Incumbent Republican Supervisor Sean Walter and his Democratic challenger, Laura Jens-Smith, had vastly different opinions on many of the same issues in Riverhead Town during a candidate forum Thursday night at Martha Clara Vineyards.
The forum, which also featured candidates for council and assessor, was sponsored by the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce, the Long Island Farm Bureau, the Long Island Builders Institute and the New York League of Conservation Voters.
Mr. Walter said there’s a “lot of rhetoric” in the campaign, and he urged voters to vote based on what they see in Riverhead, not on what they’ve heard from his opponents, who have painted a bleak picture of the town.
“I think Sean and I agree very much on the issues that we have here,” Ms. Jens-Smith replied. “He’s been running for eight years and he’s been in office for eight years and he is still working on the same issues.”
Mr. Walter said: “I want you to think about what your tax bill looks like now, and how it’s been relatively stable, and I want you to add to that, that we’ve increased the size of code enforcement, we’ve increased the size of the police department and we’re introducing senior day care.”
Below is a rundown of some of the issues the two candidates differed on during the two-and-a-half hour forum.
Mr. Walter said the subdivision at EPCAL is “in place” and “there are two suitors negotiating together to buy the property from the town,” a reference to Daniel Preston of Luminati Aerospace and billionaire John Catsimatidis.
Ms. Jens-Smith, who opposes the Luminati deal, pointed out that Mr. Preston was once fired from a company he worked for in 2009 for fraud. She said seven months after a letter of intent with Luminati was signed, nothing more has happened.
“We want to dream big, folks,” Mr. Walter said. “You’ve got a guy with vision and you’ve got a guy worth $3 billion. Do I think it’s going to happen? I’m skeptical. But we’ve got to play the last hand. We’ve got to see whether it works. If it doesn’t work, we’ve been out seven months, unlike the 23 previous years at EPCAL when nothing happened.”
Ms. Jens-Smith opposes allowing residential uses at EPCAL, which would be permitted in connection with commercial and industrial uses under the zoning the town approved for EPCAL.
“There was never housing allowed in EPCAL previously,” she said. “It was this supervisor who put housing back into our largest industrial piece of property, and I don’t believe housing belongs there.”
“You cannot bring the housing first before you bring the jobs,” Mr. Walter said.
Even Amazon prospectus for its proposed second headquarters says “you have to have a housing component to where they were going to go,” Mr. Walter said. “You cannot provide 1,000 employees to Riverhead and find housing for them. It doesn’t exist. You also have to have the support services for them. And guess what? The residents of Wading River and Calverton don’t necessarily want to see 1,000 employees going back and forth to EPCAL.”
“Everyone is beating up on downtown,” Mr. Walter said. But he pointed out that the five-story buildings going up downtown are all permitted by the zoning the prior Town Board adopted in 2004 in conjunction with the 2003 master plan upgrade.
“The master plan called for it,” he said.
He said that by relying on the town’s landmarks preservation commission and its architectural review board, “you are going to have a beautiful downtown.”
Ms. Jens-Smith said the Brownfields Opportunity Area (BOA) study urged the town not to build 500 apartments downtown without providing more parking.
The study cost about $6,000 and Ms. Jens-Smith sad Mr. Walter “decided to put it in a drawer and ignore it.”
She said there are just as many vacant stores downtown now as when Mr. Walter took office, and “now we are creating a parking problem without improving our commercial district.”
Mr. Walter said it would not make sense to address parking problems before the demand for parking is created.
Ms. Jens-Smith feels the town should have made developers pay into a fund to create parking before given them approval. The town is considering such a requirement now.
“We need to do a fiscal assessment, line by line, in our budget, to make sure we are working effectively and efficiently in every single department,” Ms. Jens-Smith said. She also suggested the town raise fees that haven’t been raised in years and should be brought up into line with those charged by other towns and municipalities.
Mr. Walter said the town budget is now under the state’s tax cap, and he said he will not raise fees.
Mr. Walter said the budget had a 12 percent deficit when he took office in 2010 and he balanced it in six years by making cuts, increasing the tax base and raising taxes.
The budget went over the tax cap two years in a row in 2015 and 2016.
“We cut costs by 10 percent,” he said.
IDA tax breaks
Ms. Jens-Smith questioned why the town Industrial Development Agency granted tax incentives to chain hotels like Hilton Garden Inn on County Road 58.
“Two years ago, Sean was touting the high occupancy rates for hotels in Riverhead. So why are we giving them tax abatements?” she asked.
“It’s supposed to be an incentive for somebody to come in,” she said.
Ms. Jens-Smith feels the town is too small to have an IDA.
If IDA incentives are needed for a project the town seeks to lure, the county has an IDA that could serve Riverhead, she said.
“The IDA makes a very convenient punching bag,” Mr. Walter said.
But he said he doesn’t support the IDA giving tax abatements on County Road 58, and he feels the Town Board should take over the role of the IDA.
Years ago, the county IDA gave abatements to the culinary arts building on East Main Street, despite the town’s recommendation against doing so, Mr. Walter said.
“Suffolk County doesn’t give a crap about Riverhead,” he said.