Greenport Village election campaigns head into the final stretch

With the Greenport Village elections scheduled for next Tuesday, March 21, the candidates for mayor and two open trustee seats both faced off in final debates that served to elucidate their stances on a spectrum of issues vital to the future of the village.

Key topics at the heart of the races include the existing administrative moratorium and its potential to generate litigation against the village; the timeframe in which the village’s LWRP (Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan) can be completed; how to combat illegal short-term rentals; how to raise more revenue; better enforcement of village codes and how to deal with empty storefronts and derelict properties.   

At the final mayoral debate on March 14, moderator and community leader Rena Wilhelm tackled all these issues with the candidates: current village mayor George Hubbard Jr., and challengers Kevin Stuessi and Richard Vandenburgh.  

Ms. Wilhelm told the candidates that “many people” in the village wanted her to ask the mayoral candidates to address the recent election controversy — in which only two of eight candidates, both incumbents, were set to appear on the ballot before the issue was resolved in state Supreme Court.

Mr. Hubbard assured the audience that “nobody had any malicious intent in trying to deny anyone their rights to vote, to be on the ballot or anything. Everything we tried to do was on the up and up.”

Yet the mayor expressed frustration with the controversy itself, noting the absurdity of the position that it put him in. “It’s really weird,” he said. “I’m suing myself on two sides of a lawsuit – as mayor and as a candidate.”

He was referring to judicial fix to the ballot issue that required the village to seek in state Supreme Court to overturn its own clerk’s determination that most of the candidates could not be included on the ballot for failing to fill out the proper paperwork on time.

Mr. Stuessi called for an independent investigation to find out “what happened,” while Mr. Vandenburgh said he didn’t believe the mayor orchestrated the controversy, describing it as a case of “poor communication.”

The existing administrative moratorium was again a key point of controversy. With the perceived threat of lawsuits against the village, Ms. Wilhelm wanted to know whether the moratorium had “opened the door to potential opportunists,” and questioned whether it left the village “vulnerable” to litigation.

Mr. Stuessi said he didn’t believe the village is vulnerable. “I actually believe the village is in a great position to do the work that hasn’t been done over the past eight years.”

“As far as lawsuits,” he continued, “there’s one lawsuit that’s filed and frankly, it doesn’t make sense.  It’s somebody who owns a building and applied to put up a residential space on the second floor, which isn’t even legal.” Mr. Stuessi said “it looks to me like somebody filed a fake lawsuit to generate some press.” 

Mr. Hubbard subsequently noted that a second notice of claim — the first step in the process of filing a lawsuit — against the village over the moratorium had been received late Tuesday afternoon, March 14.

That notice of claim was filed by an LLC owned by developer Erik Warner, who wants to transform the former home of Sweet Indulgences into a three-story, 22-room inn. The allegations in both notices of claim are nearly identical.

Mr. Vandenburgh said he thought the moratorium was a rushed response.

“I think we’ve done it backwards — throwing up a moratorium that creates [legal] risk.”

How to crack down on illegal AirBnB rentals was another hot topic at the debate.

Mr. Stuessi repeated his suggestion about using software to identify and take action against illegal short-term rentals in the village, while Mr. Vandenburgh said he has been meeting with experts and working on a plan to create an overlay zoning prohibition against short-term AirBnB rentals.

Mr. Hubbard agreed on the need to better enforce existing village codes against short-term rentals, but suggested that judicial relief may not be obtained in most cases.

 “We tried to go to court when the law was first passed, using people’s [AirBnB] ads … and the judge said that’s not actually proof,” he said. “You have to actually book the place” to prove the use of a structure as an illegal short-term rental.  

Both Mr. Hubbard and Mr. Stuessi — who serves on committees working on the LWRP — agreed that the village would be ready to submit an updated LWRP to the state within six months, while Mr. Vandenburgh expressed skepticism about that timeframe, calling it a “goal” rather than a guarantee.

Asked what each candidate is most proud of accomplishing for the village, Mr. Hubbard cited the current administration’s success in paving more than three-quarters of village roads. Mr. Vandenburgh said he was most proud of transforming an old village firehouse into the Greenport Harbor Brewing Company, while Mr. Stuessi said he’s most proud of the neighbors and new friends he met during his campaign to establish an administrative moratorium.

All of the candidates agreed on the need to save and restore two iconic village landmarks: the movie theater and the Greenport auditorium, which operated as a village culture and entertainment center from the late 19th century until the 1938 hurricane and later became a furniture store that Preservation Long Island has listed as an “endangered historic place.”

Another sticking point in the debate was how to fund the demonstrated need for more code enforcement officers in the village.

 Mr. Stuessi argued for paid parking over peak summer months and a new hotel tax. Mr. Vandenburgh agreed with those points and additionally suggested a hefty permit fee for legal AirBnB rentals in the village, of which he said he has counted roughly 100.

Mr. Hubbard said that there is money allocated in the upcoming budget that would allow for one full time and two part time code enforcement officers. He said the board is also looking at a “$2-an-hour raise for our union workers across-the-board.”

The candidates also debated the best solutions to parking, noise pollution, upkeep of the Fifth Street beach and how to deal with empty storefronts and derelict properties.  

At the final trustee debate on March 8, five candidates running for two open trustee seats tussled over many of the same issues that were raised in the mayoral debates.

In introducing themselves to the audience at their final March 8 debate, William Swiskey presented himself as straight-talking, common-sense candidate who is also a veteran of village battles. Current trustee and deputy mayor Jack Martilotta touted the board’s accomplishments in the past eight years, particularly the administration’s success in keeping tax increases to a minimum.

Candidate Monique Gohorel cited her years of work on various village committees and community-focused projects, while Lily Dougherty-Johnson presented herself as a hometown candidate who has been active her whole life in village-related work. Patrick Brennan described himself as a local shipwright and marine mechanic who understands the challenges faced by waterfront businesses.

The elections are slated for Tuesday, March 21 at the Third Street Fire Station and polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.