Town officials are not happy with our report last week about the creation of the proposed “Agri-tourism Inn & Resort” code that would allow resort construction north of Sound Avenue, along the bluffs of the Long Island Sound, in an area presently zoned for residential and agricultural uses. 

Supervisor Tim Hubbard, who until after the article was published on Jan. 30, largely claimed ignorance of the work put into the code’s drafting by attorneys and planning consultants paid for by the developer whose proposed resort project will directly benefit from the adoption of the code. Just to be clear, the proposed resort project cannot be developed without the code amendment now scheduled for a public hearing later this month.

The supervisor has publicly complained that the Jan. 30 article suggested the code “came about improperly” and did a “disservice” to  “some of the hardest working staff” on the town payroll by making them look bad.  Read the supervisor’s column responding to the article here.

The article, thoroughly researched and fastidiously reported by Alek Lewis, did not “suggest” anything. It laid out the facts he uncovered by using the tools provided by state law to access public records. And he reported what those records showed. He did so clearly, accurately and objectively. Facts are pesky things.

If the records tell a story that indicates the code “came about improperly,”  the supervisor, as the town’s executive officer, should be looking into that, and correcting any problems that may exist, rather than looking to cast aspersions on the journalist and the publication that reported the facts.

It would appear that the real “problem” the supervisor and others have with what was reported is that we reported it at all. And that, as the saying goes, is not our problem.

Yet it’s something we’ve dealt with, often very aggressively, for the four years of the prior administration, where every article published — indeed every question asked — was met by the previous supervisor with hostility and bullying, along with public name-calling and accusations that this publication was some kind of partisan tool for her political opponents. We never responded publicly to those attacks, even when they crossed the line of actionable defamation — such as fabricated statements that our publication was going out of business. I was not about to stoop to that level and allow RiverheadLOCAL to be dragged into the gutter for some sort of street-fight. Supervisor Hubbard knows this, as we discussed this behavior several times over those four long years.

That’s one reason why Supervisor Hubbard’s reaction to reporting he doesn’t like — while more polite than his predecessor’s, at least publicly — is especially worrisome. He seemed to understand and he promised transparency.

Let’s be clear. We have one agenda here. It is captured succinctly in the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics: “Seek truth and report it.” 

That often means holding public officials accountable for their actions. It means doing everything we can, with the limited resources we have as a local news organization, to be the eyes and ears of the public — to understand how tax dollars are spent, to examine how public policies and decisions affecting all of our lives are being made by the people we elect to public office and the people they appoint to carry out the policies they set. And to report on what we see, hear and learn accurately, fairly and completely — with context so residents can fully understand the issues.

If that makes any elected or appointed official uncomfortable — or angry — so be it.

Over the nearly 25 years I’ve spent observing, reporting on and writing about Riverhead Town government — and the four prior years I spent as a town council member myself, from Jan. 1, 1988 to Dec. 31, 1991— I’ve seen, time and again, politicians and political appointees try to deflect, dodge and blame others for things they do that they do that don’t sit well with their constituents. 

I understand that reporters who report things they’d rather not have reported will be demonized and cast as enemies who are “out to get” them. I believe our readers understand how this works, too. 

Finally, I’d like to address the claim that the participation of the developer’s representatives — its attorneys and planning consultants — in crafting a code that, on its face, is tailor-made for the developer’s particular project is how it’s always been done, as the supervisor has said. 

I have sincere doubts about this, as I’ve never seen anything like this. But maybe past efforts were so successfully kept in the background that I was unaware. That’s certainly possible.

In an effort to verify the supervisor’s and staff’s statements that this was “business as usual,” Alek Lewis has begun submitting records requests under the N.Y. State Freedom of Information Law pertaining to the other codes Supervisor Hubbard gave as examples of past “assistance” by developers’ lawyers and consultants that match what took place with the “Agri-tourism Inn & Resort” code. If past experience is any indication, it will take quite some time before the records request is fulfilled. By then, the “Agri-tourism Inn & Resort” code may well have been adopted, leaving the public in the dark about what really did or did not happen here. 

I’m calling on the supervisor to instruct Town Attorney Erik Howard and Planning/Community Development/Economic Development Director Dawn Thomas to publicly release the records pertaining to the assisted living amendment to the Retirement Community code, the Community Benefit code, the Hospital Overlay District and the 1992 enactment of the Manufacturers Outlet zoning. Also, please ensure the town provides a full and complete response to our FOIL requests for those documents quickly.

Meanwhile, we are today releasing the documents provided by the town in response to Alek Lewis’ Dec. 1 records request. The public can judge for itself what these documents say about the process followed by the town — and also whether these documents were unfairly characterized in our Jan. 30 report, as is now being claimed.

The town’s response to Alek’s records request was incomplete. Copies of emails provided by the town refer to attached documents that were not provided in response to the request. The email correspondence also refers to conversations and meetings for which the town provided no documentation — the records request sought meeting notes as well as correspondence and other documents, all of which are public records under state law.

Probably most significant of the documents not provided was the one referred to in VHB principal Terri Elkowitz’s July 18, 2023 email as “attached” showing “tracked changes” to the language of the code as it neared what   Deputy Town Attorney Annemarie Prudenti referred to on July 19 as the “final version.”  This document will likely provide an accurate snapshot of the evolution of the code from Prudenti’s Feb. 14, 2023 “very rough draft” — referred to as an “outline” by the developer’s attorney in a reply email that day — and the draft code supplied by the developer’s lawyer on May 23, 2023, to the version of the code now set for a Feb. 21 public hearing before the Town Board. The public has a right to see this.

Likewise the public has a right to see the “SEQRA documentation” prepared by VHB, which was hired by the developer to handle this work for the town, according to lawyer Eric Russo’s April 13, 2023 email to Community Development Director Dawn Thomas. 

The State Environmental Quality Review Act requires a full environmental assessment form for this action. Since this code affects more than 25 acres of land, and amends the town’s transfer of development rights program, it is a Type 1 action under SEQRA, which requires the preparation of an environmental impact statement. Prudenti has publicly stated that the proposed code complies with the 2003 comprehensive plan, which the town is currently updating. Since that 2003 plan had a full environmental impact statement done to support it, the logic goes, a new EIS is not needed. The public has a right to see how that justification was arrived at by the developer’s planning consultants.

I think it’s germane to note that the developer’s planning consultant, Terri Elkowitz, gave a 36-page affidavit in support of a lawsuit brought by Certilman Balin Adler & Hyman in 2005 seeking to overturn the zoning code that implemented the town’s 2003 comprehensive plan. In her affidavit, Elkowitz called the comprehensive plan’s environmental impact analyses “self-serving conclusions that are, at best, propaganda…” (The town in 2011 hired Elkowitz’s firm, VHB, to conduct a land use study and develop a new reuse plan and a subdivision for the Calverton Enterprise Park.)

There are a lot of gaps here, too many to draw any firm conclusions about the development of the Agri-tourism Inn & Resort code. But what we’ve seen so far has raised a lot of questions and we intend to keep asking those questions and pressing for answers — and documents.

That’s not being “unfair” to anyone or “implying” anything. It’s doing our job.

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