County Executive candidate Steve Bellone ‘meets and greets’ North Fork farmers

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Steve Bellone, the Democrat candidate for this year's Suffolk County Executive race, met with representatives from the East End agricultural community Wednesday at the Hallockville Museum Farm in Riverhead. Joe Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, left, organized the 'Meet and Greet' event.

Democratic candidate for County Executive Steve Bellone met with members of the East End’s agricultural community on Wednesday in Riverhead to discuss his plans to strengthen the local economy.

About 30 people gathered at the Hallockville Museum Farm on Sound Avenue where Mr. Bellone said he plans to create a uniform set of standards for town and county business development agencies, reform the county health department to streamline the permitting process and to secure funding for farming preservation.

“The East End is a critical part of our regional economy,” said Mr. Bellone, who is currently the Babylon Town supervisor. “Too often, it has been treated as a piggy bank.”

If elected next Tuesday, Mr. Bellone said he would find new ways to promote agricultural tourism by discussing ideas with representatives from the Long Island Farm Bureau and the Long Island Wine Council, as well as town officials from Riverhead and Southold.

Joe Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, agreed that the best approach to promoting the local economy is to give all interested parties a seat at the table.

Mr. Gergela said he organized the “Meet and Greet” event with Mr. Bellone because he believed it is important to provide a forum where community members can discuss their concerns directly with the candidates. Mr. Gergela added he had also offered to arrange a “Meet and Greet” event with Republican County Executive candidate Angie Carpenter, but said he hadn’t heard back from her office yet.

With less than a week until the election, Mr. Bellone said he’s meeting with farm and vineyard owners to discuss his plan that aims to improve the local economy.

Some of those actions include enhancing and expanding programs at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County in Riverhead, as well as increasing efforts to “preserve farming,” which, he said, is very different from “preserving farm land.”

“The focus can’t just be on preserving farm land,” he said. “There’s a big difference between preserving farm land and preserving farming as a legitimate business enterprise in this county.”

In addition, Mr. Bellone said a key component to the area’s economic development is the creation of a Peconic Bay Regional Transit Authority, which, if ever instituted, would give the East End local control over a light rail system that would be separate from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that currently runs infrequent train service on the East End.

“What I’ve come to learn is the East End is a unique, special place with its own needs and ideas,” he said. “The county should be there to help promote what the East End wants to do.”