11/21/13 2:16pm
11/21/2013 2:16 PM
An artist’s rendering of the main atrium at the Family Community Life Center’s recreational and other facilities.

An artist’s rendering of the main atrium at the Family Community Life Center’s recreational and other facilities.

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.

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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.

Check out our live blog coverage

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.”

tgannon@timesreview.com

11/07/13 3:32pm
11/07/2013 3:32 PM
Riverhead Town Board

TIM GANNON FILE PHOTO | Supervisor Sean Walter reading a Bible verse in Town Hall in 2012.

Back in 2010, during Supervisor Sean Walter’s first year in office, he proposed that the Town Board begin its meetings with an invocation, or prayer, recited by a local member of the clergy, with a different clergy member each meeting.

There was some initial concern about violating separation of state and religion requirements, but the idea took effect in August of 2010 and has been in effect even since — with little or no objections.

The board has had Catholic, Jewish, Baptist, and other clergy leaders do the invocations over that time.

Now, a dispute in the upstate Town of Greece could bring this issue back to the forefront.

A lawsuit brought by an atheist woman and a Jewish woman challenging that town’s pre-meeting prayers is before the U.S. Supreme Court.

That case, called Town of Greece vs. Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, was heard before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday.

Ms. Galloway and Ms. Stephens claim that most of the prayers read before that town’s meetings are Christian prayers.  They also argue that people at these meetings may feel coerced to participate in the prayers.

The Supreme Court has yet to render a decision.

Mr. Walter mentioned the case prior to Wednesday’s Riverhead Town Board, where Pastor Scott Kraniak, the chaplain of Riverhead Raceway as well as the pastor of the Centereach Bible Church, gave the invocation.

“Today the Supreme Court is hearing a case about whether towns can introduce a Town Board meeting with an invocation,” Mr. Walter said. “I find it interesting that at all other levels of government this has passed constitutional muster, yet at the town level, for some reason, it’s before the Supreme Court.”

Mr. Walter said Congress, the state Legislature, and the county Legislature all begin their meetings with a prayer.

“I say this to let everybody know,” Mr. Walter said. “We do this, and it’s non-denominational. If somebody comes in, they will pray what they wish to pray, and if somebody wants to come in from any particular sect or religion, we’re open to that.  And we’ll either sit or stand, whatever they want us to do.”

The supervisor then added, “I hope that God’s wisdom is with the Supreme Court in making this very interesting decision.”

The Supreme Court in a 1983 case called Marsh vs. Chambers upheld the practice of starting legislative meetings with an invocation.

tgannon@timesreview.com

11/02/13 9:59am
11/02/2013 9:59 AM

TIM GANNON FILE PHOTO | Supervisor Sean Walter

Democratic supervisor nominee Angela DeVito is without a doubt a formidable challenger to two-term incumbent Republican Supervisor Sean Walter. She’s intelligent, hard-working and has given much back to the town by way of public service and civic involvement. She’s built a long and impressive résumé that reflects a life of advocacy for worker health and safety and, as a former Riverhead school board president, oversaw a budget larger than the town’s.

Ms. DeVito has run a spirited campaign. But unseating a sitting supervisor is equal parts quality of the challenger and a referendum on the incumbent’s performance. (It can be argued that elections for executive offices skew toward the latter.) It was paramount that Ms. DeVito convince voters that Riverhead Town has been on the wrong track and would continue in the same wrong direction under Mr. Walter. We’re not sure she even believes this.

Ms. DeVito may take issue with Mr. Walter’s tone of voice, behavior and his overall treatment of people who oppose him but at last week’s debate she agreed that his administration seems headed in the right direction on his signature push to subdivide and fast-track development projects for EPCAL. She also offered no clear competing vision for downtown and failed to outline any realistic approach to solving the town’s financial troubles.

Profiles: Meet the candidates for supervisor

On the all-important issue of finances, Ms. DeVito is critical of the supervisor and his Plan B of potentially borrowing against town land at EPCAL to stave off a massive tax hike in 2015. But her only idea involves the unrealistic notion that a cash-strapped Suffolk County would fork over to Riverhead Town a portion of sales tax revenues collected within the town. While this might have been a handy sound bite when out knocking on doors, many in government recognize it would be next to impossible to achieve.

More than anything else, it’s Mr. Walter’s behavior, which at times can be smug and condescending, that makes him susceptible in this race.

While he admits to these faults — and even seems to embrace them, often speaking of “breaking eggs to make omelettes” — he’ll continue to be plagued by political onslaughts from all sides if he doesn’t learn how to speak to people with courtesy and respect.

Still, it’s hard to argue with his results. Since taking office in 2010, Mr. Walter has worked tirelessly to push legislation in Albany to help develop EPCAL, called on the state comptroller’s office to audit the town’s finances to improve its long-term financial health and has himself tried to attract new investors to a Main Street that’s on the upswing in no small part because of his efforts. With Gov. Cuomo’s signing of the EPCAL fast-track bill into law last week, it would seem Mr. Walter is just starting to hit his stride.

The jury is out, however. Main Street is still struggling. (And Ms. DeVito is right in saying the town needs to also focus on quality-of-life issues in surrounding areas, such as trouble-plagued Second and Third streets, and in neighboring Riverside.) EPCAL still sits undeveloped and the town faces a budget crisis and needs to find alternative sources of revenue, quickly. Even though it’s never seemed to be an outward priority of his administration, Mr. Walter should take his fighting spirit to the developers — whose main goals are always profit, often at taxpayer expense — to better protect the “small town” so many cherish here.

It’s not time to have someone else finish the job Mr. Walter started. He deserves another two years to advance his plans for the town.

10/25/13 3:19pm
10/25/2013 3:19 PM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Volunteer Paul Dooling, of Farmingdale, power washes the A-6E.

Restoration of the F-14 and A-6E fighter jets on loan from the U.S. Navy and on display at Grumman Memorial Park in Calverton got under way Friday.

Six volunteers — many of them Grumman retirees — from Nassau County’s Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City donated their time Friday morning to perform “spot repairs,” by power-washing and scraping away and chipping paint from the airplanes.

Friday’s maintenance efforts focused on winterizing the planes, Cradle of Aviation Museum executive director Andrew Parton said.

The planes will be painted for the first time since 2007 next spring, he said.

“It feels good to preserve this part of Long Island’s history,” Mr. Parton said. “We’re happy to do it.”

The town teamed up with the museum to make the proper repairs after Calverton civic members and a News-Review article in May highlighted the planes’ deteriorating condition.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said Friday’s clean up was just the start of the restoration, saying there would be a long-term partnership with the museum to ensure the planes remained the best possible condition.

He said the town is working out the details of the maintenance plan and would continue to supply the paint and other materials, such as ladders, a power washer and a bucket truck as needed.

“The fact that they’re doing this for the town is tremendous,” Mr. Walter said. “We are looking forward to a long partnership with the Cradle of Aviation Museum.”

cmurray@timesreview.com 

10/25/13 12:51pm
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Sean Walter and Angela DeVito on the Suffolk Theater stage.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Sean Walter and Angela DeVito on the Suffolk Theater stage.

Riverhead supervisor candidates Sean Walter, the incumbent Republican, and Angela DeVito, the challenging Democrat, took the stage on Thursday night at the Suffolk Theater for a debate co-sponsored by the Riverhead News-Review and RiverheadLocal.

The two answered questions about downtown, Enterprise Park at Calverton, Route 58 and more, even getting the chance to ask each other a question during the debate.

Check out their responses recorded here. And check back with us to check out video from the town board debate.

Candidates answer questions individually tailored to them:

Candidates speak about their vision for EPCAL: 

Candidates speak about their plans for avoiding a tax hike in coming years: 

Candidates on their plans for downtown: 

Closing statements: 

10/21/13 7:00am
10/21/2013 7:00 AM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | The F-14 on display at Grumman Memorial Park in Calverton.

The F-14 and A-6E fighter jets on loan from the U.S. Navy and on display at Grumman Memorial Park in Calverton will receive much-needed repairs this week, Riverhead Town officials have announced.

After concerns raised by Calverton civic members and a News-Review article in May highlighting the planes’ deteriorating condition, the town is partnering with Nassau County’s Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City to make the proper repairs.

“I wish to express my utmost appreciation to the Cradle of Aviation Museum for providing the volunteer labor necessary to provide the necessary facelift to the F-14 and A-6 Navy aircraft,” Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter said in a statement. “This memorial recognizes the significant efforts that Grumman employees played in the history of both the Town of Riverhead and the entire United States of America. I am thrilled that we are able to keep the park open in a pristine manner that is deserving of those who served our country.”

Volunteers, many of them Grumman retirees, will provide their services free of charge for the cleanup. The Town will supply the paint and other materials, such as ladders, a power washer and a bucket truck.

The work on both the F-14 and A-6 aircraft is scheduled to take place Friday.

cmurray@timesreview.com 

10/11/13 7:00am
10/11/2013 7:00 AM
PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Riverhead Town Board members (on right) get briefed on the town’s 2012 financial audits last Thursday.

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Riverhead Town Board members (on right) get briefed on the town’s 2012 financial audits last Thursday.

While Riverhead Town officials are primarily concerned with overcoming a deficit in the town’s general fund next year – which will be closed with $3.5 million in reserves – they say a deficit in the Community Preservation Fund looms even larger.

Auditors contracted by the town, along with members of the town’s independent audit committee, found that about $19 million remains in the CPF, according to findings presented at last Thursday’s Town Board work session.

The CPF, approved by referendum among East End voters in 1999, taxes real estate transfers to set aside funds for land preservation purchases.

In the early 2000s, town leaders started borrowing against future CPF revenues to buy open land before an anticipated rise in real estate values. But the real estate market then stalled, and revenues to pay off the debt have not come in as expected, leaving an annual shortfall of nearly $4 million. The town owes about $6 million each year to pay down the principal and interest on money borrowed for the land purchases.

Supervisor Sean Walter said the real estate market has to improve, or else.

“In 2018, if things don’t turn around … we’d run out of money [in the CPF],” he said in an interview. “The picture’s not very bright.”

While a deficit remains in the CPF fund, the real estate market does seem to be rebounding, suggested by this year’s rising CPF revenues, according to numbers provided by Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor).

Riverhead has brought in $1.62 million through August, an increase of 45 percent over last year’s $1.11 million. Across the entire East End, CPF funds are up to $58.5 million, up from $39.2 million in 2012.

Despite the improvement, Mr. Walter described the CPF debt as a “structural deficit problem.”

“They ran the town like it was a giant credit card,” Mr. Walter said, referring to the previous administration under Democrat Phil Cardinale. “Here’s the key: they never went to anybody … to determine if the revenue would ever support the amount financed.”

Since the town’s CPF debt far exceeds the amount of CPF money taken in, Mr. Walter predicted the town will have to start using general fund money to refill the CPF funding in 2019. The town will then have to use reserves from its general fund for eight years, until the CPF is expected to bring back in enough to pay its debt, he said.

Though Mr. Walter blamed the Cardinale administration for the bleak outlook, Long Island Pine Barrens Society executive director Richard Amper said the town “did the CPF right.”

Mr. Amper said the town hasn’t received the funding they expected from taxes due to the recession, adding the town accomplished what it set out to do by preserving land and preventing over-development.

“The likelihood that the town will have to underwrite the cost of payment from the general fund is slim to none,” Mr. Amper said, noting he last calculated his figures in 2010.

psquire@timesreview.com

10/10/13 4:30pm
10/10/2013 4:30 PM
TIM GANNON PHOTO | Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter, left and challenger Angela DeVito with moderator Sid Bail.

TIM GANNON PHOTO | Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter, left and challenger Angela DeVito with moderator Sid Bail.

When it came to issues like town finances, Route 58 planning, Town Board bickering, and redevelopment downtown and at the Enterprise Park at Calverton, Republican incumbents largely saw the glass half full at a candidates forum held in Calverton Wednesday night.

The Democratic challengers? Well, they saw the glass half empty.

The Greater Calverton Civic Association and the Wading River Civic Association sponsored the event at the Riley Avenue school in Calverton. Sid Bail of the Wading River Civic Association served as moderator.

Incumbent Republican Supervisor Sean Walter and council members John Dunleavy and Jodi Giglio are being opposed by Democratic supervisor challenger Angela DeVito and council candidates Bill Bianchi and Millie Thomas.

Mr. Dunleavy was not present, due to a previously planned vacation.

Here’s what the rest of the candidates had to say about the issues:

TOWN FINANCES 

Mr. Walter said that when he took office four years ago, the town’s annual audits were many years behind. The town was bonding items that should have been funded by the general fund, it had no budget for road paving, and taxes were rising due to the debt associated with a failed landfill reclamation project, which has accounted for more than $4 million in debt service each year, he said.

Since then, he said the town has drastically cut its spending, the audits are caught up and the town is closing in on a plan to be able to sell land at EPCAL, which he feels will provide tax relief in the future.

“The revenue streams are trending in the right direction,” he said.

But Ms. DeVito said the town has been offsetting taxes with the use of about $3 million in surplus funds each year, and that money is close to running out.

She pointed out that a recent audit states that unless the town gets a big infusion of money by 2014, this approach “will result in a catastrophic tax increase in the next few years,” she said.

Mr. Walter said the landfill debt, which was accumulated by the previous administration, is the main reason for the town’s tax increases.

Ms. Thomas disagreed with the supervisor’s assessment of town financing.

“As far as I know, the town’s broke,” she said, adding that while downtown is improving it still needs to be revitalized.

Ms. Giglio says she’s saved the town $2 million by insisting that its garbage contract be put out to bid, and she initiated a phone audit that gained the town $75,000.

EPCAL

Ms. DeVito and the Democratic candidates said that while the EPCAL subdivision is close to happening, the redevelopment of EPCAL won’t bring the town any money until the land is actually sold.

“EPCAL still is pie in the sky until that first shovel goes in the ground,” Ms. DeVito said. “It could still blow up in our faces.”

Mr. Bianchi said he believes the town still needs to upgrade the sewer system and infrastructure at EPCAL, which could cost $40 million, and he says the industrial park at Gabreski Airport in Westhampton already has infrastructure and still hasn’t attracted many businesses.

Mr. Walter said he’s confident the lots at EPCAL will sell once the subdivision is approved. He said the town doesn’t need to sell all of the lots at once, since selling one or two per year will provide enough revenue to offset tax increases.

The state legislature has approved a proposal for development applications at EPCAL to be fast-tracked, so long as they meet criteria spelled out in the legislation, said Mr. Walter, who added that no other municipality in the state has such legislation.

But Ms. DeVito pointed out that the EPCAL legislation has not yet been signed into law by the governor.

TOWN BOARD BICKERING

Mr. Walter said people have criticized the all-Republican board for its infighting, but “the proof is in the pudding.” He said EPCAL, downtown and the town finances are improving under the current board, despite the fighting. The supervisor said that when Ms. Giglio first suggested trying to lure the Federal Aviation Administration’s new air traffic control center to EPCAL, he opposed it, but he says now it could be a reality.

“Don’t worry about us fighting,” he said. “It makes for good TV.”

Ms. DeVito said she’s heard from many people who don’t participate in government because “they are made to feel unwelcome and they don’t like the environment.”

Ms. Giglio, also said the board does fight a lot, but that they are a “spirited board” whose members come from diverse backgrounds. She said the board communicates with each other, debates issues and compromises.

ROUTE 58

The current condition of Route 58, where four large commercial projects have resulted in hundreds of acres of trees being cleared, was a topic where the Republicans acknowledged there were mistakes made, but vowed to correct them.

Democrats went on the attack.

“Route 58 looks like a war zone,” said Mr. Bianchi, who served 22 years in the state Assembly when he lived in Bellport. “It looks like Saudi Arabia, just a sea of sand.”

He said residents in Foxwood Village found their lives “partially destroyed” by the clearing near their homes.

“How anyone on the Town Board can allow that to happen boggles the mind,” Mr. Bianchi said. “Do you think East Hampton or Southampton would allow that to happen?”

Ms. Thomas said the town doesn’t need all the big box stores on Route 58, which are providing “minimum wage jobs” and not even increasing as much taxes as they should.

Mr. Walter and Ms. Giglio both argued that Route 58 does generate a lot of taxes for the town, and people’s tax bills would be a lot higher without that money.

Ms. DeVito said Route 58 stores are a major source of income tax revenue for Suffolk County, and the town doesn’t get any of that money. She feels the town should fight to get a bigger share of the income tax revenue it generates.

The town generates about $30 million in income tax revenue for the county, Mr. Walter said. But he feels it would be “pie in the sky” to think the county would give up that money.

As for the recent clearing on Route 58, the supervisor said the town Planning Board made a mistake and will fix it. But he said those boards are autonomous, and the Town Board can talk to them, but can’t tell them what to do.

tgannon@timesreview.com