Home Opinion Denise Civiletti No more wishful thinking: town board has the power — and responsibility...

No more wishful thinking: town board has the power — and responsibility — to act

Architect's 2017 rendering of Metro Group' Properties' proposed five-story apartment building adjacent to the East End Arts complex on East Main Street.

Enough with the hand-wringing over what developers want to build downtown and the impacts it will have.

No more “hoping” that they’ll do what you think is right for the character of downtown.

Dear esteemed members of the town board: developers are going to build as much as the town code allows them to build. Every last square inch.

If you don’t like what the code allows, change it. You are a legislative body. Changing the code is squarely within your purview. In fact, if you truly believe the construction of five-story apartment buildings on both sides of Main Street is a bad thing, then I’d say it’s not only your right to change the code to prevent it, it’s your responsibility.

Sure, you can hope developers will scale back plans. And yes, you can use the environmental review process to make sure they demonstrate their proposals will mitigate adverse impacts — a standard that’s not always been required.

But hoping and SEQRA will only go so far.

You are a legislative body. DO SOMETHING about it.

It’s a curious thing, this five-story, high-density development thing on Main Street. A significant part of the community is aghast. The buildings are big and bulky. They’re not in keeping with Main Street’s quaint character. The word “Mineola” gets dropped a lot. And they further isolate the riverfront from the downtown — the designated historic downtown.

How’d this happen?

The zoning code allowing 60-foot-tall buildings was adopted by the Riverhead Town Board on Nov. 3, 2004 — one year to the day of the board adopting the comprehensive plan.

The comprehensive plan was the result of years of work — a process begun in 1999 that included numerous community meetings and workshops, surveys and interviews, public hearings and several pitched battles.

In the spring and summer of 2003, a group of stakeholders formed to try and figure out how to maximize the transfer of development rights from agricultural lands to other locations, in order to preserve farmland without spending public money. That meant identifying those other locations — the areas that receive the transferred development rights, or TDRs, as they’re known to local policy wonks.

The draft comprehensive plan (dated June 2003) didn’t contemplate five-story buildings on Main Street or using TDRs to increase development density downtown as a tool for farmland preservation. The stakeholders group advocated that strategy and, when the comprehensive plan was adopted in final form in November 2003, it included that proposal. In the DC-1 (Main Street) zoning use district, the new zoning would allow “height, coverage and/or floor area increases through transferred development rights.”

But when the DC-1 zoning code was actually adopted by the town board on Nov. 3, 2004, it allowed residential uses on the upper floors of Main Street buildings and allowed construction to a maximum height of 60 feet. Not a peep about TDR to gain the density bonus.

Why not? What happened to it?

I was the editor of the local paper at the time. I’ve combed through the files on my computer in search of an answer and I came up empty. I’ve also read through minutes of town board meetings hoping to find a clue, some reference. I’ve even read through a file on TDRs lent to me by Richard Amper of the L.I. Pine Barrens Society, a leading player in the stakeholders group and the development of the TDR program.

I spoke today with former supervisor Phil Cardinale, who was in office in November 2004 when the downtown zoning codes were adopted and in 2005 when the TDR program was adopted. I also spoken at length with former councilwoman Barbara Blass, who had been the planning board chairwoman through much of the comprehensive planning process and was a councilwoman when the “master plan zoning codes” were adopted in 2004. And I spoke at length about this with Amper. Nobody — including myself — remembers.

Why was increased density allowed on Main Street without the transfer of development rights?

It did not conform to the master plan, adopted just a year earlier. How did that end up in the town code?

I jumped down this particular rabbit hole this morning, when I thought it might be useful to answer the questions: How did this happen? What were they thinking? People ask me this all the time.

I haven’t come up with a solid answer. Yet. But whatever the history may be, the future is in the hands of the current town board. They and they alone can determine what downtown Riverhead looks like for generations to come. But it’s going to take more than wishful thinking. It’s going to take action.

Put the brakes on pending proposals with a short-term moratorium.

Revisit the master plan. It was adopted 15 years ago next month. Work started on it almost 20 years ago. It is time.

Amend the zoning code to stop the construction of five-story buildings — at the very least on the south side of Main Street. (Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith told me this afternoon she is working on just such a proposal.) Riverhead turned its back on the river generations ago. It should not compound that mistake with a wall of buildings separating Main Street from the riverfront.

I personally believe that allowing residential uses on Main Street again is a smart move. But new residential development does not have to take the form of the 60-foot-tall, stucco monstrosity now proposed for land surrounded by some of the oldest, most historically significant buildings on Main Street. That proposal exists because town code allows it. Town code can be changed — and the town board has the authority and the responsibility to change it.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter and editor, an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a “writer of the year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website. Email Denise.