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Guest Column: 4 deadly sins of Riverhead’s Town Board
This is part one of a two-part opinion piece. The next will be published in the May 3 News-Review.
The recent special permits vote for the Village at Jamesport project afforded a good opportunity to view our Town Board members in action. Each of four principal problems that plague this administration was on view. The reputation of a town is determined by the behavior of its leaders. This week, we’ll look at “pretense” and “gall.”
What follow are fact-based observations; there will be no speculation as to motives.
We’ll skip the question of whether Town Board members really studied the impact of this project and determined it would deliver net benefits to the community. It’s enough, for now, to compare their real vs. published reasons for approving the special use permits.
On one hand, we have nicely drafted resolutions that follow the format of the relevant Town Code approval procedures and list benefits the permits will deliver. Significantly, tax revenues are not given as an advantage for either the bistro or office uses.
On the other hand, we have the stated reasons of several Board members: “This adds to the tax base.” “My thing is tax base.” “I have to vote yes because of the tax base.” “We have to create some tax base in this town.” These are their actual statements to constituents, uttered as they voted to accept resolutions that said nothing of the sort. (One Board member was quoted in the press as also saying he was trying to make the project “nicer looking.” As exterior design of the buildings is disconnected from the special uses decision and was not addressed by this process, the meaning is obscure.)
What board members apparently didn’t understand — despite the fact that it was repeatedly stated by speakers at the meeting, and in previous correspondence — was that they were choosing between Plan “A” and Plan “B,” both of which yield the same tax revenues. The chair of the assessor’s office was in attendance during the vote and confirmed afterward that this was the case.
Each board member who pretended to support the resolutions as drafted while actually voting for other reasons committed an act of deceit. Each Town Board member who approved the special permits “because of the tax base” committed a gross error, ignoring the facts.
They gave away the store — and got nothing in return.
When all else fails, just make things up to support your case; that’s how some folks operate. And while it’s not known who actually penned the “justification” found in these resolutions, board members who voted presumably read them.
The most important determination was whether advantages of the special uses outweighed the disadvantages. While board members appeared to consider no disadvantages, they did identify three benefits for the bistro use and two benefits for the office use. In each case, one of those benefits was a “significant reduction” in weekend trips to the project site, “resulting in less traffic congestion and vehicle related noise.”
Sounds great, but there’s just one problem: The SEQRA findings on this project say the opposite. That’s right — the special uses will generate more weekend traffic. In fact, the plan the board just approved will generate more traffic every day. (Details of the SEQRA findings can be found below.)
In case the numbers weren’t clear, the SEQRA findings called the special uses traffic a “marginal increase.” The resolutions the board approved called it a “significant reduction.”
Only two advantages cited for the offices, and three for the bistros, and in each case, one of the advantages was actually a disadvantage. Pretty grim.
We’ve all seen this sort of behavior, when scientists “cook the data” to support their hypotheses. Here, our elected officials didn’t even bother to alter the data; they just stated the desired conclusion.
How could they do this? The same way they could pretend resolutions weren’t ready at the preceding Town Board work session, and then change them on the fly during the board meeting, so that the details of what they were voting on stayed hidden until after the dust had cleared. The same way they could simply ignore the multitude of substantive errors and omissions in the environmental impact statement. And all they told us, with each new problem revealed, was, “It wouldn’t have changed my vote.”
Quintessential gall. When facts don’t matter, the process is just for show.
And with all the professed concern for being fair to the developer, how can board members rationalize making him spend a fortune and eight years on impact studies, when in the end they ignore the reports and just shoot from the hip?
When elected officials are not held accountable for their actions, this is the behavior voters can expect. And it’s the reason Riverhead is the new Brookhaven: You can build anything anywhere, because we’ll either rewrite the rules or ignore them.
Brookhaven Blight is sure to follow.
Larry Simms owns a home in South Jamesport, is a principal in a firm that licenses commercial flooring technology and is active in savemainroad.org.