Election 2017

Town Supervisor 2017 Endorsement: Laura Jens-Smith

The 2015 race for Riverhead Town supervisor became a three-ring circus. Mudslinging among the three candidates vying for office reached such a high it became impossible to determine who was worthy of the office. This editorial board went so far as to not endorse any of the candidates.

Voters ultimately selected incumbent Sean Walter, who ran on the Conservative line. Now, he’s back on the familiar Republican line facing a Democratic challenger in Laura Jens-Smith, who ran unsuccessfully in that same election for a spot on the Town Board.

Thankfully for the voters of Riverhead, this election cycle has largely been devoid of the theatrics of 2015. Voters can instead focus on key issues facing the town: the future of Enterprise Park at Calverton (as usual), downtown Riverhead’s revitalization and the town’s finances.

Starting with EPCAL, how voters view the pending deal with Luminati Aerospace will likely go a long way toward determining the next supervisor. It’s a key reason why we endorse Ms. Jens-Smith.

The uncertainty around the deal, which was saved by a last-minute life preserver from billionaire John Catsimatidis, gives us concern about endorsing Mr. Walter for a fifth term. He’s been steadfast in his support for Luminati and its controversial, and at times shady, CEO, Daniel Preston, whom he compared to Howard Hughes during an editorial board with the News-Review. We’re not entirely sure we see a direct connection, given Mr. Hughes’ lifetime of success in business, aviation and filmmaking. Mr. Walter defended Mr. Preston and seemed indifferent to published reports of a 2009 lawsuit against him from a former company and another story about liens totaling more than $55,000 against him and his construction company. Mr. Walter argued that Mr. Preston is a visionary who needs a financial backer to accomplish his goals. Mr. Catsimatidis fits that bill, he said.

There are still many unanswered questions about this pending sale: why an initial backer pulled out of the deal, Mr. Catsimatidis’ goals and vision, and whether it’s the best deal for Riverhead. We could have received more answers if a qualified and eligible sponsor hearing had taken place before the election. But Mr. Walter has said he did not want to turn this issue into a “political football.”

“That’s just going to make it more of an absolute nightmare for Catsimatidis, Luminati and the Town Board,” Mr. Walter said of holding the hearing before the election.

We believe it’ll be vital for this deal to receive a fresh pair of eyes before this unique property is sold after more than two decades of uncertainty. Ms. Jens-Smith has been critical of the Luminati deal and we believe as supervisor she won’t feel compelled to see it through.

Luminati may still be the best option for EPCAL, assuming Mr. Catsimatidis delivers, but there’s no way to know right now.

Mr. Walter does deserve credit for the projects underway in downtown Riverhead, including the Riverview Lofts development that will bring mixed-income apartments that include studios, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units. He agreed that the next building on the south side of Main Street shouldn’t be five stories, but the master plan did allow it and there had to be a starting point.

Bringing people downtown to live will help keep the area vibrant and hopefully solve other issues such as vacant storefronts and nearby crime. Ms. Jens-Smith said more needs to be done about parking. And while that will come, Mr. Walter is right to argue that it’s too early to worry about parking. Riverhead on a Friday night does not yet face parking woes to the degree found in Patchogue. Those are issues for down the road.

Ms. Jens-Smith has argued the Riverhead Industrial Development Agency should be disbanded. With the number of tax breaks handed out, it’s an idea worth considering. Mr. Walter has said he feels the Town Board should take over the IDA’s role and is adamant it won’t be in Riverhead’s interest for the Suffolk IDA to make determinations here.

Ms. Jens-Smith, president of the Mattituck-Cutchogue Board of Education, showed promise in her 2015 campaign for Town Board, but ultimately lacked a firm grasp on all the issues. Now, two years later, she appears poised to take on a greater role and lead Riverhead Town.

It’ll be up to voters to decide whether she brings enough worthy ideas to the table to knock off a longtime incumbent. But the choice here is Ms. Jens-Smith.