Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter says he’s pleased with the progress the town as made in the past year in its pursuit of workforce housing, downtown revitalization and the redevelopment of the Calverton Enterprise Park.
In his annual “State of the Town” speech Wednesday night to a joint dinner meeting of three local service clubs — Rotary, Lions and Kiwanis — a long-standing tradition in Riverhead, the supervisor reviewed his administration’s accomplishments and challenges in 2016 and goals for the year ahead.
He also took the opportunity to lambast county and state government for what he sees as unfair treatment of town governments — and Riverhead in particular.
Walter praised the adoption of new zoning last year to allow the development of the Family Community Life Center — a plan for 132 workforce housing rental apartments and a community center on a 12-acre site on Northville Turnpike adjacent to First Baptist Church of Riverhead.
“Downtown Riverhead has made amazing strides in 2016,” Walter told the audience.
As examples of those strides, he pointed to the approvals of the 20-room Preston House “boutique hotel” now under construction across from the L.I. Aquarium and Conifer’s 45 low-income rental apartments on the site of the former L.I. Science Center and the demolition of the old Sears building, where another mixed-use apartment building is expected to be proposed this year. Another proposed development — 117 workforce housing units and 12,000 square feet of new retail space on the corner of McDermott Avenue and East Main Street is making its way through the review process, Walter said.
Walter spoke of the need for a cardiac catheterization facility in Riverhead and the town board’s expedited zoning code revisions to help make it happen at Peconic Bay Medical Center, where Northwell Health has proposed a $43 million expansion, including the cardiac care facility and an expanded and upgraded emergency department. The town board approved the zoning code changes this month. The hospital is waiting for approval by the N.Y. State Department of Health. (See prior story.)
Though a lease is not yet inked, the owner of the shopping center vacated by Walmart a few years back is very close to having a signed deal with Regal Cinemas, the supervisor said. (See prior story.) Walter has been having discussions with Regal Cinemas since he first took office in 2010 — at first seeking to bring a multiplex cinema downtown. In last year’s state of the town speech, the supervisor also said a deal to bring a Regal multiplex to the Route 58 shopping center was “very close,” and he predicted groundbreaking on a new theater at the former Walmart site was “about a year away.”
The EPCAL subdivision, an initiative Walter proposed in 2010, has taken longer to be finalized than Walter has predicted. In 2016, the final supplemental environmental was completed and approved, the town board approved the new zoning for the site, along with the master plan update and urban renewal plan update, but the Riverhead Town Planning Board has not yet approved the subdivision map. Wednesday night the supervisor said the planning board, which has completed a public hearing on the subdivision, is “poised to adopt the final subdivision map.”
“The only remaining issues are two permits from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the permit from Suffolk County Health Department,” Walter said.
“We have had numerous meetings with both the New York State DEC and the Suffolk County Health Department,” he said. “We should obtain these approvals this year.”
Walter said the town is “currently negotiating with Suffolk Industrial Corporation on a $45 million acquisition of the 600 developable acres of EPCAL,” which the supervisor called “the final frontier.”
“It is our goal to close on the property in 2017,” Walter said.
He called for the approximately $43 million net sale proceeds to be placed in a “special debt service reserve account” to be used to pay off the remaining landfill debt.
“By doing this, it is my sincere belief we will be able to roll back the tax increases of 2015 and 2016,” Walter said. The town has balanced its operating budget and as of the current fiscal year is no longer relying on “one-shots,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said, Luminati Aerospace “ushers in a new chapter in Riverhead’s love affair with aviation as they plan for the first launch of an aircraft taken from concept to design to manufacture, all at EPCAL.”
Luminati Aerospace purchased the SkyDive Long Island site in 2015 and entered into an exclusive runway use agreement with the Town of Riverhead. It has since expanded into a much larger facility at EPCAL to accommodate its manufacturing plans. (See prior story.)
Walter had sharp criticism for the state, which is implementing new rules that will increase the town’s responsibilities for stormwater runoff control and reporting on stormwater runoff control to the State Department of Environmental Conservation. Walter and Southold Supervisor Scott Russell have both said compliance with the new regulations will require the towns to each hire an additional engineer whose time will be solely dedicated to compliance. (See prior story.)
Walter also sharply criticized Suffolk County for seeking a new water use surcharge, that would impose a charge of $1 per 1,000 gallons of water purchased by a public water provider. The surcharge money would create a fund to be used for advanced wastewater treatment systems, with the goal of reducing nitrogen-loading to groundwater and, ultimately, surface waters. (See prior story.)
“While this is a laudable goal that I support, the problem is this fee will amount to a 57-percent increase in water rates while providing no money for water district improvements,” Walter said. He complained that residents and businesses in sewer districts that already pay a fee to have their wastewater treated are not exempt from the proposed fee. He also said he does not trust Suffolk County government, which he said has a “terrible record,” to manage such a fund.
“The Town of Riverhead strives to stay within the tax cap while maintaining all levels of service including maintaining one of the finest police departments in the county,” the supervisor said. “That being said, in 2016 alone the health insurance for the municipal employees went up more than the tax cap allowed. Unfortunately, this is not sustainable.
“The State of New York and the County of Suffolk must work with local government to reduce unfunded mandates,” Walter said.
He cited as another unfunded mandate a requirement that the town reduce its total nitrogen discharge from the sewage treatment plant by more than 75 percent, he said. The cost of the resulting upgrades to plant represent “roughly a 400-percent sewer tent/tax increase to the average business and home owner in the Riverhead Sewer District,” he said.
Suffolk County collects a quarter-percent sales and compensating use tax for distribution to the towns and villages which have established sewer districts to stabilize their assessments and taxes, Walter said.
“The County of Suffolk is sitting on at least $100 million that should be used in part to stabilize all town and village sewer treatment facilities. These funds may be used for no other purpose by the County of Suffolk other than to stabilize the assessment and taxes of sewer districts within the county,” he said.
Riverhead should get nearly $1.5 million in stabilization funds in 2017, according to the supervisor. But the county treats town sewer districts differently than its own sewer districts, which Walter said violates the law.
“Under the standard of due process and equal protection under the law Suffolk County must turn the requested funds over to the Town of Riverhead. Again, all we ask is to be treated equally,” Walter said.
Riverhead may be forced to sue the county to force payment of the stabilization funds, the supervisor said. “It is never a good idea for one municipality to use taxpayer funds to sue another municipality but sometimes, just sometimes it is necessary.” (See prior story.)
Democratic supervisor candidate Laura Jens-Smith, who attended the speech Wednesday night at the Birchwood restaurant, said afterward “It was a very, very long story that doesn’t really have much action.”
Jens-Smith, who ran for town council, has criticized Walter on both progress at EPCAL and on downtown revitalization. She reiterated those criticisms after the speech.
“We still don’t have anything going on at EPCAL,” she said. “We don’t have a subdivision done, we don’t have DEC approval and I don’t even know whether the buyer has been vetted — so we really don’t know what’s going on there,” Jens-Smith said.
“He talked once again about reviving downtown and we still have 14 vacant stores. We have a couple of housing projects going up but a lot of them are low income and you really need to have a mix of affordable, low income and market rate if we’re going to revitalize downtown,” she said.
“He kind of avoided whether we’re going to go over the tax cap again this year. He talked about unfunded mandates. A lot of the other towns are facing the same. We need to work cooperatively so they can be managed by the town and I don’t think that should cause us to go over the tax cap.”