Riverhead Town Board rivals may duke it out

And In This Corner . . .

Riverhead Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith. Independent/Desireé Keegan

Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith and Town Councilwoman Jodi Giglio may well be on a collision course, and the town’s decision to sell a huge tract of land in Calverton will likely be the issue that defines the budding rivalry.

Giglio, a town board member since 2009, has made no secret of her desire to hold the top job. In fact, she beat party mate and incumbent Sean Walter in the Republican primary in 2015 only to have him prevail in a three-way general election that November. Instead it was a Democrat, Jens-Smith, who took Walter out in 2017, breaking an eight-year Republican stranglehold on the board.

At first, the two women shared common ground. Giglio initially voted against selling a 1640-acre parcel to Calverton Aviation and Technology, a joint venture between Triple Five Realty and Luminati Aerospace. She acknowledged in an interview this week that Daniel Preston, the mercurial CEO of Luminati, had raised a number of red flags during earlier negotiations with the town, especially about his ability to raise the $40 million purchase price. “There were doubts, but Daniel is a brilliant guy, not a bad guy,” she said. “Part of my job is to listen.”

While Giglio took a wait-and-see attitude, Jens-Smith vowed to stop the deal should she be elected.

But Preston proved to be resilient. After gaining some time from the board, he brought in Triple Five Worldwide, a developer that boasts the Mall of America in Bloomington among its holdings, to finance the venture in Calverton. Triple Five, owned by the Ghermezian family, recently purchased the Dowling College campus as well.

Stuart Bienenstock, director of business development for Triple Five, complained in January that the Calverton project “had a target on its back” and urged the town board to give CAT a chance to make its case, and the town agreed to hold what’s called a Qualified and Eligible Hearing with the company to weight the pros and cons of the deal.

But on March 13, without the knowledge of the other town board members, Giglio met with the CAT hierarchy in Manhattan. “I did my due diligence,” she said. “I went in on my own dime.” Giglio said she was assured that Preston, though still a part of the management team, would have no voting rights. That tipped the scales, and she ended up reversing her earlier position and supporting CAT. Catherine Kent, elected with Jens-Smith on the Democratic line, joined the supervisor in voting against the deal. James Wooten and Tim Hubbard, both Republicans, joined Giglio in voting to approve the deal.

Riverhead Town Councilwoman Jodi Giglio.

Uneasy Feeling

It’s what got Giglio to that point — reversing her position over the course of a year — that troubles critics and rankles Jens-Smith. “It makes me uneasy,” the supervisor said, especially the relationship between Giglio and Chris Kempner, the former head of the Riverhead Community Development Agency, who stepped down a year ago. For one thing, Kempner is rumored to have attended the same meeting in Manhattan. For another, she reportedly struck up a business deal with Triple Five, though has been reluctant to discuss it.

To add even more intrigue to the mystery, Kempner was arrested in July in Riverhead and charged with DWI. Her attorney has charged the arrest was a set-up and that she was punished because of her political affiliations.

The Calverton property is a New York State designated Urban Renewal Area as well as a federally designated HUB zone. In 2018, the U.S. Treasury Department designated Calverton as an Opportunity Zone, a new federal program designed to boost private investment in underserved urban and rural communities via benefits such as temporary tax deferrals on capital gains or investment profits. Triple Five, the other founding partner of CAT, is creating an Opportunity Zone Fund to invest into the site and other designated zones across the United States.

“We believe working in partnership with New York State, the local community, Suffolk County, and the federal government, we can restore Long Island’s aerospace heritage along with the associated high-tech manufacturing job base,” Bienenstock said.

“Our goal is to invest into this site and others on Long Island and throughout New York State, including our recent purchase of the former Dowling National Aviation & Transportation Study Center in Brookhaven Town,” he added, “to curate the most significant aerospace projects and propel the Long Island eco-system to a leadership position in advanced technology.”

How quickly CAT wends its way through the zoning and planning process, and how quickly the money starts flowing into Riverhead coffers, could decide the next election.

Giglio, who has not said she wants to run for reelection, and Jens-Smith are not the only two names being bantered around. Former Riverhead Republican Chairman Mason Haas has resigned from the party committee, and his name has been bandied about for several years as a possible candidate for supervisor. Not coincidentally, he is an unabashed CAT supporter. Wooten, too, is known to be flirting with the possibility of making a run at the top spot.

It hasn’t been much of a honeymoon for Jens-Smith, who must mount a defense for her seat after less than a year on the job. A public vote was taken in 2016 to extend the supervisor’s term to four years, like those of the council members, but it was overwhelmingly defeated.

Having gotten to this point, both women have vowed to make the deal happen. “There’s a definitive agreement in place,” Jens-Smith noted. “Triple Five is going to be held responsible.”

rmurphy@indyeastend.com