Guest Spot: Full public involvement is needed for study

It was the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” That applies to Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter in his confrontation with Dominique Mendez, president of the Riverhead Neighborhood Preservation Coalition, at a recent Town Board meeting.

First, it was always agreed that there were to be two so-called focus groups, as well as a public workshop, involved during the Route 25A corridor study that will chart the future of Wading River. I’ve participated in dozens of land use studies, and a community visioning workshop is a key element in most of them; it gives everyone an opportunity to speak out on what they want and don’t want in their community.

As the News-Review reported last week, Mr. Walter said at a Dec. 27 Town Board meeting that the RNPC squandered its opportunity for a public workshop when “you took it upon yourselves to lambaste town officials instead.” He was referring to what happened at one of two so-called focus group events. (There was one for a small group of business leaders, which the supervisor attended, and one for a small group of community leaders, which he did not.) The meetings were supposed to encourage participation in a land use planning process aimed at balancing business and community concerns.

At the forum for community leaders, instead of inviting suggestions from them, for which the forum was intended, deputy town supervisor Jill Lewis — herself a resident of Wading River — said, and I quote, “I don’t understand why the property owners who bought their land with the presumption that they could develop it consistent with existing zoning shouldn’t be entitled to do it.” She went on to say, “I think your side is extreme.” I know because I was there, and I took notes.

Here, the community was trying to say that builders should be able to develop their land consistent with the interests of the community and the Walter administration was effectively saying: We’re going to let the builders develop their land any way they please, regardless of zoning — let the community be damned. Which is the “extreme” position?

Anyway, in response to local residents trying to advocate for planning that would be best for the community, as the consultants had requested, the administration retaliated by canceling the promised (and contracted for) public workshop. Mr. Walter has since promised a public hearing at the end of the planning process — something that is required by law and that will allow a land use plan to be advanced, without the public input that is supposed to shape such a plan.

At the last Town Board meeting of 2011, Mr. Walter continued his administration’s attack on the citizenry. He called the community group a “special interest.” Of course, a “special interest” is just that — a group that seeks public policy decisions from elected officials that would advance their own special interest. Labor unions, the Trial Lawyers Association and the big oil lobby are examples of “special interests.” A community or an environmental group, on the other hand, seeks public policies, the benefits of which would accrue to the public at large — things like clean air and water, tax relief and protecting community character. These groups are known as “public interest groups.”

Mr. Walter went on to claim at the Dec. 27 Town Board meeting that the RNPC “sent people to threaten me before the election,” providing no facts to back up this spurious charge.
In the overstatement of the day, Mr. Walter said, “I’ve done everything you’ve asked.” Really? He has said “no” to a moratorium while the study is completed; “no” to a public workshop; “no” to consideration of the cumulative impacts of six large projects in a 1.5-mile stretch of Route 25A; and “no” to even attending the community focus group. It is clear that the Walter administration is very concerned about developers’ property rights. Residents’ and taxpayers’ — not so much.

Finally, some of today’s politicians have lost sight of the fact that they’re supposed to be public servants, not czars. Citizens are explicitly empowered to “redress their grievances” with government. There is no provision for elected officials to redress their grievances with their constituents. So it was Mr. Walter who was out of order, advancing his unsubstantiated opinions without the benefit of the facts and berating a member of the community that he is supposed to represent and serve.

It is clear that this administration doesn’t want to be confused by the facts and will go to any length to try to silence the public in a planning process, when even the town’s own consultants say public input is essential to the success of the study and protection of both developers’ property rights and those of the community. What is the point of studying the projects’ impacts, if they’ve already been approved?

If the Town Board members are serious about looking for a solution to the threat of overdevelopment in Wading River, instead of berating citizens and asserting that Wading River residents don’t care about the mega-development proposed for their community, they should hold the promised public workshop and listen to what the people have to say about the future of the place they all call home.

Richard Amper is executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, a Riverhead-based environmental group.