I have absolutely no doubt that EPCAL is THE central issue of this year's campaign. And that is as it should be. It is Riverhead's one hope for long-term economic stability.
Redevelopment of the EPCAL has been bungled from Day One. Most of the bungling is because it's been turned into a political football Election Year after Election Year.
Planning for the future of the 2,900-acre facility was marred from the get-go by the guiding principle of the people doing the planning: Make it impossible for EPCAL to become an airport. The re-use plan even states as much up front.
Now, that's OK by me, because I don't want to live next to an airport any more than the next person.
But the management by objective (i.e. no airport) has had negative ramifications. First, the crazy-quilt zoning for the site, adopted during the Villella Administration. It was self-contradictory, confusing and stupid. It has done more to prevent redevelopment of the site than an army of tiger salamanders.
Two years ago, when I questioned then-candidate Cardinale about some of the zoning code's most puzzling contradictions, he told me, and I quote: "That was a code that was adopted basically without being read." Remember, he was on the Town Board and voted for this code— without reading it carefully, he says? That amazed me — no, it shocked and appalled me, and I told him so. Perhaps the most important piece of legislation to come before you as a councilman, and you're trying to tell me you didn't read it? And Cardinale, of all people, whom I've seen be quite masterful at picking things apart when he wants to be. (I did report this interview, including that quote, in the newspaper at the time, by the way.)
The crazy-quilt zoning still exists, and it's the same zoning that allows for proposals like the FRP theme park, water ski park, and condos "accessory" to golf courses.
STOP! Stop it right now!
It's bad enough that this town gave away all the industrial buildings and infrastructure at the old Grumman plan (except the runways) on a total of 463 acres to an out-of-town developer for $17 million! Bad enough that the developer turned around a flipped the buildings to others without even bothering to get a legal subdivision, and made himself who-knows-how-much in the course of a day! Bad enough that the buyers there are sucking wind because they're occupying illegally created lots, so they can't get use permits or bank financing! Bad enough that the developer's subdivision STILL isn't finalized more than five years later! (And the developer has lawsuits peinding against the town, including property tax reduction actions!) Bad enough that the town allowed a sand mine to be dug so deep (in the name of a recreational water ski facility) that they hit our aquifer IN THE PINE BARRENS! Bad enough that the place even looks like the joke it is: an abandoned manufacturing facility now being run by the gang that couldn't shoot straight.
Now you don't have to go and tear up runways and replace them with fairways to prevent EPCAL from becoming MacArthur Airport East End! All you have to do is use common sense, good planning and appropriate zoning. But there's not much of that going around in this town, especially during an election year.
There shouldn't be a single home or golf green built on that site.
I called the supervisor the other day to talk about the Wilpon plan. I'd received an email from someone saying that Cardinale had agreed to postpone the contract until after the election and I wanted to verify this. Not true. He is intent on moving ahead with the deal.
There's something not right here. A piece of the puzzle is missing. Why is Riverhead willing to sell more than 755 acres (Phil told me the survey just completed for the town showed it's more like 780 acres, not 755) for $66 million. That's $84,615 per acre if we're selling 780 acres. Why would WIlpon's purported hotel chain client (Starwood) want to build a huge hotel there? (Especially when you take into account the four other large hotels already in the pipeline in Riverehad.) The town hasn't even required Wilpon to file a business plan. How is he (or Starwood) planning to fill those rooms? If the hotel/convention center portion of this deal is the "economic development" carrot being dangled before us to get us to swallow the idea of HOUSING at EPCAL, shouldn't the town be investigating this and making sure its real? (I've tried to get Starwood to back up Wilpon's claims about their plan to build this hotel/convention center, but they've ignored my requests for an interview.) Wilpon doesn't even pretend to be anything more than "an assembler of land" for developers. His entity is named "Kenneth I. Wilpon as Agent." Who is he agent FOR? Shouldn't the town know this before selling such a huge chunk of real estate to him?
If there really is going to be a hotel built here, might it have anything to do with a future casino there? The Wilpon draft contract has a clause that says "no casino" but it also has a giant loophole : "unless allowed by federal, state or local law." Does Wilpon or somebody know something we don't?
Cardinale told me that Wilpon doesn't want anybody to steal his idea, and that's why he is jealously guarding his plans. Come ON. Even the imposters who tried the land-grab in the name of a theme park submitted a business plan. It was a complete joke and, once exposed for the imposters they were — complete with phony financing letter — they packed up and left town.
Now, with Wilpon, we've done away with the need for any business plan at all. Why?
To justify this sellout, Cardinale told me that, with the addition of 600 new acres in the industrial zone (thanks to the zone change now pending and nearing completion) there will be no need for additional industrial zoning for another 25 years. My answer: So what? That's not a very long time. And they're not making any more land, you know. It's an investment in the future. There's no need to hold a fire sale and sell our future out from under the next generation.
The sale to Wilpon accomplishes two critical things for a politician in an election year like this. First, it puts millions in the town's coffers (not $66M, because you have to deduct costs, fees, broker's commissions, etc. but millions nonetheless.) You tell me: what useful things did the town accomplish with the net proceeds of the Burman deal?
Second, it drives the final nail into the coffin of an airport at EPCAL, which mollifies the western Riverhead constituency that Cardinale counts as his core voter base.
I think this issue is so critical that I would have a tough time voting for Cardinale on Nov. 8 because of it.
But then — there's Ed.
Though I agree with him about the Wilpon deal, I remember his passionate advocacy for an airport there (a point of view that seems to have evolved and scaled down over the years) and for a racetrack, too. His connections to people who operate illegal sand mines in Riverhead bother me, too. Heck, there are plenty of things about Ed that bother me. (And I'm sure it's mutual. No, I know it is.)
Can this be, should this be, a one-issue campaign? Is the future of EPCAL important enough to the future of Riverhead that we should make our choice in the polling booth based on where a candidate stands on housing at EPCAL, as Ed advocates?