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Southold Town Board candidates debate in lively forum

Four candidates running for seats on the Southold Town Board discussed their platforms during a Meet the Candidate forum hosted by the Mattituck-Laurel Civic Association on Monday night. 

Moderators presented questions collected from members of the civic association ahead of time, with concerns largely focused on the environment, development and the town’s COVID-19 response. Candidates had two minutes each to respond and, in a final speed round, could only offer yes or no responses. 

Here is a breakdown of their responses.

Opening statements

Republican candidate Anthony Sannino said that although he did not grow up in the area, he watched the development of farmland as he grew up further up island and he wants to prevent that from happening in Southold. 

“My passion here for running for Town Council is revolving around preserving agriculture in Southold,” said Mr. Sannino, now a Cutchogue resident. That goal encompasses both farmland preservation and helping farmers stay in agriculture. As a Town Board member, he said, he would also prioritize mitigating traffic issues. 

Fellow Republican candidate Greg Williams is a lifelong Southold Town resident and owner of Country Time Cycle in Mattituck. He emphasized the importance of community involvement and water quality preservation in his opening statement. 

“Main reason I’m here is I do want to help people,” he said. “Growing up in this community, I understand the struggles of what it takes for a young person to … stay here — and it is worth it. It’s a community I want to preserve.” 

Mr. Williams said he would prioritize improving road conditions, controlling the deer and tick population and using community preservation funds to purchase smaller tracts of land “to preserve the rural charm of some of our communities.” 

Democratic candidate Greg Doroski also emphasized community preservation in his opening statement. He grew up and is raising his children in Mattituck, he said. 

The innovations director at Greenport Harbor Brewing Co. and a deacon at First Presbyterian Church in Southold, he reminded audience members that he ran a very close race for Southold Town supervisor during the last election and criticized the current administration — led by Supervisor Scott Russell — for inaction on several issues. 

Mr. Doroski emphasized the importance of implementing the town’s comprehensive plan, restricting house sizes, preserving water quality and combating climate change. “The time for action is now,” Mr. Doroski said. 

Democratic candidate Brian Mealy noted that he grew up in Mattituck and reminded the audience that — as a twice-elected Mattituck-Cutchogue school board member and a current board member at Eastern Suffolk BOCES — he’s “one of the most experienced public servants that has ever run for Town Council.” He focused on traffic issues, development and bringing a “fair … fact-based process” to government. 

“The current structure that we have in Southold Town is not functioning,” Mr. Mealy said. “That’s one of the reasons why I stepped up as a public servant to make sure that every Southolder is represented, not just the ones who are in power, not just the ones that know somebody.” His priorities as a town board member, he said, would encompass affordable housing and civic education and outreach. 

Eminent domain

Eminent domain is a government’s right to appropriate private property for public use, with compensation. Southold is currently locked in court with the Brinkmann family, which has taken action to block the town from pursuing eminent domain on a Mattituck property where they hope to build a hardware store. 

Mr. Doroski criticized the town government for not purchasing the parcel for preservation sooner and said he has “mixed feelings” about eminent domain. “I think, when it’s used right, it’s a necessary tool,” he added. 

Mr. Sannino said eminent domain “should be the last tool in the toolbox,” but defended the current administration, saying they “couldn’t have known” it would be an issue down the line. 

“Spending money wisely would be the most important thing,” he said, adding that purchasing the property wasn’t financially feasible in the past. He said he dislikes that eminent domain violates property rights, but the tool can be useful to improve infrastructure. 

Mr. Mealy took a similar stance to Mr. Doroski, saying that he “respectfully disagree[d]” with Mr. Sannino and that the town administration has been kicking “the decision down the road.” The price has only gone up over the years, he said. 

“We have to learn from our mistakes,” he added. 

Mr. Williams said eminent domain “should be used when needed” and that the Brinkmann parcel was overpriced when the town had looked into purchasing the land a few years ago. 

“It’s not always an easy decision to make. But sometimes you have to expand roads or expand properties. And eminent domain is a tool that we have available to us,” Mr. Williams said. “At the end of the day, you have to listen to the community.” 

Comprehensive plan

The Southold Town Board unanimously adopted its comprehensive plan last September, after discussions on updates dating back to 2009. Recommendations included preserving at least 8,000 acres of farmland, creating affordable housing, adapting to climate change and reducing traffic congestion, among other things. 

Mr. Sannino declined to comment on the comprehensive plan. “I can honestly say, I’m not well versed with all the comprehensive plan,” he said. 

Mr. Mealy said he “has a general concern with the basic comprehensive plan” and how long it took to pass. He suggested it may no longer be accurate and may need a “comprehensive review.” 

“We actually have to have a community discussion about what our needs are,” Mr. Mealy said. 

Mr. Williams pointed out that a lot of public input was taken into consideration when forming the comprehensive plan. He said the town should “dig into the code to see if there’s any opportunities for private businesses to create affordable housing in downtown or halo areas.” 

“Keep in mind that change is inevitable,” he said. “Moving forward, we will address those changes using best practices with the best knowledge we have at the time.” 

Mr. Doroski criticized how long it took to pass the comprehensive plan and suggested there should be more focus on implementing its goals. 

“I think we need to start with a comprehensive buildout analysis of Southold Town,” he said. “There are numerous high-risk parcels around the community that risk further overdevelopment in Southold Town.” 

COVID-19 response

With the outbreak of COVID-19 in March 2020, government on all levels was thrown into turmoil and uncertainty. One question posed to candidates Monday night was whether they approved of Southold Town’s response. 

Mr. Mealy, a board member for Eastern Suffolk BOCES, said his school was among those that responded most quickly to COVID-19. He added that COVID is “an act of God that nobody was prepared for” but criticized town administration for a “lack of response” and procedure. 

“Where’s the emergency response plan when you have an emergency?” he asked. “Whatever our emergency plan was, it wasn’t sufficient.” 

Mr. Williams said he’s satisfied with the town’s COVID-19 response, pointing out that at one point, Southold was the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S. 

“It was a very undesirable thing we all had to deal with,” he said. 

Mr. Doroski pointed to the town’s COVID response as “just another example that more of the same is not enough.” He criticized the town for taking months to hold a Zoom meeting, when it only took his congregation at First Presbyterian Church a few weeks. 

He said he worked at the business where the first case occurred and they took immediate action to keep people safe and the business running. “We saw our town government treading water,” he said. 

Mr. Sannino said he had been in communication with Mr. Russell, along with other business leaders, to discuss their needs during the pandemic. “So my experience was completely different,” he said. 

He added that there was likely apprehension about how to keep the public safe and the town was trying to help. “If I’m in the board position, I would definitely be much more proactive if I can,” he said. 

Affordable housing

The cost of housing in Southold has skyrocketed in recent years, making affordable homes ever scarcer. The climbing costs have driven away young homeowners and service workers, exacerbating a labor shortage on the North Fork. 

Mr. Williams said the challenge is “trying to create affordable housing by increasing the density on the land.” 

“My experience as a [Southold Town] Trustee, an acre of land can effectively filter out the household sewage of a family of four. To get affordable housing, to get a private developer interested, you need to have typically five houses per acre,” he said. The town should work with the owners of vacant buildings in the halo areas to potentially create affordable housing opportunities, he suggested. 

Mr. Doroski called affordable housing a “vital need for our community,” to fill labor gaps and provide housing for young people. 

“When young people can’t afford to come back and raise their families in the community that they grew up in, we lose generational knowledge and generational memories of what this place was,” he said. 

He suggested eliminating the “inclusionary zone buyout,” which allows builders to pay a fee to not build required affordable housing in subdivisions. He also said affordable housing should be focused in halo areas. 

Mr. Sannino said the town also needs to think of transportation for affordable housing residents and should choose property near public transportation and downtown areas. 

“As a builder, I would probably want my local government to be working in conjunction with me, providing changes in zoning, changes in planning that would make it much more appealing,” he said. 

Mr. Mealy pointed to previous community pushback against affordable housing and said the community is “woefully miseducated.” 

“We have to have a multi-pronged approach to stakeholders. We have to bring in experts, we have to talk about how we can deal with our young folks, we have to talk about how we encourage people through our job force to stay here,” he said. “It’s hard; I have two jobs.” 

AgrItourism

Many East End farms have turned to agritourism to supplement revenue, which has become a factor in traffic congestion on the North Fork. 

Mr. Mealy said agritourism is “not clearly a Southold problem.” He suggested collaborating with the county and other local governments, and potentially looking into county buses for day-trippers to help reduce congestion. 

Mr. Williams said the explosion of the agritainment industry in recent years “caught us all by surprise” and Southold needs to work with neighboring municipalities to foster “smarter traffic patterns and traffic flow.” He also suggested working with the police to mitigate bottlenecks and traffic jams. 

“Keep in mind … many of these farmlands have sold off their development rights and they’re trying to make a living. Nobody wants to buy their potatoes anymore. That ship has sailed,” he said. “I would rather have the 10,000 acres of preserved land and deal with traffic five weeks a year than have 10,000 houses and deal with traffic every day.” 

Mr. Doroski criticized Mr. Williams for defending “the status quo,” which he said “isn’t working.” The town should discuss more traffic control officers, stricter parking restrictions and a collaborative approach with the county, state and business owners, he said. 

“It’s unfair to focus blame on [farms] when our government has not done their part for far too long,” Mr. Doroski said. 

Mr. Sannino also suggested improving collaboration with the county and state, and fostering better traffic control around busy agritainment businesses. He pointed out that many farms faced less stringent site plan approvals so there was less planning for parking and traffic flow near their businesses. 

 Closing statements

During his closing statement, Mr. Mealy addressed individuals in the audience he’d interacted with before the event started. “That’s the Southold I’m trying to defend,” he said. 

He also criticized the amount of funding Southold Republicans receive from outside town. 

“I didn’t sign up for this for personal gain. I’ve signed up because my family taught me about service,” he said. “I’m with you. I’m going to fight for you. I’m going to fight for all of Southold Town.” 

Mr. Sannino said the decision to run for Town Council was not a decision he took lightly. “Right now was the right time for me to step up and contribute to our town,” he said. 

He added that preserving the town’s “agricultural heritage” is a priority and, as a newly elected official, he would bring a fresh perspective to town government. 

Mr. Doroski criticized his Republican opponents during his closing statement. He said he doesn’t think “they’re bad guys,” but he’s “concerned” Mr. Sannino was not familiar with the comprehensive plan and that Mr. Williams “seems to be defending the status quo.” 

“I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and work my heart out serving and strengthening our community,” he said. 

Mr. Williams, who closed the forum, addressed Mr. Doroski’s critique. He emphasized that he has made it a point to speak with as many Southold residents as possible and the importance of communication with the community. 

“My sleeves have been rolled up and I’ve been serving this community for the past many, many years,” he said. “I am committed to helping everyone be successful.”