Southold Town Board candidates attend community forum in Orient

Traffic, affordable housing and agritainment were among several issues discussed by this year’s Southold Town Board candidates on Saturday at a community forum in Orient.

Councilman Jim Dinizio, a Conservative, and Republican Councilman Bob Ghosio are seeking second terms and will face Democrats Mary Eisenstein and Debbie O’Kane in November’s election.

The East Marion Community Association and Orient Association hosted Saturday’s forum at Poquatuck Hall in Orient.

Read below for the candidates’ responses to some of the questions asked during the debate.

Question: Should farms and wineries be made more responsible for traffic congestion and, if so, how can we make them more responsive? How would that relate to your suggestion about the creation of parking space?

Bob Ghosio: I think it’s fairly obvious that one of the problems we have in town is the influx of traffic, particularly in the farm, wine and agritainment industries. What we’re seeing is a product of our own success … The town is investigating legal ways of mandating off-site parking. We’re also working on codes that we can pass so we ensure we have traffic control at these locations … and somehow figure out the legality and a way of having a code that passes that cost on to the business owners, the farm owners who are creating these problems. As far as how it relates to my idea of creating parking, one of the things I’ve said is that we may have to get to the point where we to have designed parking facilities in our town that are not only integrated in our community, but also creates a place for us to have parking to go to. And people can go to, to perhaps get on a trolley, which we’re trying out this year, and get people who visit our town into a location where they can park their cars and go to the various venues we have and be able to enjoy what we have here without clogging our roads … I also believe we need to work with, and we are working with, the East End Transportation Commission, where we’re trying to get the MTA to work with us in creative ways to get people in and out that alleviate some of the traffic problems.

Question: You have suggested a bus system that would reduce traffic and improve quality of life. How would you fund this and where would people park to access this?

Debbie O’Kane: What I am recommending is we work with a consultant to really get a handle on the big, big picture here — not just piecemeal. Not just a trolley here and increased train service over there. We really need to have an integrated public transportation system … We can possibly put together a tourism improvement district. Rather than the burden being on us, we can charge an extra dollar. In other words, when someone is staying at the Soundview or a B&B and they’re coming out here, an extra dollar a bed per night is not going to be a huge burden on anyone, but it could definitely, definitely help put together a pot of money.

Question: You have opposed subsidies for homeowners’ advanced wastewater systems and suggested instead that a system to pump wastewater away from creeks might be needed to deal with the nitrogen problem. Are you advocating a sewage treatment system for all of Southold and how would you pay for it?

Jim Dinizio: I wouldn’t say I oppose subsidies, but especially where Orient is concerned … how would we tackle that problem with lots that are 50 to 60 feet wide, houses all close together, everything right on the bay, whether or not systems that are being proposed would be usable on such small lots … I think it’s a good idea to getting that nitrogen as far away from our groundwater as possible and allowing it to do what it has to do to dissipate … As far as subsidising that, I don’t know. Maybe we make a district and that district might do it. I would probably be for that. As far as using the entire town’s money, I don’t know if that’s something I would be in favor of.

Question: You’ve expressed ambivalence at short-term rentals. How do we support property rights while preventing Southold from becoming Southampton?

Mary Eisenstein: My ambivalence has to do with my understanding of property rights. People feel very strongly about property rights. However, there is also the responsibility to the greater community and I do believe when we think about our community it is based on a community of neighbors … We’re in a new economy with Airbnb and Uber and Lyft and they’re not going away. How do we square property rights and the responsibilities for the community? I do believe that the short-term rental law was an important first step and here we are two years into it. I think that we should come together again with real estate agents, with civic members and some members of the business community and the code enforcer and sit down and look at what’s the data that we have … my opinion is we look at the data and tweak it going forward.

Question: You’ve been a strong proponent of the need to protect water quality issues. Now that the Community Preservation Fund has increased, would you support the use of about 20 percent of these funds for water quality issues?

Bob Ghosio: Before I answer that question, I just want to take a step back to the short term rental code question. Ambivalence is kind of an understatement. When we brought that up … Democrats came out strongly against it. The fact of the matter is I believe when you purchase a home in a neighborhood, you have a preconceived expectation that you’re going to live in a neighborhood. You’re not going to live in a neighborhood full of [tourists] … I was a little up in the air about using the CPF and creating part of that CPF fund for use of water quality issues. I really thought we should have created a different fund, a more regional fund. Because, frankly, there’s more money coming from East Hampton and Southampton that would have been available to us to address what I believe is a much more regional problem. But to answer the question, yes, I would support, at this point, using part of our CPF funding for water quality issues.

Question: What town code or policies would you add, eliminate or change to help ensure local agriculture survives in 21st century?

Debbie O’Kane: First off, I’d just like to talk a little bit about the short-term rental question. Yes, two years ago I ran and we were definitely against what the town was proposing because we felt very strongly that we needed a permit process. Obviously, there are a lot of violations out there. This is not working …  We need a permit process where we have more oversight and more control over what’s happening in our community … Part of the specialness [of the community] is because we have an incredible agricultural base … In terms of changing things, I think our code is pretty tight. When it comes to agriculture with the vineyards, probably, there are definitely some issues we need to be looking at comprehensively … We have to make sure this place does not have to turn into agritainment … but we need to promote farming and buying local. I think the town needs to take more of a proactive, educational approach and we need to keep supporting our farmers.

Question: The town will soon be receiving affordable housing funds from the Heritage project  and possibly other developers. Would you support a program of town sponsored and possibly subsidized affordable housing? [Editor’s note: The Heritage project, or The Heritage at Cutchogue, is now called Harvest Pointe]

Jim Dinizio: Yes. To go back to the CPF fund, I like the idea of taking some of the money. We saved well over half of savable land in Southold Town …  Yes, I would support subsidized housing with the town through the Heritage project. The Heritage money is going to come in dribs and drabs because they’re doing it in phases. We’re talking over $1 million at the end of all this. But yes, I’m all for using that money. I had thought about taking some of that money and letting developers, buying the houses somewhere else, refurbishing them and then put them in our housing stock … I’m probably the one who is against B&B’s … because you’re doing business in a residential zone. … Vineyard 48, the code you would want enforced for Airbnbs and violations, we closed down Vineyard 48. I got 44 different times that our code [enforcement officer] went there from the end of July to October with 12 violations — just for that one place. That would happen every time we violated someone with an Airbnb. I’m all for it, but we need more code enforcement on that — stricter enforcement on that.

Question: You advocate using accessory apartments for workforce housing. Do you advocate easing restrictions so that all property owners can add an apartment and how would you ensure they remain affordable?

Mary Eisenstein: Yes, I believe strongly in building on what you have and having an accessory apartment is a win-win for both the homeowner in terms of revenue … and then having the accessory apartment is aiding the need for having young people and the aging population who wants to downsize have places to live. What you hear in the community is people don’t want to leave but they leave because they can’t afford it … I do believe in easing restrictions and, personally, I believe very strongly we want to finish our comprehensive plan and start looking at what our zoning codes are now. This is a perfect example of altering the code to make sure that happens …. I would like to address a couple points made before regarding wineries and breweries. I believe we want to create a roundtable with them to help solve some of the problems that we’re having. Having a piecemeal approach, a bandaid approach, is not helping us go into the future. What we want to keep here is a family development atmosphere and, in order to do that, to circle back to your first question, we need to have opportunities for young families to begin.

Question: You’ve argued for better deer control. What changes would you make to town law and policy on this issue? And you might want to talk about the tick problems.

Bob Ghosio: The deer and the tick problem is a huge issue in town. Look, my degree is in zoology and I love animals, but I also understand ecology. And we’ve got a situation here where the deer population has gotten so out of hand that it’s not healthy for us and it’s not healthy for them … [The town has] done a lot of good things. However, we keep running into walls to be able to do more and more. Part of that has to do with the DEC who wants to overregulate what we can and cannot do … My hope is, as time goes on, we’re able to slowly but surely attack ticks and the health and safety issues created by the abundance of ticks. I would start by targeting the root of where they’re feasting — and they’re feasting on the deer primarily. This is something we have to address.

Question: The community has expressed strong support of limiting the size of new housing to keep them in scale with the neighborhood. What can the town to do implement this goal?

Debbie O’Kane: What I’d like to do is back up a moment. As far as the deer issue, I’d like to add that I believe the Town Board should be putting a lot of pressure on the Suffolk County Department of Health and, perhaps, New York State Department of Health. We really need to have a registry. We need to have doctors making sure all of the tick-borne diseases are being accounted for because this really is a health crisis out here … What we have to do is restrict lot size. When it comes to bigger lots, I actually live on Greenway East. I have a brand new house built two doors down and it is huge. Basically takes up almost the whole lot. We have got to make sure this 20 percent lot coverage, especially when it comes to larger lots, there have to be restrictions … This house on my street is totally out of character and totally blocking my neighbor’s view. We need a pyramid law so houses can be built more like a pyramid rather than straight up and blocking everything else in the neighborhood. Plus, we need to be well aware and make some progress on lot size because we can’t have 8,000-square-foot houses.

Question: You said you are uncomfortable with more regulation, but expressed concern about some problems at certain vineyards. Does the town have sufficient regulation and code enforcement to manage these abuses?

Jim Dinizio: I believe they do. I don’t think they enforce them. If you look at, let’s say the lavender farm … I was on the zoning board when they granted that use there, which was a farm stand … We also said there was eight spaces and parking is zoning … Down there, to me, there’s supposed to be eight cars. How did we get to something like 100 spaces? They were told in the variance they would have to control the ingress and egress of traffic on that property. Again, I don’t know how the town can interpret someone walking off the street and onto that piece of property or walking off a bus from somewhere else is part of the site plan, because it’s not … It’s all enforcement. It’s all zoning. We need to follow up on our codes much more stringently than we have.

Question: You suggest repurposing existing commercial space to create good paying, local jobs. How do we do this?

Mary Eisenstein: I would like to address a few things and then answer that question. Some of the questions here are questions regarding zoning. I feel very strongly that we need to get our comprehensive plan done. It was from 1987. What we are all addressing here is how our community has changed. The world has changed and things are happening at a lightning speed and zoning has to be addressed to meet the needs of the time that we live in … I believe we should give the agricultural advisory committee more teeth. There you have the expert of the farmers and the agricultural community — make them a commission and give them more teeth so they are participating and getting the decisions done now … For the repurposing, in Mattituck, there are three places right off the top of my head I can think about that are wonderful opportunities for possibly affordable housing. I would invite those people who own that property, the business community, civic leaders and policy makers at the table and the housing advisory, because they have the expertise and know who the affordable housing builders are, and see if we can get those properties that have been vacant — one property at least 25 years — and let’s get action connected to those properties that meet the needs of what our community is and planning for the future. We need families here and we need people to be able to afford to live here and that’s how I would go about doing it.

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