The tenure of an embattled town supervisor officially draws to a close in Riverhead on Sunday night.
It’s been a tumultuous eight years for Sean Walter, the Wading River lawyer and former town Conservative Party chairman who, running on the Republican ticket, unseated an incumbent Democrat in 2009 and presided over an all-Republican town board for the duration of his tenure.
One-party governance would mean anything but smooth sailing for Walter, who regularly found himself at odds with fellow board members, his own party leaders and one-time allies. Even his friend, political advisor and confidant Anthony Coates — whom Walter backed in a 2013 primary challenge to wrest the Republican nomination from incumbent councilwoman and Walter nemesis Jodi Giglio — turned against Walter. Coates changed his party registration and ran against him on the Democratic ticket two years ago, an election year that saw the Republican party deny Walter the nomination in his bid for re-election. Walter ran on the Conservative line, fending off blistering attacks by Coates in a three-way race in which Giglio was the party’s standard-bearer. The Suffolk County Police PBA took an unusual interest in that race — and spent a lot of money condemning the incumbent supervisor and supporting Giglio.
The fact is, in his eight years in the corner office at Riverhead Town Hall, Walter pissed off a lot of people — and he never seemed to care. The brash former deputy town attorney, accused by many detractors as arrogant and egotistical — “It’s always ‘my way or the highway’ with Sean” was a common complaint — alienated or angered many people who dealt with him.
Walter, a devout Catholic, professes to follow his convictions and sees the hand of God at work in his life — and his career.
“God put me here and if God wants me to do something else, that’s how he will decide the outcome of this race,” Walter said before the November election when he lost his bid for a fifth term of office.
God sent a message to Walter on Nov. 7 and the lame-duck supervisor was quick to heed it. He’s been largely absent from town hall since election day, when he began focusing, he said, on getting his law practice back on track and earning enough money to pay his bills.
“It took about 24 hours to get over it,” he said of the loss. “Nobody likes to lose, but this is going to work out just fine,” Walter said in an interview at his Wading River law office Dec. 18.
“It’s funny how just like that, you’re yesterday’s news,” he said. “I have not had one phone call to me that I have had to return since election day.”
Walter said he harbors no regrets and in reflection, he wouldn’t do anything differently.
“I look at what we accomplished in eight years and I think it’s something just short of phenomenal,” he said.
When Walter took office in January 2010 — after winning “in 2009 because Barack Obama was trying to socialize medicine and people were mobilized and pissed,” he said — he spelled out three goals: getting the town’s fiscal house in order, revitalizing downtown and redeveloping the Enterprise Park at Calverton. He reiterated these goals in each of his annual “state of the town” addresses from his first in February 2010 to his last in 2016.
From the vantage point of 2017, Walter says he believes he succeeded.
Riverhead’s fiscal health
The new supervisor in 2010 made balancing the town’s budget his top priority. When he came into office he inherited a budget deficit that financial administrator William Rothaar put at 7.3 million. In the prior eight years, the town had been using its fund balance — mostly money paid by a would-be developer in options on the Calverton Enterprise Park property — to plug the budget gap and suppress tax increases, Rothaar said. The fund balance had been drawn down from 30 percent of the town budget to 13 percent by fiscal year 2010, when it stood at $6 million, Rothaar said. Walter’s budgets took $2.5 million from reserves in 2011 and 2012, leaving $2.5 million in the reserve fund — the bare minimum allowed.
“We now have a balanced budget,” Walter said this month.
It was not a painless process to get there. In his first year, Walter “impounded” the budget and implemented a spending freeze, requiring every expenditure to be examined by his chief of staff. Walter’s first budget, for fiscal year 2011, required the town to lay off 10 percent of its workforce, which he set about to restructure. And the budgets for 2016 and 2017 required the town to pierce the 2-percent tax levy limitation imposed by state law — which made homeowners in Riverhead Town ineligible for property tax “tax freeze” rebate from the state.
The town tax rate went from 45.234 per $1,000 of assessed valuation in 2011 — Walter’s first budget — to 54.091 per $1,000 in 2018, his final budget — an overall 24.7 percent jump. It averages to a 2.45 percent tax rate increase per year. By comparison, the town tax rate in the prior eight years increased 39.5 percent, from 31.088 per $1,000 in 2003 to 43.376 in 2010.
In the eight years of the Walter administration, the town’s assessed valuation grew by more than 33 percent, by $274,617,192 and crossed the billion-dollar threshold for the first time in its history.
The assessed value of exempt properties also grew from 2010 to 2018 — by more than $6.2 million. More than half of that increase is attributable to the increase in assessed value exempt because of Industrial Development Agency tax breaks, something Walter’s critics have slammed him on. But IDA exemptions overall represent just under 8 percent of all property tax exemptions in the town.
Walter’s second major goal was bringing downtown Riverhead back to life. Main Street, Riverhead was once the retail center of the East End. By the time Walter took the oath of office on Jan. 1, 2010, those days were long gone. Retailers flocked to shopping centers on Route 58 beginning in the 1970s, a trend that continued into the 21st century. Zoning adopted to implement the 2003 master plan was intended to enhance Route 58’s status as the East End’s “destination retail” corridor.
The buildout of several significant — and highly visible — commercial developments on Route 58 during Walter’s tenure (Walmart, Costco, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Lowe’s), combined with Suffolk County’s reconstruction of Route 58 as a four-lane highway all occurred on Walter’s watch. It led to misplaced criticism. The Route 58 zoning was adopted years before Walter became supervisor. The four-lane expansion of the county road — completed in a way then-legislator Ed Romaine complained was “on the cheap” by the county, without shoulders, turning lanes or bus stop pull-outs — angered local residents. The town supervisor was tagged with blame for both. The persistent myth — fueled by political opponents — that Route 58 development had been underwritten by taxpayers in the form of IDA tax breaks also dogged Walter.
The town’s flagging downtown district was an early target for the newly elected supervisor. In his second month in office, he convened a “downtown summit,” calling together property owners, business owners, real estate brokers and government officials to discuss what the town needed to accomplish to revitalize Main Street.
Walter moved right away to settle litigation between the town and the owner of the Suffolk Theater, paving the way for completion of the renovation of the 1930s art deco former movie palace as a performing arts center. It opened in March 2013.
During Walter’s tenure, the owners of the Atlantis Marine World aquarium developed an adjacent hotel and conference center — the Hyatt East End and Sea Star Ballroom. Summerwind Square was built, with 52 workforce housing rental apartments above ground-floor retail/restaurant uses. An East Hampton developer bought the vacant former Woolworth department store and renovated the building to accommodate a health club, three shops and 19 workforce apartments. The aquarium/hotel developer purchased and renovated the historic East Lawn building as well as a historic home on the corner of Ostrander Avenue and East Main Street, which they renovated as a restaurant and are building, attached to it, a boutique hotel, opposite the Hyatt.
Two other mixed-use workforce apartment buildings on Main Street were approved during the Walter administration: Peconic Crossing, a 45-unit building on West Main Street and Riverview Lofts, a 115-unit building on East Main Street and McDermott Avenue.
The pending residential dwellings led to criticism of Walter for failure to plan for parking that would be required for downtown’s new residents. A favorite refrain of the supervisor was that it was his goal to create a parking problem in downtown Riverhead. It was an issue that his opponent this year raised in the campaign.
One of Walter’s downtown goals that remained elusive was a movie theater on Main Street. It was not to be, despite protracted discussions with Regal Cinemas. The movie theater company engaged in active negotiations with the owner of the former Walmart shopping center on Route 58, but progress of those talks remain unknown.
The Calverton Enterprise Park
Walter’s ambitions for the site where Northrop-Grumman once manufactured warplanes for the U.S. Navy remain unfulfilled.
His administration completed updates to the master plan and the urban renewal plan for the site, revised the zoning there and began to pursue an industrial subdivision of most of the town’s remaining landholdings.
Then, in 2015, a startup company established by the founder of Atair Aerospace purchased the Skydive Long Island site at EPCAL and announced plans to bring aerospace manufacturing back to Calverton.
In April, Luminati Aerospace and Riverhead Town entered into a letter of intent for the sale of the town’s remaining land at EPCAL for $40 million. The town spent the rest of the year negotiating with Luminati — and first, with United Refining Corp. and then with Triple Five Ventures.
This month, the town scheduled a public hearing for Jan. 17 to determine whether a new company formed by Luminati Aerospace and Triple Five Ventures is a “qualified and eligible sponsor” under state urban renewal law for the purpose of redeveloping the EPCAL site. The company, Calverton Aviation & Technology, seeks to sign a contract with the town to buy about 1,600 acres for $40 million.
Walter boasts about the Calverton Sewer District, which will be upgraded “at no cost to the ratepayers” from a secondary treatment facility to a “state-of-the-art tertiary treatment facility.
Walter says he has no regrets about hitching his political fate to Luminati.
The State DEC, which must approve wetland permits, Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act permits and habitat “takings” permits for the proposed EPCAL subdivision, will not approve the permits unless they know who the “end users are,” Walter said. “They were enthusiastically supportive of Luminati,” he said.
Leaving the fate of the proposed sale to his successor is something Walter wishes he didn’t have to do.
“I ran to finish EPCAL and Luminati,” he said.
But he would not do anything differently, he said. “Everything we did will be useful, the update of the master plan, the urban renewal plan, the zoning,” he said. “Everything had to get done.”
Inviting God into Riverhead
Walter says the highlight of his career as town supervisor is “inviting God into the town.” He did that, he says, by initiating a policy of starting town board meetings with prayers, offered up by local clergy members.
He also began a weekly prayer meeting in his office each Thursday morning. At one point, his prayer group went to the site of the Suffolk Theater to “lay hands” on the building and pray for its reopening.
Walter describes himself as a “pro-life conservative” and joined anti-abortion protestors outside the Riverhead Planned Parenthood office on East Main Street.
The “covering of God,” he said, prevented a volatile situation from exploding this year when town attorney Bob Kozakiewicz’s wife went on a racist rant on Facebook. Walter responded by saying the town should pray for the town attorney and his family.
“I didn’t want it to get heated up into something it wasn’t and I’m glad it didn’t,” Walter said. “That one board meeting could have been the worst that we had, but I believe that prayer — and I was a little preachy that meeting — I believe the covering of God in that board room made a huge difference,” Walter said.
“There’s huge race issues here,” Walter admitted. “But I don’t believe they’re anything we can’t solve, working together.”
Walter ends his tenure as the fifth-longest-serving town supervisor in the town’s 225-year history. He is one of a handful of men who were born and raised outside the town’s borders. He is the first man ever to hand the reins over to a woman.
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