The citizens of Riverhead Town go to the polls Tuesday to choose two new council members and a new supervisor — a new Town Board majority that will determine the course of the town’s future for years to come.
It is the most consequential local election in recent memory. And, in retrospect, there have been some very consequential local elections over the past decade — elections resulting in leadership that brought Riverhead to this very moment in history.
Voters confront a tough decision.
Riverhead has largely been run by Republicans for most of its existence, with a few brief exceptions. In many ways, they have succeeded in governing — in other ways, they have failed miserably.
The town’s Democratic party has had difficulty mounting coherent campaigns, let alone electing their candidates to office. They have for years struggled to make a case for why voters should give them the reins. Much of their platform has been — and continues to be — pointing at the failures of the Republicans and saying: “We’re not them. Vote for us, please.”
So voters who are thinking about what to do this year face a dilemma.
Land use and development are always the big issues in local elections. After all, those are the central focus of a town government’s domain. On the table this year, perhaps more than ever before, is the future of the Calverton Enterprise Park, also known as EPCAL. Also on the table is the completion and implementation of the long-overdue, and very expensive, comprehensive plan update, which is a plan intended to govern land use policy for a generation.
Generally, Republicans have been extremely supportive of almost any development. They have approved — or maintained without amendment — zoning codes that allow the development currently proposed around town. Republicans consider themselves “business friendly” and believe in supporting businesses and developers in the hope of growing the town’s commercial tax base and jobs.
That’s all well and good. After all, who doesn’t want to pay less property taxes and who doesn’t want sustainable jobs that pay a living wage? Somehow, though, the goals of lower taxes and sustainable jobs remain out of reach.
And the Riverhead Town Board has often given its pro-business, pro-development philosophy a higher priority than smart planning practices, leading to many of the inadequacies of the town’s zoning code and outright failure to enforce some of its provisions. Will this change if the Town Board continues in Republican control? Will the comp plan update be implemented in a meaningful way? Will it be implemented by new codes at all? Or will the plan be relegated to a collection of “suggestions?” Will codes adopted in the future take so long to adopt, or contain so many exemptions and “grandfather” provisions that, in the end, the whole thing will be merely an academic exercise?
None of us has a crystal ball, but we can only predict what will happen based on past performance. And that performance is, at best, unsettling. We’ve seen the things that concern us play out over and over again here in Riverhead.
We’ve seen the Town Board agree to exempt developers that have already submitted project applications from amendments to the Riverhead Town code — or just flat-out not adopt those code revisions at all. This leaves the likelihood that, should Republicans continue to control the board, if the board even wants to codify the recommendations of the comp plan update, the town will allow for developers to reap the benefits of a two-decades-old zoning ordinance that doesn’t represent the community’s vision for its own future — or address new stresses and demands brought by technology in the past two decades. Logistics centers to satisfy e-commerce demands and battery energy storage facilities needed to make renewable energy sustainable are the most important and visible examples.
But the Democratic candidates have not offered much of a counter. They say they want to follow the comprehensive plan update, but don’t have a vision of their own. They would rather tell you what they don’t want to see: massive warehouses and logistics centers — which is coincidentally, or not, the same things that the Republicans have recently begun to say they don’t want, either.
Democrats have long opposed the sale of EPCAL land to CAT/Triple Five but lack a vision for an alternative. One candidate says the town should look to the comp plan update on that question, but the comp plan update is not dealing with EPCAL at all. Otherwise, the most we’ve heard is, it will have to be studied. This is not the first Democratic slate to oppose this sale — which, after all, has been pending since 2018. By now, the Democratic Party should have come up with some ideas about what should come next. Especially since opposition to the CAT/Triple Five land deal is the centerpiece of the Democrats’ campaign.
The Republicans during this campaign have come out in opposition to the CAT/Triple Five sale. They’d like us all to forget that successive Republican-controlled town boards got us into this deal to begin with.
They brought in Luminati Aerospace and Daniel Preston — whose past was filled with outlandish and false claims — and the Triple Five group, which has amassed a pile of financial and legal woes, including allegations of racketeering.
It’s true that GOP supervisor candidate and incumbent Council Member Tim Hubbard did not vote for the contract in 2017, but he did cast the deciding vote, after being on the fence about it, with two other Republican board members to find the company “qualified and eligible” to buy and develop the property. During that vote, one of the Republican’s council candidates, Joann Waski, sat in the front row with other Republican committee members, cheering him on. How the Republicans didn’t see the red flags — but rather embraced them — is beyond comprehension.
Then they fumbled getting final approval of the land subdivision needed to actually sell the land, and refused to cancel the contract — which the terms of the contract gave the town the right to do. The reason given? The town’s legal counsel, they said, advised them that canceling the contract would lead to a lawsuit by Triple Five, and the property would be tied up in court for years. They were taking advice from the same legal counsel that negotiated the contract, by the way.
This path eventually led to the town’s decision to punt the deal to the Riverhead Industrial Development Agency, which more than a year later, on Oct. 23, denied Triple Five/CAT’s application for financial assistance. Among the reasons given by the IDA: the applicant’s failure to provide full financial disclosure. The Town Board then hurried to vote to cancel the contract, a right negotiated in a 2022 “letter agreement” that modified the contract approved in 2017.
One question on many people’s minds is what happens if Triple Five/CAT sues the town now, as it has already threatened in response to the board’s Oct. 24 resolution declaring the contract “null and void?” Will the town’s legal counsel advise the board to cut their losses and settle with Triple Five/CAT because of technical deficiencies in the “letter agreement” or for any other reason? If the lawyer gives the board that advice, will the board settle the lawsuit and sell the property to Triple Five/CAT after all?
Voters can’t help but conclude that Republicans have been a colossal failure when it comes to the redevelopment of EPCAL. They also can’t help but wonder if the Democrats would actually be any better, given their lack of anything resembling a plan for the future of the site.
We think your choice in this election comes down to this:
If you think the current administration is striking the right chord with development — whether at EPCAL, downtown, Route 58, Sound Avenue or Middle Country Road in Calverton, then vote Republican. We sincerely doubt that a Supervisor Hubbard and the two new council members, seated beside the existing Republican incumbents, will bring about any real change to what’s been done in the past.
If you don’t want the town to continue on the same path, then make a wish and vote for the Democrats. Maybe you’re worried or fed up enough to take a chance on a slate that’s — at best — light on specifics. Maybe this year “we’re not them” will be enough for a large enough segment of voters that turn out to the polls tomorrow and a Democratic majority will be elected. What comes next we can’t honestly say.
Sure there are other important issues that divide the candidates. But the future of EPCAL — especially now that voters have become educated on how truly bad the wrong development there can be for the town — and the future of land use planning and control are the two most important issues that will set the table for every other issue that follows: from law enforcement budgets, to the town’s ability to provide clean drinking water to its residents, to the cost of upgrading the town’s aging infrastructure to handle new development, to addressing affordability of housing for the next generation of adults who want to settle in their hometown and raise their families here, just to name a few.
We have covered these topics and countless others both before and during the election season. We recommend that you go to our election coverage web page and check out our candidate profiles and interviews. Take some time to watch a video of one of the candidate forums hosted by a civic organization in September. Read, listen, watch and, most of all, think. Your choice Tuesday should not be a mere reflex.
Whatever you decide and for whatever reasons, Riverhead needs your vote. Your local government controls your town property tax dollars. It governs public safety, sanitation, and other essential services and overall quality of life right here, in your backyard. And a local election is the election that you, as a citizen of the United States, can influence the most. Do your part.
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