File photo: Peter Blasl

The prospective purchasers of the Calverton Enterprise Park met in private sessions with town board members yesterday at Town Hall.

Representatives of Calverton Aviation and Technology LLC — a new company formed by Triple Five Ventures and Luminati Aerospace — met separately first with the town supervisor and then with council members — two at a time, so as not to violate the state Open Meetings Law, which prohibits a quorum of the board from meeting outside of a properly noticed, open public meeting except under certain limited circumstances.

The meetings, which had been scheduled beforehand, went forward despite Town Hall being closed because of yesterday’s blizzard.

Members of the Ghermezian family, which owns Triple Five Ventures and its multinational conglomerate of companies, along with Daniel Preston, a founder and CEO of Luminati Aerospace, and other representatives of both companies sat down with town officials to explain face-to-face what their plans are for the site, Councilman Tim Hubbard said in a phone interview this morning.

“I thought the meeting went very well,” Hubbard said. “It was very productive and informative.”

Hubbard said the prospective buyers met first with Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith, then with him and Councilwoman Jodi Giglio and then with Council Members James Wooten and Catherine Kent.

“Their vision is to develop what they kept calling the next Silicon Valley for aviation technology and training,” Hubbard said. “They are looking to bring training schools in that will train people in high-tech construction for aviation and in solar power for aviation uses.”

The Ghermezians are partnering with Preston on the acquisition of the more than 1,600-acre site, Hubbard said. He declined to discuss specific information disclosed to him yesterday regarding the deal between the two entities.

Although the Ghermezians are best known as the developers and owners of the two largest shopping malls in North America, they made it clear yesterday that they have no interest in developing retail at EPCAL — or housing, Hubbard said.

“It was very interesting,” Giglio said in an interview today. “I really liked them a lot. Triple Five is the real deal,” she said. “Preston has a lot of ideas. They can implement them. I’m really excited about them, actually. In speaking with people in the construction industry, they are very cooperative, very business minded, they are very successful with their properties. They don’t get involved in a project unless they think it’s going to be successful.”

But Giglio cautioned that she wants to see the partnership agreement between Triple Five and Luminati, “to see who is going to be involved when all is said and done,” she said.

“I feel a lot more comfortable after meeting with the Ghermezians yesterday,” Hubbard said. “I expressed concern that he’s been here a number of years and we’ve seen nothing produced,” Hubbard said in reference to Preston. “They said that’s exactly why they’re here. They said Daniel is not a business person and they want him for his mind and his vision,” he said.

“They made a good presentation,” Kent said. “They are a reputable company but there’s still a lot of skepticism, honestly, because of their partnership with Daniel Preston. I brought up the concerns of the community,” she said. 

“Triple Five looks like they’ve done a lot of large projects, which is promising,” Jens-Smith said. “But I would say I have some healthy skepticism about Luminati’s ability to develop the property. We haven’t seen anything coming out of Luminati to support that at this point.”

Luminati Aerospace chief pilot Rob Lutz, left and cofounder Daniel Preston, with the company’s half-scale ultralight aircraft, before Lutz took it on a brief flight as a crowd of cheering onlookers watched at the Calverton Enterprise Park on June 10, 2016. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Luminati Aerospace purchased the former Skydive Long Island site at EPCAL in 2015. The town subsequently signed a runway use agreement with Luminati. The company later leased a portion of Plant Six for manufacturing purposes, Preston announced in June 2016. Preston has spoken of a variety of objectives for his company at EPCAL, all rooted in the idea of bringing the aerospace industry back to Long Island. He initially said he was partnered with a “Fortune 250” company to design and build solar- and wind-powered unmanned aerial vehicles capable of perpetual flight, with the aim of bringing wireless internet to remote areas of the globe. In June 2016, he said he had a contract with a company to build sea planes, which he said would be in production in Plant Six by October of that year. Key members of the “dream team” — including Luminati’s cofounders — who made a presentation to the town at a 2015 hearing on Luminati’s runway use agreement, subsequently left the company.

The town signed a letter of intent with Luminati Aerospace in April. In that document, the town agreed to sell most of its remaining acreage at the enterprise park — the former Northrop-Grumman manufacturing plant — to Luminati for $40 million, subject to the negotiation of a “definitive agreement” between the parties. The sale which according to a contract made public last week, includes 1,643 acres. It is subject to existing zoning at the site, which currently does not allow retail complexes or residential subdivisions.

Hubbard said the federal government gave the Town of Riverhead the 2,900-acre Navy-owned site, where Grumman Aerospace once manufactured fighter jets, for economic development purposes — to create tax base and jobs lost when Grumman ceased operations in 1996.

This could be a major step forward in fulfilling that objective, Hubbard said.

Private meetings ahead of public hearing irks residents

The town has scheduled a public hearing for Jan. 17 on the question of whether Calverton Aviation and Technology LLC is a “qualified and eligible sponsor” hearing under New York State General Municipal Law for purposes of purchasing the site within a designated urban renewal zone.

At that hearing, the prospective purchasers will make a presentation and the public will have the opportunity to ask questions. Then the prospective purchasers will have an opportunity to respond to the public’s questions. The town board members will then ask their own questions, which will in turn be answered by the prospective purchasers. Jens-Smith said she expects the hearing will be held over to at least one additional session.

The members of the town board will make the determination on whether or not the prospective purchaser is a “qualified and eligible sponsor.” For that reason, the private meetings held yesterday with company representatives met with criticism from residents who have objected to a lack of public disclosure in the nearly year-long process of the town’s negotiation of the terms of a contract with Calverton Aviation and Technology.

The town entered into a letter of intent with Luminati Aerospace in April, a few weeks after it was disclosed that Luminati had made a proposal to purchase the bulk of the town’s remaining land holdings at the enterprise park. After months of negotiation and without any prior public disclosure of the document or even its substantial terms, the town board voted Dec. 19 to accept the contract. The board vote was 3-2 with Giglio and Hubbard in opposition. Wooten, former councilman John Dunleavy and former supervisor Sean Walter supported it. 

Larry Simms of South Jamesport told the town board in October 2015 that a proposed runway use agreement did not adequately protect the town.

South Jamesport resident Larry Simms, who has spoken out against the town’s “lack of transparency” in negotiating a deal with Luminati Aerospace, said today he was “fairly stunned that they would do this.” Simms said the people who will make a decision on the project meeting privately with the principals of the companies involved was “incredibly offensive.”

John McAuliff of Riverhead, who also has been an outspoken critic of the process the town has used in crafting the deal, agreed.

“I’m disturbed to hear that the principals were there and obviously making a lobbying pitch,” McAuliff said. “And [the board members] deliberately followed a process that shielded them from public accountability. What have members of the board been told before the public hearing? What influence will these meetings have on the decision-makers?” McAuliff asked.

“It sounds like the new leadership has to be very careful to avoid getting steamrolled into the old way of doing things,” he said. “It is disappointing that they allowed themselves to be drawn into a private process, especially if it was done in a deliberate way to avoid the public meeting requirement.”

During her campaign for town supervisor, Jens-Smith was critical about Walter’s handling of negotiations with Luminati. At a press conference in June she called for an independent investigation of the relationship between Preston and Walter, whom she accused of keeping information about the Luminati deal from the public.

Asked today why the town board didn’t schedule a meeting with the prospective purchasers at a public work session, Jens-Smith said the developers reached out to her and she “thought of it only as a meet and greet.”

Kent said she thought the same when agreeing to the meeting. “But in retrospect I realize we could have been more transparent,” she said. “We want  the public to be part of this process. So many people have many concerns. I hope the public really turns out for the hearing to ask questions.”

Wooten did not return a phone call seeking comment.

 

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Denise Civiletti
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.