Featured Story
01/30/16 5:05pm
01/30/2016 5:05 PM

Larry Simms and Angela DiVito speak at Saturday's Civic Association meeting in Jamesport.

Leaders of four civic and environmental organizations have sent a letter to Riverhead Town Board members asking that the town require two large development projects in Jamesport to have their environmental impacts studied together.  READ

Featured Story
01/12/16 11:36pm
01/12/2016 11:36 PM

Larry Simms held his own meeting in the hallway after the IDA wouldn't let him speak at theirs Monday

The Riverhead Industrial Development Agency voted unanimously at a special meeting Tuesday to grant tax incentives for a proposed restaurant and boutique hotel on East Main Street and for an additional 10-year tax abatement at the Long Island Aquarium.

That part of the meeting took about 10 minutes. The dispute that followed lasted nearly an hour.  READ

02/22/15 10:00am
02/22/2015 10:00 AM
Riverhead Town Board members at a meeting last year. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

Riverhead Town Board members at a meeting last year. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

National debate about corporate campaign contributions is endless and abstract. The discussion becomes manageable and much more real if we look at a small, local example of how the practice damages government and hurts taxpayers.

I’m not suggesting, or even hinting, that anything illegal occurred; that does not make the activity any less noxious or offensive.  (more…)

07/25/14 8:00am
07/25/2014 8:00 AM
FILE PHOTO | The state capitol in Albany.

FILE PHOTO | The state capitol in Albany.

“Anywhere he wants to.” That’s the punch line of the ancient joke about where an 800 -pound gorilla sits.

In our neighborhood, the big bully is Agriculture & Markets, the state agency tasked with “foster[ing] a competitive food and agriculture industry.”  (more…)

01/01/14 5:00pm
01/01/2014 5:00 PM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The Glass Greenhouse Farm Market on Main Road in Jamesport opened to the public in October.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The Glass Greenhouse Farm Market on Main Road in Jamesport opened to the public in October.

What is a farm stand? It’s such a simple question, yet one loaded with meaning and innuendo. After asking five people (including farmers) and getting five different answers, I thought it best to consult an authoritative source: Agriculture & Markets, the agency that regulates and protects the activities of farmers statewide. What I found was surprising.

A definition of “farm market” is easy to locate, and it’s just as easy to see it doesn’t apply to the business Save Main Road has been asked to comment on: The Glass Greenhouse Farm Market. A “farm market” in New York showcases and sells goods from two or more farmers. Such a market is also typically located on municipal land. When a dozen growers gather in the parking lot along the river downtown to sell their produce to the public, that’s a “farm market.” The Glass Greenhouse store, in our opinion, is not.

About “farm stands,” Ag & Markets has nothing to say. Literally. They have no rules and no policy that define or govern retail operations conducted by a single farm on its own land. When I spoke to an Ag & Markets official to confirm what their law seemed to indicate, she confirmed they defer to town code on this issue.

Riverhead code says little. A paragraph tucked into zoning law restricts farm retailing by what’s called merchandising area: at least 60 percent of the space must be devoted to selling goods grown on the farm where the stand is located. Save Main Road thinks neighboring Southold’s code, which goes into far greater detail on this point, has much to offer; we plan to work with Riverhead officials to improve our code.

Still, the letter and spirit of existing Riverhead farm stand code can be applied in this situation.

Two things concern us: what the law says and the intent of the owner.

THE LAW

Letters in our possession from Ag and Markets suggest Glass Greenhouse owners asked the agency to intercede with the town so they could bypass the site planning and permitting process. (We think that’s how the market got built.) While FOIL research is underway, it’s already clear Ag & Markets argued strongly that routine application of town rules and procedures would “unreasonably restrict the farm operation.” We take issue with this interpretation.

One reason we’re concerned is that Ag & Markets alternates between calling the new Glass Greenhouse operation a “farm stand” and a “farm market” in ways we think facile and inappropriate. The agency shouldn’t say it’s a “proposed farm market” when, by their own definition, it’s not. The requirement that produce from multiple New York farms be presented appears absolute. (Packaged Arizona tomatoes we saw on display don’t count, nor does other imported produce.) We haven’t heard Glass Greenhouse mention the involvement of any other farms.

Additionally, state law heavily emphasizes the public, not private, nature of these markets. An example is that Ag & Markets may provide technical assistance for developing and improving farmers’ markets only to public and private “agencies,” not to individual farmers.

Ag & Markets relied on the only definition of “farm market” in Riverhead town code 108-56, which deals with signs, despite the fact that the definition is “as used in this section,” meaning it applies only to signs.

We think Ag & Markets’ reasoning is similarly weak throughout the documents.

We’re much more disturbed that Ag & Markets failed even to mention the “60 percent rule.” That rule is the clearest statement of purpose in current Riverhead code as to what farm stands may sell, and it appears to have been wholly disregarded.

To apply the rule, look at the store’s “merchandising area” only. For discussion, disregard the entire bakery (which we think is inappropriate and not allowed in a farm stand, and which appears to comprise 20 percent or more of the structure). We believe even a casual observer would conclude the total amount of farm produce offered in the new Glass Greenhouse retail space falls far short of the 60 percent threshold.

OWNER’S INTENT

According to Ag & Markets, the Glass Greenhouse says they need the new facility to provide cooler space to market produce and additionally to sell fresh honey, eggs and free-range chickens. If that were all the new facility sold, there would be no issues.

Walking through as a consumer, I saw a gelato counter 12 feet long (all estimates by my eye), a cheese counter almost as big, 10 feet of candles, 20 feet of displayed bakery goods and rack after rack of manufactured foods and household items from a dozen or more states. My guess is that all actual produce displayed totaled well under 20 percent of the floor area (excluding bakery production).

The new “stand” is 4,500 square feet. We know a local farmer who raises 1,000 laying chickens and sells their eggs — together with other farm produce — in a farm stand of 150 square feet. We’d be surprised if there are enough chickens, eggs and honey in all of Riverhead to make a dent in a 4,500-square-foot farm stand.

Save Main Road doubts that a farm stand of this size, however attractive and well-built, can be profitable if 60 percent of its retail area displays the off-season greenhouse products, chickens, eggs and honey that Ag & Markets claims are the intended items for sale. That said, if and when the owner achieves that critical measure of content, it should be allowed to operate.

Today, it seems to us an ersatz market, a “farm stand” in name only. We don’t think an upscale deli belongs in the Rural Corridor, and we support the town in its opposition.

My favorite North Fork slogan is: “We have the right to remain rural.” Save Main Road is committed to helping farms and farmers, and we enthusiastically support “real” farm stands. This one doesn’t qualify.

Larry Simms owns a home in South Jamesport and is a director of savemainroad.org, an advocacy group dedicated to preserving the character of the Main Road corridor and surrounding areas.

He also serves on the town’s Code Revision committee.

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.