Democratic Trustee challengers took aim at their Republican opponents Tuesday on the issues of water pollution and public beach access at a candidates’ forum sponsored by The Suffolk Times and hosted by Peconic Landing in Greenport.
Democratic challengers Geoffrey Wells, Joseph Finora and William Funke are opposing incumbent Republican Town Trustees John Bredemeyer and Mike Domino and Republican challenger Charles Sanders for three open seats on the board.
Here’s what the candidates had to say about the issues.
All the candidates agreed that water pollution, specifically nitrogen loading, is a major and ongoing issue facing Southold Town.
When nitrogen gets into streams, ponds, Long Island Sound and Peconic Bay, it causes an overgrowth of algae, which sucks up oxygen in the water, the candidates said.
Mr. Bredemeyer and Mr. Domino said the board is keenly aware of groundwater conditions and, as a waterfront community with a strong agricultural industry, monitoring nitrate levels is a top priority.
Mr. Bredemeyer said the Trustees base permitting on science and work with sister regulatory agencies, such as the state Department of Environment Conservation, to control water contamination.
It’s a system Mr. Domino says doesn’t need fixing.
“Things are getting better in Southold Town,” he said. “We have to use scientific data to find out what we need to address first.”
Mr. Finora said he believes Southold Town does a better job than municipalities further west, but he suggested there’s room for improvement.
He and Mr. Wells said the primary source of Southold’s nitrate problem is not the farmer, but failing residential septic systems.
“Leaching is happening on a daily basis,” Mr. Wells said. “It is a very serious situation.”
Mr. Wells suggested that the Trustees revisit the manner in which town septic systems are monitored and reach out to other communities dealing with the issue of nitrate pollution, giving Cape Cod as an example. In recent years, several towns on the Cape have adopted legislation to oblige homeowners to purchase new septic systems to reduce nitrogen output, according to news reports.
While stating that nitrates are “the single worst problem” facing the Trustees, Mr. Funke said it would be unfair to ask residents to pay for expensive upgrades to their septic systems.
Mr. Finora disagreed sharply with his fellow Democrat.
“Little by little, we are losing the battle,” he said. “People will realize it’s better to have clean water than green grass.”
PUBLIC BEACH ACCESS
Where does waterfront beach property cross over to public land?
The Democratic challengers argued that the present town government hasn’t been doing enough to protect Southolders’ right to walk along local beaches.
The issue was brought to the forefront of the campaign two weeks ago, when the full slate of Democrats running for town offices — all currently all held by Republicans — purchased an advertisement in The Suffolk Times claiming that “some people” want to take away residents’ beach access.
During the debate, Mr. Finora said the ad was designed in response to an issue the public was bringing up “time and time again.”
The New York State Public Trust Doctrine says that anything seaward of the mean high water mark on the beach is public land and anything landward of the mean high water mark on the beach is private property. The wrack line, where debris washes up on the beach, is often considered an informal high tide mark, but it can change from day to day.
Mr. Finora and Mr. Wells said the town is responsible for drawing the line in the sand.
“We need to create a system where the community is involved in deciding were the mean high water mark is,” Mr. Wells said.
Republican hopefuls said the law is on the books and it is an enforcement issue outside the town Trustees’ purview.
“If you are doing something inappropriate, the bay constable should show up,” Mr. Bredemeyer said.
Mr. Funke said beach access “doesn’t seem like it is that much of a problem” and agreed with the Republicans’ stance on enforcement.
“I’m not sure what we can do with the wrack line, we certainly can’t monument it,” he said. “The people that are involved should just step down and stop fighting.”
TRUSTEE REPORT CARD
The current Board of Trustees is doing fairly well, according to hopefuls on both sides of the party line.
When asked to give current Trustees a letter grade, Mr. Wells gave a “B” rating.
“They uphold code and work hard,” he said. “However, they don’t reach out to the community.”
Mr. Wells feels the Trustees need to step up communication efforts with the public and make the process of applying for permits more transparent and easier for the average citizen to follow.
Incumbent Mr. Domino disagreed, saying members are accessible to the public and rewarding the board an “A+” grade.
“We hit all the bullet points in the mission statement,” he said.
Mr. Sanders echoed Mr. Domino’s response, while Mr. Finora and Mr. Bredemeyer said the voters would answer that question on Nov. 5.
Mr. Funke declined to respond.
“How am I supposed to know?” he said.