What a difference a word makes. Twelve years ago, following countless community meetings and after spending nearly $100,000 of taxpayer money, our Town Board finally adopted Riverhead’s current Comprehensive Master Plan. The plan’s goal? To ensure that future development would proceed in an orderly, intelligent fashion that mirrors the vision we residents outlined for the town we love.
Then, one Tuesday afternoon in May 2009, despite all the time, energy, and effort that went into crafting that noble plan, it was essentially forever undone, when unceremoniously and without public participation, our Town Board substituted the word “guideline” in place of the word “requirement” in our zoning code.
That one word change completely amended what developers can get away with in Riverhead. Can you imagine suggesting a “guideline” that seat belts be worn while driving a car? It doesn’t work. The lax use of language in our code has provided a huge loophole for crafty attorneys to make mischief with our zoning code and has undone the will of the people. That seemingly innocent, one word amendment has changed land use in 17 separate zoning districts and has changed Riverhead’s future forever.
Zoning codes divide a town into separate districts, thereby preserving the desirable characteristics of each type of setting. These laws limit building dimensions and scope and spell out required building features. For example zoning in our rural corridors allows for a very limited range of roadside shops and services that are compatible with the agricultural and rural setting. The loophole created with the word change from requirement to guideline allowed a project that would have permitted four small roadside shops, to become a 42,000-square-foot development project with multiple building, a bistro and courtyard to move forward. This loophole is one example of zoning changes done since the master plan was adopted that should be reviewed. By recommending “guidelines” or merely making “suggestions” as opposed to enforcing requirement standards our Town Board has watered down the will of people and weakened the master plan.
Zoning should be a well-defined set of rules that govern the buildout in our hamlets, commercial, industrial and rural areas. Zoning is supposed to help bring about orderly growth and change. Zoning is supposed to reflect the intent of the master plan. Our zoning no longer does. Too often we basically spot zone for developers we like. Too often we ignore the hard work that so many put into the 2003/2004 master plan.
With numerous bad projects proposed for Jamesport, a directionless EPCAL plan and the extreme challenges facing Wading River, now is the time for land use leadership. Now is the time to close the loopholes. It is one more reason the town board should review and update the 13-year old master plan.
Laura Jens-Smith is a resident of Laurel and was a candidate for Riverhead Town Board in the 2015 election.
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