentious primary, Councilman John Dunleavy — perhaps sensing momentum building behind Mr. Coates — was continually found to be out campaigning without his committee-designated team, joining Mr. Coates in door-knocking efforts.
But blood is thicker than water, the saying goes, and as the outcome of the Riverhead Town elections began to crystallize before the family of Riverhead Republicans Tuesday night, judging by the hugs, kisses and high-fives — bygones were bygones. Despite their differences, the three incumbents on the Town Board had all won re-election.
“I’ve been involved in Riverhead politics for 14 years and I have never seen the Republican committee come together the way it has this summer and this fall,” Mr. Walter told a jubilant crowd of supporters at Cody’s BBQ & Grill.
Mr. Walter later said he believed the issue of in-fighting on the board was more media driven than anything.
“I think the residents didn’t focus on the fights or they wouldn’t have re-elected us,” he said. “They focused on the results, and if everybody got along all the time, I don’t think we’d have had the results that we had. We all add something to this mixture.”
But it wasn’t just the media. The Riverhead Democrats had been smelling Republican blood in the water for some time because of the in-fighting. Democratic challenger Angela DeVito’s campaign slogan, “Respect Riverhead,” was built on the promise she would bring courtesy and respect back to Riverhead Town Hall after four years of Mr. Walter and an all-Republican Town Board.
The voters favored staying the course.
Mr. Walter defeated Ms. DeVito with 56 percent of the vote, or 3,917 to 3,090, according to Suffolk County Board of Elections figures.
Ms. Giglio, who earned a second term, and two-term Republican Councilman John Dunleavy tallied 3,634 and 3,495 votes respectively, over Democrats Bill Bianchi, with 3,141 votes, and Millie Thomas, with 3,045, in the at-large election for two seats.
As it began to look like the election results weren’t going to break her way, Ms. DeVito — who led a team that came much closer than their Democratic counterparts in the 2009 and 2011 races for Town Board seats — told her supporters “we are still winners.”
She also said there’s still work to be done for the Democratic Party to make the sure the towns government, ruled by Republicans, is heading in the right direction and working for the people of Riverhead.
“Just because we aren’t in the driver’s seat, that doesn’t mean we can’t be passengers in the bus,” Ms. DeVito said from Democratic headquarters in a storefront behind the Riverhead Diner & Grill — and a short walk from Cody’s on East Main Street.
She then took that short walk, entering Cody’s back door and making her way through the crowd to congratulate Mr. Walter. The two candidates hugged and exchanged words as music pumped through the speakers. Ms. DeVito was also joined by campaign advisor Keisha Washington Dean.
Mr. Walter and party leaders attributed the Republican victories to a largely positive campaign.
“This town is moving in the right direction, no matter what Angela DeVito and Bill Bianchi say,” Mr. Walter said.
“I believe we’ve gotten our message across,” said Republican Committee Chairman Mason Haas, “which is that the town is moving in the right direction.”
In other town races, incumbent Republican assessor Laverne Tennenberg beat Democratic challenger Greg Fischer, 4,343 to 2,396, and Democratic highway superintendent George (Gio) Woodson beat Conservative challenger Michael Panchak by vote of 4,936 to 1,269.
Mr. Woodson and Town Clerk Diane Wilhelm are the only Democrats to hold an elected office in Riverhead Town.
A moral victory, so to speak, for Democrats in the town races came with the respectable showing of the council candidates.
The votes were much more evenly split than in the past two local elections, with Ms. Thomas, a Wading River realtor, earning 24 percent of the vote and Mr. Bianchi, a former state Assemblyman from the Bellport area, capturing 23 percent of the vote.
Ms. Giglio led the pack with 27 percent followed by Mr. Dunleavy with 26.
By comparison, in 2009, Democratic council candidate Kathy Berezny tallied 20 percent of the final vote for two seats, with 19 percent for Shirley Coverdale.
The Democratic council candidates fared even worse in 2011, when Marlando Williams got 16 percent of the vote and Matt Van Glad received 15 percent in an at-large race against incumbent Republicans James Wooten and George Gabrielsen for two open seats.
This election season, the Democrats also tried to capitalize on residents’ displeasure with the clearing of several properties along Route 58 to make way for commercial shopping centers. They had joined residents in a rally at the Costco Wholesale site, which was clear-cut right up to neighboring properties, and held their own press conference there, faulting the Town Board for granting an excavation permit for the project.
Mr. Dunleavy, who lives in Foxwood Village, one of the affected communities, also took heat from his neighbors during the campaign — not only for the clearing itself but for deflecting blame onto neighbors he said weren’t paying attention and attending town meetings.
He later apologized at a Town Board debate, saying no one was to blame.
On Election Day, even the election district that includes Foxwood Village voted for Republicans, including Mr. Dunleavy, according to numbers posted at Republican headquarters — though not yet available through the county — Mr. Dunleavy received 215 votes, with Ms. Giglio leading with 222 in Election District 11. Ms. Thomas earned 200 in ED11 and Mr. Bianchi, who came out on the attack against Mr. Dunleavy at the Oct. 24 debate, finished last in that district, with 196 votes.
“The few people that thought I was the sole person [responsible for the clear-cutting] for the Costco project, they were wrong, and the people that believed in me, voted for me,” Mr. Dunleavy said after the results came in and he was awarded a third four-year term.
For her part, Ms. Giglio told WRIV radio show host Bruce Tria that the election outcome could offer a renewed opportunity for the Republicans, who will now have to work together for at least another two years, the length of supervisor terms in Riverhead Town.
“We have to put things behind us and move forward,” she said, adding that she would reach out to Mr. Walter to perhaps talk over lunch.
Mr. Walter later told the News-Review he would be willing to sit with Ms. Giglio over lunch.