Architect Martin Sendlewski spoke on behalf of the newly formed Riverhead Downtown Property Owners Coalition Dec. 18. Photo: Denise Civiletti

A coalition of downtown property owners coalition has formed to advocate for their rights and “the overall success of our currently revitalizing downtown.

Some downtown property owners are alarmed by discussions among town officials and a recently formed downtown revitalization committee of draft zoning code changes that would, among other things, reduce the maximum height of buildings on Main Street.

Representatives of the group went to the town board meeting last night to air their grievances and seek an opportunity for input. Their message: plans being discussed by town officials to reduce maximum building height allowed as-of-right will “crush” the nascent revitalization underway downtown.

The proposed changes are “extremely disturbing” to property owners, said coalition organizer Martin Sendlewski. Sendlewski, an architect, is chairman of the downtown parking district committee and former vice president of the Riverhead Business Improvement District Management Association.

“What you’re going to do is take away 60 percent of our development rights,” Sendlewski said. “We’re going from five stories to two stories and then all of a sudden, there’s TDR,” Sendlewski said.

Sendlewski was referring to a draft code revision that would designate the DC-1 zoning use district — which applies to Main Street between Griffing and McDermott avenues — as a “receiving area” for development rights purchased off farmland in designated “sending areas.”

Sendlewski demanded to know what the intent of the proposed revision is.

“Quite frankly we’re of the opinion that its been put in there based on lobbying efforts of special interests… people who want to sell more TDRs,” he said. “Quite frankly, it’s criminal.”

More than 900 applicants sought one of the 45 units at Peconic Crossing. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Officials have been discussing reducing the maximum building height in the DC-1 district to 24 feet, or two stories, from the current 60 feet, with increases to 36 feet (three stories) and 48 feet (four feet) allowed only with the purchase of development rights. One development right would equal 3,000 square feet of gross floor area under the proposed code drafted by town building and planning administrator Jefferson Murphree and discussed by the downtown revitalization committee and the town board.

Officials have also been discussing ways to boost the town’s transfer of development rights program, widely considered unsuccessful. Those discussions have included expanding receiving areas.

But town board members last night said the TDR proposal for DC-1 is not the result of any third-party lobbying.

They also stressed that the proposed code is “a draft” and nothing has been finally determined.

“This is just the beginning of a work in progress,” Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said. “To be able to come to be table to have a discussion, you need a document to start from,” she said. “Everything is still in discussion.”

“And that’s why we’re here,” Sendlewski said. “We want to participate. We want to be part of the process.”

Sendlewski submitted a marked-up copy of the draft code indicating the coalition’s “preliminary comments.”

Deputy Supervisor Tim Hubbard thanked Sendlewski and said it was of “utmost importance that property owners have a say.”

Developer Richard Israel complained that downtown property owners were not individually invited to participate in the downtown revitalization committee formed by the town board this spring. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Developer Richard Israel said downtown property owners have been “working on revitalization for 10 years” and downtown is “finally attracted people willing to make the investments.”

He questioned the formation of a downtown revitalization committee that he said does not include downtown property owners. The town should have reached out to them directly, he said.

“I don’t think any downtown owners have been invited to be part of these committees,” Israel said.

Councilwoman Catherine Kent, who proposed the downtown revitalization committee and is the town board’s liaison to it, objected. She said the town announced the formation of the committee and solicited members of the community interested in joining it to submit letters and resumes.

“It does include downtown property owners,” Kent said.

The resolution creating the committee passed by the town board April 3 and posted on the town’s website didn’t identify committee members by name but listed areas of “experience/expertise” each of the 12 members should have, for example, marketing, planning, construction and finance. The resolution also required appointment of a member of the Riverhead BID Management Association and a member of the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce as well as a person with experience/expertise operating a business downtown.

A town board resolution adopted May 16 named the following people to the committee: developer Joe Petrocelli (alternate Bryan DeLuca); BIDMA executive director Diane Tucci; Glynis Berry; Joe Montalbano; Sherry Patterson; Kim Cioch; Patricia Snyder; James Farley;  Nitin Mukul; Toni Hovercamp; Anthony Strollo and Juan E. Micieli- Martinez.

Kent said she would speak to the town’s IT department to get the committee members listed on the town website and would also get the committee’s meeting dates and locations posted on the town website, as  Sendlewski requested last night.

“I’ve been around 30 years,” Israel said. “I’ve watched downtown go up and back down. I’ve seen it fill up — I’ve helped fill it up — and I’ve watched it empty. Our downtown is beginning to happen. By you considering, through these committees, to start getting rid of the values or the reason why people have come to town, you’re basically going to go backwards,” Israel said.

The supervisor said the town is “trying to engage the community” because it wants community input.

“This is what we were hoping would happen — people coming forward with input,” Jens-Smith said. “That’s why we’re discussing it in work session every single week, out in the open. We’re looking for input before we even go to a public hearing.”

“From what we’ve seen so far, you will kill the downtown,” Israel said.

The five-story zoning makes it feasible to develop rental apartments downtown and residential uses downtown are the key to downtown revitalization, Israel said after last night’s meeting.

Rental apartments are allowed on the upper floors in the DC-1 district under the zoning code enacted in 2004 following the adoption of the 2003 master plan. There is a cap of 500 on the number of rental apartments allowed in the district. With the development proposals already pending, the number of rental units in the DC-1 district is at 480, town planning official Murphree said after last nights meeting.

The 60-foot maximum height allowed by the zoning is not tied to the residential uses in the zoning code — for example, upper floors could be built for offices or hotels, among other things — but it is questionable whether the market would support those uses.

The code changes currently under consideration, Suffolk Theater owner Bob Castaldi said, “will stop this revitalization sure as it’s started.” Castaldi has plans to add upper floors to the theater building for rental apartments and an expansion of the theater itself.

Editor’s note: This article has been amended post-publication to include additional comments of Councilwoman Catherine Kent made this morning.

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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.