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Democratic Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith and her Republican challenger Yvette Aguiar disagreed on everything from the sale of land to Calverton Aviation & Technology to the need for a new town master plan to code enforcement and overcrowded housing during a candidate forum sponsored by the Riverhead News-Review last Wednesday at Polish Hall.
Ms. Jens-Smith and Ms. Aguiar faced off in the debate for Riverhead Town supervisor, and a separate debate was held the same night for the Riverhead Town Council candidates.
Here is breakdown of issues discussed:
Ms. Jens-Smith said that when she took office in 2018, “we had hamlets at risk, and farmland at risk.” Before that, she said, the town said it couldn’t do anything about that because it was broke.
“I didn’t take that for an excuse,” she said. “I went out and made sure that when developers were coming in, they were part of the community and they contributed money to the community benefit fund, so we were able to fund things without using tax money.”
She said the town is moving forward with a “pattern book” for downtown that will “fast track” development there. The pattern book is part of an overall town master plan update, she said.
“I think that part of it is that we need to ‘sell’ the town, to get people to come here and invest in our town. I think it’s a very important job for the supervisor.”
Ms. Aguiar said she’s a retired New York Police Department sergeant from the counterterrorism division, who has a doctorate in business administration from the online Northcentral University and was chair of the criminal justice program at Briarcliffe College in Patchogue, which has since closed. She also is a licensed real estate agent.
“I’ve never sought public office before,” she said. “I have skills in management, leadership, budgeting and finance, both in the public and private sector. My experience and knowledge has prepared me to serve you.”
Transfer of development rights
Transfer of development rights, or TDR, is a program where the development rights on farmland the town seeks to preserve are transferred to land where the town feels additional development is warranted. The land can still be used for farming, but it cannot be developed.
Ms. Aguiar feels the town needs to increase the use of TDR.
“We need to protect farmers and help them stay in business in order to preserve our agriculture and our economy,” she said. Ms. Aguiar said she would work with the county, the state and preservation organizations to make the program work.
“As far as the TDR program, it’s sad,” Ms. Jens-Smith said. She said the town was hopeful the program would be more successful in retaining and preserving farmland.
“We know it has not worked quite to the level we would have liked at this point,” she said.
The TDR program will be incorporated with the master plan update, she said, so that more development can take place in receiving areas so that the rights will be worth more and farmers will be able to better preserve their farms.
“We need to know what it is they plan on building there,” Ms. Jens-Smith said of the prospective purchasers of EPCAL, Calverton Aviation & Technology, which combines Triple Five Group and Luminati Aerospace LLC. The latter is a non-voting member that controls 25% of CAT.
Ms. Jens-Smith and Councilwoman Catherine Kent opposed a “qualified and eligible” designation for CAT, but were outvoted 3-2 by the rest of the Town Board. The original deal had been to sell only about 600 acres for $40 million, but former supervisor Sean Walter later announced that the town would sell 1,600 acres to Luminati for the same $40 million price.
“We’re giving the extra 1,000 acres away,” said Ms. Jens-Smith, who was not on the board at that time.
CAT and Triple Five Group have not provided the town with solid financial information about the company. The financials should not only show that CAT has the $40 million to buy the property, but also that it has the money needed to build out the property, Ms. Jens-Smith said.
“I want to know what they are going to build, how they are going to build it and how are they going to finance it,” she said.
Ms. Aguiar said the town has tried to sell property at EPCAL “over and over and over again” without success. The contract with CAT has been looked over by three attorneys and “has been deemed enforceable,” she said.
“Regardless of whether you are for EPCAL or not, we need to have the business mind to go forward with it,” she said.
The Town Board recently met with three companies that are interested in locating at EPCAL. They were brought to a work session by Chris Kent, the attorney for CAT.
“These are Fortune 500 companies with government contracts,” Ms. Aguiar said.
“They are robotics, clean energy and aerospace technology,” she said, the type of jobs that were meant to be at EPCAL when the federal government gave the 3,000 acres to the town for $1 in 1998.
Ms. Jens-Smith said the three companies — Launcher, Unique Electric Solutions and ULC Robotics — are not Fortune 500 companies.
“They are small companies and these are new programs,” she said.
Ms. Jens-Smith said that while she is happy to have this type of business at EPCAL, “that is not going to be the bread-and-butter of tax dollars coming through.”
Ms. Aguiar said that once the town sells the property and gets it back on the tax roll, it will immediately receive $4 million in property taxes, and the interest on the money the town received from the sale will be about $5.3 million.
Ms. Jens-Smith disputed this, saying that Triple Five said publicly at the Q&E hearing that it would seek tax breaks on the land.
Ms. Aguiar also criticized Ms. Jens-Smith for constantly referring to the buyer as being Luminati, which has moved upstate and is facing several lawsuits, including one from Hexcel Corporation claiming that Luminati defaulted on a $10 million loan from Hexcel, which was granted an order to seize property at EPCAL from Luminati.
The two candidates disagreed on the need for a master plan update and on the need for a “pattern book.”
Ms. Aguiar said the master plan update is costing Riverhead taxpayers $675,000, and that the town has done at least three prior studies of downtown.
She claimed the master plan will take five years to complete.
“We don’t have five years to wait,” Ms. Aguiar said. A better approach, she said, would be to hire a company to make recommendations for downtown based on the existing studies.
“Today in downtown, we see more vacancies than ever,” she said.
Ms. Jens-Smith said it’s been 16 years since the town last updated its master plan “and a lot has changed in the Town of Riverhead, sometimes for the good and sometimes not so much.”
The national trend away from big box retailers has had an effect on Route 58, where a number of national chain retail stores have closed.
“We need to take a look back at what has developed on Route 58 and decide what we’d like to see there in the future,” Ms. Jens-Smith said.
Ms. Aguiar said the town has failed at controlling illegal housing and overcrowding, which she feels leads to increased school enrollment.
Ms. Aguiar said she has a 10-point plan on her website for addressing the problem. Among those recommendations are creating a task force to pool town resources like code enforcement, police and other officers to attack the issue cohesively; enhancing the town’s computer tracking system to identify and document illegal and overcrowded homes; hiring at least two more code enforcement agents; and increasing fines.
Ms. Aguiar said that under Ms. Jens-Smith, code enforcement has targeted struggling businesses at her direction and a press conference was held to that effect.
The press conference dealt with three vacant buildings downtown.
Ms. Jens-Smith said that since she has taken office, code enforcement has doubled the amount of code violations it has issued.
Ms. Aguiar said the town has not taken overcrowded housing violations to state Supreme Court, which imposes heavier fines.
Ms. Jens-Smith said the assistant town attorney who handing these cases prepares to take the cases to town justice court. Ms. Jens-Smith said this assistant town attorney is Republican Councilman Tim Hubbard’s son-in-law.
Police and Water District
Ms. Aguiar accused Ms. Jens-Smith of wanting to let Suffolk County take over the town police and water district, something Ms. Jens-Smith denied.
Ms. Aguiar said she is opposed to both proposals as well.
“At one point, the county police department made efforts to take control of the town department. It did not happen,” Ms. Aguiar said.
As for the water district, Ms. Aguiar said, “I know that there was a conversation between the current supervisor and individuals from the county discussing the possible takeover.”
She said former supervisor Sean Walter was approached by the Suffolk County Water Authority every year he was in office about SCWA taking over the town system.
Ms. Jens-Smith said she’s never had a conversation with SCWA and has “no intention of selling our water district.”
She also said she has no plans to turn the police department over to the county and said she worked to get the police contracts for the Police Benevolent Association and the Superior Officers Association approved since taking office.
Ms. Aguiar said those contracts were nearly complete when the supervisor took office. Ms. Jens-Smith said that’s not true.
Ms. Jens-Smith said that when she decided to run for office, she attended every Town Board meeting and work session “so I could learn and listen to what was going on.”
“If I was going to offer plans, they had to be rooted in reality, and if I was going to offer criticism, I was also going to have to be able to provide solutions,” she said.
She said the town has stepped up police presence and gotten more grant money than in the past. She also is working to update its master plan and “we are crafting a plan for downtown that keeps the best of our past, while creating a family-friendly Main Street.”
Ms. Aguiar said she is not a politician and has never run for officer before.
She supports the ECPAL/CAT deal and she again accused her opponent of not taking code violators to state Supreme Court.
She said the town court and police department are working in “extremely dangerous and unsafe conditions” in the aging police and court building, and she blamed Ms. Jens-Smith for that.