EPCAL runway. File photo: Peter Blasl

Let’s suppose that the Riverhead Town Board had an uncle, someone they look to for advice from time to time. Suppose further that this uncle had no axe to grind, no partisan agenda, no inside track with any special interest. All he has to offer is some senior citizen wisdom and common sense with a touch of the people’s “street smarts.” And finally, suppose the town board, including the supervisor, let him pop into a work session, open to the public, to hear what he has to say about the current goings-on with EPCAL.

“Just thought I’d drop by to share some thoughts about this EPCAL thing. It’s long been the talk of the town. It seems just about everyone is shaking their heads in disappointment. Let’s see why it has come to this, and what to do about it.

“First of all, why is a cash-strapped town selling well over 1,500 acres of prime and unique industrial land for a song? $40 million is well below what it’s worth, and everyone knows it. That alone should send you back to square one.

Going back to square one has become a tradition for Riverhead when it comes to EPCAL, after all these false alarms with one proposal after another, some of them real crackpot ideas. So many developers have come and gone, and in each instance, the town would go into gyrations, like a dog chasing its tail. With each deal falling through, one “entrepreneur” after another would hit the road. Some proposals had promise, such as that large-scale movie and TV production studio, but oddly were never given a chance.

“Then there’s this mess with housing. Let’s not get into the absurdity of Riverhead’s changing EPCAL’s zoning to allow all those units of housing. Suffice it to say that it doesn’t belong. Plenty of housing – whether it’s ‘affordable,’ ‘workforce,’ ‘subsidized,’ ‘low income’ – is being built in Riverhead as we speak. Even more is planned by our bad neighbor, Southampton Town, by the traffic circle and elsewhere nearby. The Riverhead School District is being hammered by all this, with little more response from you than the formation of a committee.

“But let’s get to the heart of the matter – there have been far too many red flags about Luminati. The company’s co-founder is long on hyperbole but short on details and backup. The “dream team” he presented to us has disappeared. Notice how his lofty plans and projections for manufacturing at the site for all this time have not come to fruition. Owing to Luminati’s non-disclosure agreements with almost all of their prior associates, it’s next to impossible to confirm much of what they tell you. And their current development partner, and financial backer – the third in less than a year – is a developer of shopping malls, who was the subject of a Bloomberg News article that I know you have read, but is so much worth reading again.

“How do we work comfortably with this latest financial partner, who has reportedly walked away from a number of prolonged deals that other municipalities were counting on? Do we need this investor group whose M.O. is getting huge municipal, financial breaks for any project it touches? In just the brief time they have been on the scene here, their corporate partnership with Luminati has already unexpectedly changed. Why did they change that at such a sensitive time? You were right to delay their next crucial hearing until we know who the players are.

“And you can bet Riverhead’s infamous Industrial Development Agency lies waiting in the wings, eager to give away the store, mostly under the radar, as usual. Our IDA, and whether we really need one, desperately needs your attention, but we’ll get into that some other time.

“The recent, secret meetings with these new financiers, two councilpeople at a time, could not have been more I’ll-advised. It was great technical advice from your lawyer on how to evade the open meetings law, but bad – really bad – advice overall. It underscores how the town may lack the best legal minds it can get for this once-in-a-lifetime, pivotal, multi-million dollar sale.

“The pending contract draft that has been prepared on the town’s behalf is another example of how you should pay strict attention to the legal advice you get. To illustrate, the contract doesn’t give the town the right to have access to the property to inspect the runway improvements the purchaser is obligated to perform. All the purchaser has to do is show the town “evidence” that he did it. This is one of many pitfalls. All of you absolutely have to go over this contract, page by page, before committing to it. That’s the necessary tedium of your job. Town boards in the past always did this. Why has this stopped, and above all, why now? To leave these details to be fixed later would be immeasurably careless.

“And finally, what about other prospective buyers? Strange, isn’t it, that for all this time, you have been told of absolutely no one expressing an interest in buying at EPCAL? Has anyone asked the brokers working for the town a simple, direct question: whether any prospective buyers have reached out to them? You could certainly use an expressed interest or an offer for someone else as leverage with Luminati. And now that it’s clear that Luminati is far from the best we can get to do business with, another interested buyer could serve as Plan B.

“So, board members, you have a lot on your plate. The recent town elections left no question about the people’s loss of confidence in how this EPCAL deal is going down. Aim higher than this – all of us will be living with your decision for generations to come. As long as you have a rational basis to find Luminati and its partners not qualified and eligible for this purchase, nor for the huge obligation to repair the runway, you and this town can thankfully move on. Don’t yield to the pressure to just get this done, no matter what. Do this right, and do it well. Please remember one thing – you (we) are in the driver’s seat.”

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg