The replacement of a three-term Riverhead Planning Board member was not simply because he didn’t “reapply” for the post as Supervisor Sean Walter said Tuesday, according to both Councilman George Gabrielsen and the former member, Aquebogue farmer Lyle Wells.

“The reason he got fired was because of ethics,” Gabrielsen said in a phone interview yesterday.

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Councilman George Gabrielsen

“He sits on the planning board and he approves Saber Riverhead’s project after he sells them development rights they need to build it,” Gabrielsen said. “It’s like insider trading. You can’t do that when you’re a public official. That’s the reason he got fired.”

Riverhead’s transfer of development rights program allows owners of agricultural lands to sell development rights to the owners of nonagricultural lands for the purpose of increasing development densities, as allowed by code in certain zoning use districts. One such “receiving district” is the Destination Retail Zone located along the Route 58 corridor, where Saber Riverhead LLC built a 122,000-square-foot retail shopping plaza in 2013. Saber increased its allowed lot coverage from 15 percent to 21.18 percent with the purchase of development rights sold to it by Wells in 2012 for $325,000, according to county land transfer records.

Gabrielsen said he was angered when he read reports of Wells expressing surprise that he was not reappointed.

“He was spoken to about it. He was warned officially by the ethics board. In fact the ethics board recommended he be removed from the planning board and the farm select committee,” Gabrielsen said.

According to the councilman, deputy town attorney William Duffy wrote a letter to Wells in November warning him about this, telling him he either has to leave the planning board or stop selling development rights to developers of property with applications before the planning board.

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Lyle Wells

Wells yesterday acknowledged he stepped down from the farm select committee after an ethics committee inquiry. He also acknowledged recent discussions and correspondence with Duffy, but said he had been recusing himself from discussions of the Saber site plan even prior to a conversation with Duffy. Planning board resolutions available on the town’s website show Wells voted to approve the Saber-Riverhead LLC site plan — including the transferred development rights credits — in March 2013 but was absent for a vote on an amendment to the plan in August 2013. [The initial resolution approving the site plan, passed in November 2012, is not available online.]

“I was warned about it by deputy town attorney Bill Duffy, who is counsel to the planning board, that it may be a conflict of interest and if I was going to sit on the planning board not to sell further development rights,” Wells said. “I told Bill I would no longer pursue any sale of development right to preserve the farm.”

“George is wrong by saying I shouldn’t be surprised. I asked about my position on the board a few times and was never told I was not being reappointed,” Wells said.

Wells said he was pushed out because he doesn’t agree with Supervisor Sean Walter on the EPCAL project and other issues, especially the master plan and TDRs.

“I really believe he’s determined to wipe TDRs from the books in Riverhead,” Wells said of the supervisor. “They are an impediment to development.”

Walter did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Wells said he has long been a “champion of the TDR program.”

He said after damages from Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012, he needed to raise cash. “So I made two phone calls,” he said. He called attorneys Peter Danowski and Charles Cuddy looking to see if they knew of anyone who wanted  to buy development rights. He called them, he said, because they represent most commercial developers in Riverhead. Cuddy represented Saber-Riverhead LLC.

“I didn’t think there was anything wrong with that,” Wells said.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.