The Riverhead Waldbaum's store on Route 58 iclosed its doors in October 2015 after parent company A&P filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection that July. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Riverhead Town is considering sweeping zoning code changes intended to boost farmland preservation by allowing residential development in the Route 58 commercial corridor.

Residential development in the Route 58 commercial corridor, to be allowed only by transferring development rights off farmland, would help preserve the town’s remaining agricultural lands and at the same time help ensure the long-term vitality of the corridor, where big box stores vacated by struggling national retailers stand empty, according to a committee tasked by the town board to study the problems.

The residential units may be built as free-standing multifamily dwellings, as upper-floor additions to existing commercial structures and as new assisted living facilities.

“We think the changes we are proposing on Route 58 are going to be the single largest way farmland will be preserved,” said Richard Wines, a farmland preservation committee member and co-chair of the committee that made the proposals.

“I love this,” Supervisor Sean Walter said. “This could be a significant sink [of development rights] potentially without adding residences to the town because you’re stripping development off the farmland,” he said. “I don’t know the numbers work, though,” he added.

Most agricultural land can be developed with one single-family home for two every two acres. The right to build that home is called a “development right.” Under current code, a development right can be transferred off the farmland to certain other areas, to increase allowable development density in the other areas. The farmland from which the development right is transferred is known as a sending area and the area to which it’s transferred is known as a receiving area.

Riverhead in the past has expanded development right receiving areas in the hope of giving developers incentives to buy development rights off farmland. For example, the town offers increased density in the destination retail zone on Route 58 — where the so-called big box development is permitted — if the developer purchases development rights off farmland.

The proposal to allow residential uses on all of Route 58 with the transfer of development rights off farmland could have big impact on farmland preservation by greatly expanding receiving areas.

It could also address what officials worry is a looming crisis in the intensely developed commercial corridor, as consumers choose the internet over brick-and-mortar stores for shopping.

The Sports Authority on Rt. 58 closed last year. File photo: Peter Blasl

The supervisor, expressing concerns over the future of “big box” retail, has recently advocated undertaking a master plan update for the Route 58 commercial corridor. He has said he likes the idea of repurposing vacant “big box” stores for assisted living developments. Yesterday he said a developer has already approached him about developing the vacant former Waldbaum’s store as an assisted living facility.

“This is huge,” Walter said. “This is the Route 58 corridor study, that’s what this is.” He said the changes proposed for Route 58 zoning would require a formal study and the town would need to hire a planning consulting firm to get it done because it lacks the resources on staff to do it.

The board is considering whether it can move ahead with portions of the committee’s recommendations for Route 58 ahead of a formal master plan update.

Another big change suggested by the committee is to allow accessory apartments in new construction, with the purchase of one development right per apartment, in the residence A-40, residence A-80 and hamlet residential zoning district.

Walter objected to this proposal. “I can see where you might be creating subdivisions entirely of two-family homes. I would worry that every subdivision will come in as two-family houses.” He said that goes against the character of the community and he could not support it.

“I like it,” Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said. “People would be able to build a two-family house so they can have an apartment for their parents.” It would help young families to buy their first homes, she said, because they could pool their resources with their parents.

Councilmen John Dunleavy and Tim Hubbard said they would not support that change. Councilman James Wooten said he was undecided.

File photo: Peter Blasl

Other proposals made by the stakeholders group:

•  create a density incentive credits system that will allow developers to pay into a fund that will be used to purchase development rights. This will simplify the TDR process, which is currently complex and lengthy, Wines said.

•  expand the TDR receiving areas to include the community benefit zoning district, the planned industrial park district and the industrial A district. Development density in each of those zoning use districts could be increased with the purchase of TDR preservation credits.

•  add the residential B-80 district as a designated sending area, because, according to wines that zoning district applies to significant acreage actively farmed, especially along Main Road.

•  roll back a change to the calculation of floor area for hotels and country inns adopted by the town board in 2010 that excluded bathrooms, hallways, closets and foyers from the definition of floor area. The controversial 2010 amendment, cut in half the number of development rights Browning Hotel Properties was required to buy to build a second hotel on its Rt. 58 site — the Residence Inn now under construction — pursuant to a 2006 site plan approval.

•  limit the density of multiple dwelling development in the commercial/residential campus district to four units per acre unless TDR preservation credits are purchased, with one credit per additional dwelling unit.

•  limit the density of independent living units in assisted living developments to one unit per acre, with two additional units per acre permitted with the purchase of TDR preservation credits.

The TDR program, designed to allow developers to purchase development rights from farmland to gain increased development density elsewhere isn’t working as intended, according to stakeholders group. About 300 development rights have been transferred since the program’s inception, Wines said. About 3,000 acres of farmland in Riverhead remain unprotected, he said.

With Riverhead’s purchase of development rights program on life support and the county’s program cash-strapped, the transfer of development rights program is the town’s best shot for saving its remaining farmland from development, Wines said in an interview after the meeting.

In the early to mid-2000s Riverhead borrowed heavily against future Community Preservation Fund income — derived from a 2-percent transfer tax on real estate sales — to purchase farmland and open space. When the economy crashed at the end of the decade, real estate sales slowed to a trickle and the town has not been able to pay the debt service out of current CPF income, relying instead on the funds in the CPF reserve, which were being depleted. The state passed a law that allows the town to refinance its CPF bonds, a tool the town may use this year, depending on conditions in both the local real estate market and the bond market.

A well-functioning TDR program, with expanded receiving areas and development incentives is the best way the town can save its remaining farmland from development, Wines said.

Currently a development right is valued at about $60,000. The value fluctuates with the fortunes of the local real estate market.

The committee that developed the proposals, comprising members of the town’s farmland preservation and agricultural advisory committees as well as representatives from the L.I. Farm Bureau, Peconic Land Trust and L.I. Builders Institute, presented them to the town board at yesterday’s work session.

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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.