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Southold Town candidates address environmental issues at forum

Southold Town supervisor candidate forum

Wastewater treatment, water quality and natural resource protection were among the issues discussed by the candidates for Southold Town supervisor at an environmental forum at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Cutchogue Monday night.

Hosted by the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, the forum was moderated by North Fork Environmental Council president Bill Toedter. Republican Town Supervisor Scott Russell and Democratic challenger Damon Rallis took turns answering questions, with only one candidate allowed in the room at a time.

“We think it’s very important to compare apples to apples about what people are saying about these issues and for you to come away with your own conclusions,” Mr. Toedter told the crowd of about 50 people.

Joshua Klainberg, senior vice president of NYLCV, said his group believes “candidates should have the freedom and flexibility to talk about in longer form the issues that they’re concerned about the most.”

“It’s a forum, not a debate,” he said. “There are a lot of debates that happen out there and as watchers of debates style trumps substance and you kind of lose what the issues are all about.”

Prior to Monday’s forum, each candidate was given a list of about 10 questions, which Mr. Toedter said was created through a collective effort among community groups. Of those questions, several were chosen. In addition, audience questions were submitted in writing just prior to the forum and there was also an opportunity for residents to ask questions from the floor.

This is what each candidate had to say:

On septic, fertilizer and pesticide issues and ways to improve water quality:
Damon Rallis: We need to work with our regional partners throughout the county, particularly on the East End … We have major development projects in front of us — The Heritage is one right now. If that project has to move forward, it’s possible, in fact truth, that the town can insist that they put in some sort of treatment system on site to handle their own wastewater … We can’t keep saying: ‘This is the county’s problem.’ We have to do it here ourselves … Fertilizers: All of these things tie together. We need to do more to educate the public, whether we’re talking about septic systems, the use of fertilizers, native plants. We need to educate the public about what they can do to preserve our water quality … We could also be doing more to look for subsidies, incentives, so the individual homeowner can afford to put in one of these alternate treatment systems.
Scott Russell: I’ve talked to the planning director about creating a water resource management committee … With regard to pesticides and fertilizers, there’s a program run through Cornell Cooperative Extension called Agriculture Environment Management … They come in and meet with the farmers to discuss best management practices. Why is it beneficial to the farmer? Because he can reduce cost by utilizing fertilizer at an optimum time and doesn’t have to use so much … By working with these groups and developing a management plan with the farmers, I think it could lead to a great deal of success in the town. One of the problems with this program is it may be a little underfunded and I think the East End towns and the county should create a consortium.

On helping to increase children’s and young adults’ awareness about protecting the environment and showing them that professional opportunities exist locally:
Rallis: We don’t do enough in Southold Town for our youth. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about education on the environment, prevention education for drugs and alcohol, or just providing them something to do so that they don’t sort of go in the wrong direction … We recently talked about making a zone change from residential to commercial. I sort of wondered why we would consider that when we have so many empty commercial properties. Maybe we could offer some incentives to bring some industry back here.
Russell: Shortly after I became supervisor, I reconvened the town’s youth bureau. We’ve had a great working relationship with the schools and gotten students involved with several environmental initiatives. One group developed a recycling brochure. Another was the creation of the environmental club at Greenport High School … Phillip Beltz is retiring over the next few weeks … He’s taken on the youth bureau and his program has grown. My concern with his retirement, the program might languish, or frankly, it might die … What I’d like to do in the budget I’m proposing Wednesday is to call for a part-time youth bureau director.

On coastal issues and protecting marine ecosystems:
Rallis: In Southold, we’ve got to stop believing we’re this municipality that’s inside a bubble and we can address all of our problems on our own … We need to do more to prevent further development in coastal erosion hazardous areas. We’ve talked about the illegal clearing of wetlands. The bottom line is code enforcement, code enforcement, code enforcement. People will continue to do bad things if you do not stop them.
Russell: Our natural resource chapter of our Comprehensive Master Plan calls for the creation of a coastal resilience management plan … Most of the houses built are pre-existing nonconforming structures. They were built long before zoning was in place … Maybe the fact that the front porch is set back only 30 feet from the bulkhead isn’t as important as where that septic system is or updated to a new sanitary system … We need to change the code. Right now, we define knockdowns as 75 percent or more structure … If you’re going to reconstruct a structure that’s on the same footprint and same height, we should probably recognize it provided that you install a new sanitary system and provided you install it well outside that area — set it back as far as you can … You can reduce your buffers with smart vegetation and reduce the runoff into the bay.

On permitting peaker plant construction:
Rallis: To be honest, I would really have to investigate it more before I took a stand on it.
Russell: I supported a proposal for a peaker plant down at the landfill. They don’t run all of the time … They aren’t producing the amount of carbon a traditional facility would. They’re nominally used only at critical times, but we all have to remember it’s $50 million worth of real property going on down there. I don’t think it’s going to happen at this point. PSEG has pulled back on the construction of new facilities, but it’s $50 million. I don’t have a lot of ways of growing the tax base. One of the ways I can do that is encouraging investment … Fifteen acres of the landfill will be leased up and covered with a photovoltaic array of about 5 acres per megawatt.

On minimizing invasive species and educating the public and town employees about active management practices:
Rallis: Education is key … Similar to wastewater treatment on major development projects, I think we could do more. We have a right as a municipality to ensure that these folks are using native species. We don’t need green lawns everywhere. One of the most detrimental invasive species is our deer population … We have to make sure we’re listening to the experts, whether it’s the deer management committee, Audubon Society, Defend H20.
Russell: Phragmites is very difficult to remove and generally requires hand digging. Southold has a no spray policy — we don’t allow pesticides on town lands … We do need to step up management.

On how the town’s land preservation committee is doing:
Rallis: They are doing a great job preserving farmland and open space, but the Community Preservation Fund is more than preserving farmland and open space. Assemblyman Fred Thiele suggested recently that we look into using 20 percent of our CPF funding for water quality issues. I don’t think it’s a bad idea.
Russell: We’ve been [producing management plans], but we need to step up that and I think the land preservation committee realizes that … New York state has a $5 million environmental protection bond that’s being proposed — it’s been three years and no action. We need it … If we’re successful in creating an East End Septic System Repair District, we’re going to need resources … One of our weaknesses is management, but we’re going to step up our game and get better.

On the town banning single-use plastic bags:
Rallis: I came out in support of a plastic bag ban … It’s the right thing to do. People need a little push once in awhile. Do we want to make people’s lives miserable? No … But let’s face it. It’s a small step. We could take a leadership role here. Other towns have done it … Petitions have been brought to the Town Board. Clearly there are people who want it. I think at the very least we can direct Town Hall staff to create legislation, bring it to a public hearing and let the Town Board vote on it.
Russell: I don’t support a ban at this point. I think Suffolk County is in an excellent position to affect real change and provide a level playing field. Suffolk County has tools that Southold Town doesn’t have, such as a user tax … Alternatives such as paper or compostable plastic is about nine times more in cost than single use bags … I think it’s unrealistic, and I know you’ll disagree, that people will change their buying habits overnight.

On addressing noise complaints, especially live music during the summer:
Rallis: I hear it. It annoys me. It bothers me. I deal with it … I’m sure everyone read The Suffolk Times editorial about the rental law, but they got into the noise ordinance. There were quite a few complaints since we enacted that law and there’s only been 13 violations issued to two different entities. There’s a problem there. There’s no excuses for that … Changing the noise ordinance — I don’t think that’s necessarily the approach … I have a few ideas. As crazy as it sounds, it worked in New York City: issuing cabaret licenses. You can say what type of music you can have outside. There’s nothing wrong with an acoustic guitar outside. I can’t hear that. What I can hear is the DJ … Why not start giving fines in the first place. It’s ridiculous to say you’re going to look at the code and figure out ways to change it if you’re not enforcing it.
Russell: The noise code has a glitch and excludes specials events … We need to revisit that and close that loophole. Of course it’s easier said than done because we don’t want to catch the Strawberry Festival … We also need enforcement, but I need to get the police department tools. The budget I’m proposing Wednesday will put noise meters in every police car … so that we can take immediate readings and if there’s a violation we can enforce it in court. Training is a critical component to that … A lot of it is perceptions about the code and false expectations or high hopes, but I’m willing to revisit the code, although I do think that other than the glitch with the special events, we could probably achieve more just through enforcement.

On creating legislation to address smoke concerns coming from fire pits:
Rallis: I’ve had a lot of bonfires on the beach. I don’t want to change our historic quality of life here, but I also don’t want things to get out of control. I think that’s something we need to look into.
Russell: I would hesitate to regulate people using their properties as they see fit … I think we have so many other environmental issues that really need to take center stage.

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Photo: Republican Town Supervisor Scott Russell, right, and Democratic challenger Damon Rallis spoke separately at Monday’s forum. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)