At the end of the year, Sean Walter, Riverhead Town’s fifth-longest serving supervisor, will leave office, having held his position since 2010. We asked him what he considers his biggest successes and disappointments, and where he thinks the town is headed.
Here are his responses:
Q: What do you think will be the most important issue facing the town for the next decade?
A: I think one of the hardest things is going to be keeping the budget balanced. The budget has been balanced for two or three years now.
Given the realities of what it costs to run a municipality, that’s going to be one of the most difficult things.
Also, EPCAL. There’s a possibility we will be scheduling the qualified and eligible sponsor hearing on Luminati Aerospace. If the deal goes forward, that’s a 20- to 25-year buildout.
One of the most immediate things that the town has to deal with is going to be Route 58. The reality is that the era of big box stores is over. I was in Massachusetts last month. In one shopping center, Sears was going out of business, and Best Buy, Macy’s and JC Penney went out of business. All that was left was Target.
I think this is a tremendous burden on retailers because of online businesses like Amazon. Everyone keeps focusing on downtown and parking, but those issues will resolve themselves. Downtown will come back with a vengeance and parking is a minor issue. The biggest thing facing the supervisor-elect is going to be what the town’s vision is for Route 58.
We have not been hit as hard as some other municipalities have with box stores going out of business, but it’s coming.
Q: What was your biggest accomplishment?
A: When we started out, somebody gave me advice early on, to come out of the box strong. You need to accomplish a few things straight away so people will know you’re a hard worker. Once you get billed as a hard worker, you’ll be remembered as a hard worker. If you’re lazy in your first couple years, you’ll never overcome that stigma. So we came out of the box pretty hard.
I love the fact that we started the invocations before the Town Board meetings. And we will continue that. That’s in my mind something that’s important to the town.
But everything started out small. I remember looking at the Lions Club bathroom on Main Street and saying ‘how the heck can the town not be able to figure out how to open a bathroom that’s been closed for 20 years? And then along came Laurie Nigro and Amy Davidson, who wanted to build a community garden.
We also wanted to break the chains that held the Suffolk Theater down and get that on track. We did a lot of small things that make a difference in people’s lives, like bathrooms and community gardens. And in a down economy, we were able to expand the tax base and grow the economy of Riverhead, in some years by double digits.
I think 2017 was the first balanced budget without any one-shot one revenues since Jim Stark in 1996, and 2016 was the first balanced budget since then.
Also, when you look at downtown now, there’s $80 million to $100 million in investment there now. Downtown is done. People poke fun at me, saying that there were 14 vacant stores downtown. Big deal, those were 14 small vacant stores on Main Street. We had cavernous vacancies that we filled, like the Woolworth building. And we saw Summerwind, and the Hyatt hotel go up. Now we’re seeing the rebuilding of the Preston house, and we have David Gallo, who will be building apartments at the old McCabe’s site and Conifer building 48 apartments on West Main Street.
That is also one of the biggest accomplishments that we had. The resurgence of Main Street. And yes, parking will be a problem. But it’s not a problem right now and the building David Gallo is doing will probably take two years, so the Town Board has the next two years to solve the parking problem.
I told the residents early on that I was going to create a parking problem downtown. And I think, in the next two years, you’ll see that I was successful.
Q: What was your biggest disappointment?
A: I don’t know that I have a biggest disappointment. I think I would’ve liked to have seen Luminati and the land sale of EPCAL through. But at this point, we are poised — if the board stays with me — to call for a public hearing for the qualified and eligible sponsor designation for Luminati.
I’m hoping that supervisor-elect Laura Jens-Smith will hold that hearing on the second meeting of January. When [deputy supervisor] Jill Lewis and I made a decision to run again, one of the biggest things was this unfinished business.
The EPCAL subdivision and the sale of Luminati is really the biggest unfinished thing. It’s not a regret or disappointment, but we worked very, very hard over the past eight years.
And it’s not a mystery, we are tired. Eight years as town supervisor and deputy supervisor is a very trying experience. We were tired going into the election and nobody ever wants to lose an election. But I think we’re all looking forward to the next stages of our lives.
So the Luminati deal would’ve been nice to have seen through to the end, but I think we’ve ushered it to a point where the next board, if they’re wise in their decision-making, will be able to bring it home.
Q: What do you think your legacy will be?
A: I only have one legacy, and I’ve said this many times. I want to be known as a man of God, a good husband and a good father. That’s it. Eight years as supervisor? I don’t know if that’s a legacy, but when I do the math and look at the past supervisors, I’m either the sixth or seventh longest-serving supervisor in the history of Riverhead Town.
Q: If you could do something over, what would it be?
A: Really, nothing. I don’t lead my life by looking in the rearview mirror. Yesterday is over. That door is shut. There isn’t anything that I would do differently or better.
I tried to do my best and I know — for the glory and honor of God — that I did that. Some days I was more successful than others, and sometimes I did things and said things I shouldn’t have. But I don’t look back. I don’t have any regrets.
Q: Are you going to miss it?
A: When I left town government in 2006, I felt there was unfinished business and that I was supposed to come back to the Town of Riverhead.
I had no idea why. I had a good job and I was offered a partnership at the law firm I was working with.
When I leave on Dec. 31, I don’t feel that there’s any unfinished business. I will miss the people and the employees of the town the most.
As for EPCAL, I feel we’ve significantly shepherded that along. It is to the point where it will happen on its own. There’s not much holding it back. What was holding EPCAL back was finding the right future owner.
The DEC wouldn’t give us subdivision approval until we had development plan, and we couldn’t get the development plan until we had the suitor, and we didn’t have the suitor.
So now we have the developer and we have a development plan that we can submit to the DEC and finish up the subdivision. That was the missing piece.
And I say this: I am indebted to Jill Lewis tremendously. I could never, ever have done this job without the deputy supervisor. When we decided to run again, had she said no, that she wouldn’t take the job for another two years, I would not have run.
We are a team and we’ve accomplished amazing things for this town. I look forward to seeing what the next Town Board does.
My hope and prayer is that the Town Board — even though it’s made up of majority of Republicans — gives Laura Jens-Smith at least a honeymoon, and some breathing time to prove herself. The residents of the town deserve and need the town to be successful. I would hate to see partisan bickering on the board to the point where things don’t get done.
Q: What will you do next?
A: Former supervisor Phil Cardinale criticized me early on because I kept my law office open. I’ve always kept the law office open. And it’s been a tough slog because I basically, for the most part, got to work at eight in the morning, go home at six at night, eat dinner and then go out to meetings and different things that I had to do. I would see clients on Saturdays and answer 100 to 200 emails on a Saturday morning.
So I worked three-quarters of a day on Saturday. I was good for 60 hours a week. I think going back and practicing law, I will feel semiretired.
I have enjoyed this last month immensely. Nobody calls us anymore. We’re a bit like yesterday’s news. But I say that in a good way.
My expertise has always been in planning and zoning law. And the other thing I’ve always done is wills and estates. I want to expand my wills and expense states practice to include trusts.
So I’m basically going to practice law and have a lot more free time. Don’t look to me running for supervisor again. There’s no Sean Walter 2.0.
Photo caption: Supervisor Sean Walter during his last Riverhead Town work session last Thursday morning. (Credit: Krysten Massa)