Editorial: Our towns must now decide how to deal with the future

With the elections over in Riverhead and Southold, the newly elected and the re-elected will get to work on the day-to-day details of government and the critical issues facing their towns.

In many ways, Riverhead and Southold have traveled very different roads and have dissimilar futures.

Southold has, for years now, valued its farmland and moved mountains to save as much of it as possible. Large-scale development was not welcomed. Southold looked at itself and was pleased with what it saw, and those elected to town positions acted to protect the rural nature of the town. Rightly so, preservation has been the dominant political issue in town.

Riverhead, by contrast, has chosen a different path. That is not to say town officials did not value the farmland that has been preserved and thus spared from development. But commercial development — such as the big box stores on Route 58 — was welcomed because of the high amount of taxes it contributed toward the total levy that’s raised each year.

With some of these big box stores on Route 58 now shuttered — Sports Authority, Waldbaum’s and the old Walmart, for example — the question of what taxes will be paid in the future is uncertain. The owners of those properties continue to pay their tax bills even though they are vacant, but lawsuits making their way through the courts could mean those amounts will be sharply reduced.

The truth of property taxes is that, if one party pays less, another party pays more, as the total tax levy in the town is not decreased. The full amount has to be raised; thus, other parties will have to make up the difference if the taxes paid by these entities are reduced.

And with online shopping becoming dominant, the age of the giant mall and the big box store may be coming to an end. What will happen to those big empty spaces? In this business climate, should any more such stores be approved?

In Riverhead, the issues facing the new supervisor, Laura Jens-Smith, and the Town Board are huge. The biggest issue is what to do with Luminati at EPCAL. Should the town sell off land at the site for a $40 million price tag, because that amount can help pay off expensive debt? Should any residential development be allowed at the site? What about the generous tax breaks handed out by the town IDA? Don’t forget: What one entity doesn’t pay, someone else has to make up.

Beyond these questions is a bigger one: What are the limits of development? When does its financial benefit get canceled out by the problems it creates and the permanent changes it brings to the town’s landscape? Surely, large-scale development farther west on Long Island — where property taxes are among the highest in the nation — has not resulted in lower property taxes on residential housing.

By contrast with Riverhead, Southold is looking at far different issues. The voters last week re-elected two Town Board incumbents, Jim Dinizio and Bob Ghosio. (Recounts by the Suffolk County Board of Elections are still pending.) The political status quo remains. But issues, while far different from Riverhead’s, are there to be dealt with, including traffic, the continued preservation of open space, water quality in the town’s creeks and bays, deer and tick issues and affordable housing.

Now is the time for town government in Southold to sit down and decide what we want to look like in the future, and put measures in place to make it happen, with preservation topping the list of priorities.

There are major questions to be addressed, of course. What are the limits of agritainment? What is a vineyard? Should new homes be required to have more expensive new septic systems? What about requiring new homes to install geothermal heating systems?

For both towns, steps must be taken now to deal with quality-of-life issues, but also climate change and, in Riverhead, the future of large commercial development. The future of the open space in Calverton that was once home to Grumman and was turned over to Riverhead by the U.S. government is now a huge question that requires careful consideration.

With so little accomplished at the site in the past two decades, we have to wonder if turning the land over to the town in the first place was a good idea.