Southold Trustee candidates debate in East Marion

The candidates for a Southold Town Trustee seat, Abigail Field and David Bergen, at Saturday's debate. (Credit: Tim Gannon)
The candidates for Southold Town Trustee, Democratic challenger Abigail Field and Republican incumbent Dave Bergen, at Saturday’s debate. (Credit: Tim Gannon)

The two candidates in the Southold Town Trustee special election agreed on most of the issues at an East Marion Community Association debate Saturday.

The Nov. 4 trustee election pits Republican incumbent Dave Bergen against Democratic challenger Abigail Field. 

The two Cutchogue residents seeeking the seat even complimented each other on a number of occasions during the event, which was held at the East Marion Firehouse.

Mr. Bergen has been a trustee for nine years, but not consecutively.

The Southold Town Republican Committee chose not to nominate the then-eight year incumbent for re-election in 2013, but when former Trustee Bob Ghosio was elected to the Southold Town Board, Mr. Bergen was appointed back to the Board of Trustees by a 4-2 vote.

The winner of the Nov. 4 election, the only town election on the ballot, will serve the remainder of Mr. Ghosio’s term.

Mr. Bergen is an associate dean at Suffolk Community Colege, a graduate of Southold High School and he holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Miami and a master’s degree from Texas A&M. He is involved in the Peconic Bay Sailing Association, the Cutchogue Cemetery Association and was previously a member of a citizen advisory committee for the Cutchogue Fire Department.

Mr. Bergen says that in his nine years as trustee he has helped squash the state’s proposed saltwater fishing license, he authored a law requiring safe disposal of prescription drugs, promoted the use of copper-free paints on boats, got three local creeks added to the county’s dredging list and secured grants to purchase pump-out boats in an effort to prevent boat effluent from being flushed into surface waters.

“I want to continue in this role,” he said. ” I want to continue to develop good relationships with people on the federal, state and county level to get things done, whether it be dredging or other projects that the trustees get involved in.”

Ms. Field, an attorney who moved to Southold from Shelter Island in 2011, is making her first local run for political office.

She also has a bachelor’s in geology from the University of Connecticut, as well as a law degree from NYU. She worked for two years as an environmental consultant assessing soil and groundwater contamination and was involved in a Long Island Sound cleanup campaign in Connecticut.

She said she left a New York City law firm to become a “public advocate” in New Jersey, taking an 85 percent salary cut in the process. In New Jersey, she says she helped pass laws and write regulations, and she helped to stop former New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine from selling the New Jersey Turnpike to Wall Street interests.

“My commitment to reducing nitrogen pollution, in particular, began when I was 12 years old, because I was moved to a cove in Connecticut, right across from Groton, that was heavily polluted by an illegal sewage pipe,” she said. “So I learned very firsthand about algal blooms, hypoxia, destruction of the eelgrass, loss of shellfish and the massive impact on your quality of  life that this can have.”

Here are the candidates positions on the issues they were asked about Saturday.

• Postion on “Oki-Do” 

The candidates were both asked their views on the Oki-Do Ltd project on the end of Shipyard Lane in East Marion, abutting Gardiner’s Bay, where property owner Dr. Kazuko Tatsumura Hillyer has proposed the “Shizen Hotel Wellness Center and Spa,” which would feature 114 guest rooms, a 195 seat restaurant and a 99-seat restaurant, a pool, three gazebos, 27 spa suits and a man-made lake on the 18.7 acre property that contained an abandoned oyster processing plant.

“It’s not legal under the zoning,” Ms. Field said, crediting Group for the East End with discovering that.

The property’s zoning allows only a transient motel, and the dining room use and spa are not permitted, she said.

“It’s incredibly clear on their application that this is a resort motel, which makes it illegal,” she said. “They would need a use variance, and I find it incredibly unlikely they could get that done.”

She acknowledged, however, the abandoned oyster factory is in very bad shape, and she would like to see a better use that would not have as big an impact on the community.

Mr. Bergen said that thanks to feedback from the public, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has ordered the application to go back the town planning board. He said the trustees, at this point, have no role in the application and will not until its gets planning and zoning approval, which he predicted will be “a very long process.”

“I think what is going to happen will be a tremendously downsized project, if any project at all,” he said.

Both candidates said trustees can’t change zoning. Ms. Bergen said that as a sitting trustee, he couldn’t comment on an active trustee application. Ms. Field said zoning must be done on a town-wide, comprehensive basis.

She suggested the site be used as a kelp farm.

• Buffers on shoreline projects

Mr. Bergen said there are two types of buffers: non-disturbance and non-turf buffers. In projects where someone is building a house or building, the trustees seek a non-disturbance buffer.

If there’s already a house there and the applicant wants to fix existing bulkhead , the trustees seek non-turf buffers, the difference being that non-turf buffers can be anything but grass.

The width of the buffers are determined on a case-by-case basis, and are not determined by a set number.

“Everything he said is correct,” Ms. Field said. She added that one of the reasons for non-turf buffers is to prevent fertilizers and pesticides from being carried from lawns into the water. She agreed that the size of the buffers should be determined on a case-by-case basis depending on the size of each property.

But she feels the trustees should approve “the maximum buffer we can make sense of.”

“You need a way for the stormwater to slow down and percolate [into the ground],” she said.

• Should the trustees allow rebuilding in coastal erosion hazard zones?

Ms. Field said that in areas where structures have been destroyed by storms, it must be looked at on a case-by-case basis, but that “my general bias” is against rebuilding.

“Property rights and values need to be respected, but you can’t fight Mother Nature endlessly, and we have to be very careful and thoughtful about how we rebuild,” she said.

Mr. Bergen said he doesn’t think new construction should be allowed in coastal erosion hazard zones. As for reconstruction, he said it must be done “in a manner that is environmentally sound.”

• What is the public’s right to walk the shoreline?

“The trustees do believe that the public has a right to walk the shoreline on public property, but not on private property,” Mr. Bergen said. However, he said, public beaches have eroded back to the point where the private property begins. He said even if someone allows people to walk on their private property, they open themselves up to liability if someone gets injured.

Ms. Field thinks the trustees should show the boundaries of what’s public and private on their web site and should instruct private dock owners in how to ensure the public’s right to the beach.

“There should be a sentence or two that says, ‘the public has a right to walk up to the high tide mark, and as a result, docks must provide a way around, over or under [to the public portion of the shoreline],” she said.

These things are already required by law, but many people don’t know it, she said.

• Position on shoreline hardening

“I believe in global warming and climate change,” Ms. Field said, adding that she feels the trustees should get up to speed on climate change impacts and incorporate that into decisions.

Ms. Field said that in general, she opposes shoreline hardening structures like jetties and revetments and bulkheads, although it may be appropriate in some individual cases.

“In general, I’m against hardening structures because it prevents the wetlands and the coastline from doing what it needs to do,” she said.

“Abigail hit the nail on the head,” Mr. Bergen said. “Every application has to be treated differently and looked at independently.”

The code doesn’t allow new bulkheads in the bay, but does allow “low sill” bulkhead in the creeks, which allows a wetland to be created behind the bulkhead, Mr. Bergen said.

The town also needs to encourage “living shorelines,” which involves planting certain types of plants on bluffs and banks to protect the shoreline, instead of using a hardened structure.

But Mr. Bergen said hardening structures are needed on Long Island Sound shorelines, as properties that don’t have bulkheads or revetments will encounter serious erosion.

• Should trustees be required to have periodic science-based training?

“Ideally, yes,” Mr. Bergen said, although he added that it’s often difficult for trustees to find the time to get off form their jobs and attend seminars, which could last several days.

“We need to be abreast of what’s happening, whether it be from a scientific perspective or a geology perspective or an engineering perspective to try and make the best decision possible when we’re reviewing all these applications,” he said.

The trustees also should continue to educate themselves on ways to reduce nitrogen pollution in waterways, he added.

“I absolutely agree that we should be making a significant effort to stay up to speed,” Ms. Field said. “What we do has longtime consequences when the trustees make decision.”

Ms. Field said Mr. Bergen is right in that it’s difficult to attend such courses, but that as an attorney, she is also required to stay up to date on legal issues, and she has often sought out online training programs to do so. Ms. Field said she looks forward to learning from the incumbent trustees.

• Pesticide spraying

An audience member asked about county spraying for mosquitoes and other insects, especially since some of the items being sprayed are protected by trade secrets from divulging their ingredients.

“Personally, I truly wish there was some other way of eradicating mosquitoes other than spraying,” Mr. Bergen said. “I would back any organic method that could accomplish that goal.”

But he added that trustees have no say in the matter because the county is exempt from requiring local permits to spray.

“I’m very disturbed when trade-secret chemicals are getting sprayed around here,” Ms. Field said. “We have a real crisis out here, whether it be the mosquitoes or ticks.”

• Trustees on TV?

Southold Democratic chairman Art Tillman asked why trustee meetings aren’t shown on public television, the way Town Board meetings are.

Mr. Bergen said the trustees have asked for it, and were told that as part of a franchise agreement the Town Board is negotiating with Cablevision, the trustee meetings will be televised at some point in the future.

He said he also pushed to get the minutes of trustee meetings put on the town website, which they now are.

Ms. Field said she’s happy to hear that, but she said the trustees minutes that are on the website

Ms. Field said she’s happy to hear that, in part because the trustees minutes that are on the website often have spots marked inaudible and can contain errors.

Editor’s Note:  The meeting Saturday also featured a debate between incumbent Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) and challenger Tom Schiliro (D-Manorville) in which the questions and answers were very similar to the questions and answers given by the two in prior debates.

[email protected]