As 2018 draws to a close, let’s take a look back at the year that was through a local lens.

Riverhead made history in 2018 when the first female supervisor in the town’s 226-year history took the oath of office. And for the first time in history, the Riverhead Town Board became a female-majority body. While this had no discernible impact on the course of governance, it is still worth noting.

This was the year of EPCAL

The future of the Calverton Enterprise Park dominated local news and debate throughout most of 2018, a year that saw the town enter into a $40 million contract to sell nearly all of its remaining vacant land within the enterprise park.

Town officials spent much of the year trying to determine whether a new company controlled by mega-mall developers Triple Five Group was “qualified and eligible” to buy and develop the remaining vacant land at the site.

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio spent much of the year under scrutiny for her decision to have a private meeting with the prospective developers during the pendency of a public hearing on their “qualified and eligible” application. Giglio, who had been an opponent of the sale, changed her mind after listening to the purchaser’s private pitch.

A civic coalition filed a complaint with the Riverhead ethics board that the board took several months to decide, holding up the town board’s decision on the application, in which the councilwoman was thought to be the deciding vote. The board eventually ruled that Giglio did not violate the town ethics code

Over the objections of a coalition of civic and environmental groups, a split town board in November found the purchaser “qualified and eligible” and the supervisor signed the contract of sale with Calverton Aviation and Technology. The contract is subject to the buyer’s right to conduct an environmental investigation of the site during a “due diligence” period and it is also subject to the buyer obtaining a subdivision and site plan approval from the town. Those two conditions, taken together, could mean title to the site won’t pass in the new year, but Triple Five’s spokesperson says the company is hopeful. Meanwhile Triple Five is working on redeveloping the former Dowling College aviation school campus in Shirley.

Along the way, there was drama, intrigue and more than a few surprises surrounding the EPCAL sale:

For a look at the history of the Calverton Enterprise Park prior to the events of 2018, see the RiverheadLOCAL series:

View of the Peconic Crossing building from Grangebel Park. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Are we getting downtown revitalization right?

Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith and Councilwoman Catherine Kent set their sights on downtown revitalization, which for them meant re-thinking five-story apartment buildings and cracking down on landlords with vacant properties. They proposed a downtown revitalization committee, a blighted properties code, and began the process of revising the zoning code that applies to Main Street. The zoning code revision has drawn objections from property owners and inspired the formation of a downtown property owners’ coalition to fight what the group sees as a threat to their property rights.

The first five-story apartment building, Peconic Crossing, was completed and occupied — 901 applicants entered a lottery for 45 apartments.

Riverside revitalization made progress this year with the purchase of the long-vacant diner on the traffic circle. The buyer razed the eyesore diner and started construction of a new office building. The renovation of the Riverside traffic circle was completed. And plans advanced for a riverfront park on the south side of the river as well as a satellite location for the Children’s Museum of the East End in Ludlam Park — both of which received significant grant awards from the State Regional Economic Development Council this month.

The Route 58 business corridor in 2018

Meanwhile, Riverhead’s bustling commercial corridor has begun to show some cracks as brick-and-mortar retailers struggle to adapt and survive in the era of online shopping. Route 58 saw the closure of Toys R Us and Kmart this year. Those two empty “big box” stores joined longstanding vacancies at the former Walmart and former Sports Authority sites. Plans for a movie theater at the former Walmart site remain stalled.

But the news wasn’t all bad for the town’s “destination retail” shopping district. A new ShopRite opened in the former Waldbaum’s site. An IHOP restaurant opened where Joe’s Crab Shack (and before it Boulder Creek Steak House) folded. Several more stores were built and occupied in “The Shops at Riverhead” (Costco) plaza. And when Modell’s chose not to renew its lease in the “Riverhead Centre” plaza, Ashley Furniture took the space and plans to open a new store there in early 2019. The former Sports Authority space is being subdivided for new tenants, including Planet Fitness, according to a report in the News-Review.

Tractor Supply Co. sells a wide variety of goods, including small animal products; hardware, truck, towing and tool products; heating, lawn and garden items, power equipment, gifts and toys; work/recreational clothing and footwear; and maintenance products. Photo: Tractor Supply Co.

More land use news

A long court battle over Riverhead’s 2003 master plan finally ended, with a huge win for the town when the appeals court upheld the zoning codes enacted pursuant to the master plan. Developers seeking to build in areas designated “rural corridor,” where commercial development was limited, sought to overturn the zoning.

One “big box” retail development on Middle Country Road in Calverton — in the rural corridor zoning use district — will be built anyway because of a separate lawsuit settled years ago. A retail plaza with a Tractor Supply store is going in on land across from Fresh Pond Avenue.

The town, meanwhile, began looking at developing its remaining vacant parkland in Calverton as a regional recreation facility. The town had carved 62 acres out of the EPCAL site for park uses and built some ballfields and a dog park there. But it lacks the money to do much else — including, even, installing lights. Riverhead has entered into negotiations with a recreation consulting firm to have a feasibility study done for a regional sports and recreation facility at the park, which town officials say could be an attraction that will bring business into town.

Advocates carrying a Save Bishop McGann-Mercy High School banner marched in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Jamesport. Photo: Denise Civiletti

McGann-Mercy, St. Isidore’s close

Catholic education on the East End took a hit in 2018, when the Diocese of Rockville Centre decided to close McGann-Mercy High School and consolidate St. Isidore’s with Our Lady of Mercy in Cutchogue to form a new school, St. John Paul II Regional School, on the St. Isidore’s campus.

The diocese remains tight-lipped about the future of the McGann-Mercy campus. But it rebuffed a plan by local parents to open an independent Catholic high school there, telling the group in August it had already sold the site for over $10 million. 

Riverhead High School NJROTC cadets look for the funeral procession as it approaches the high school entrance. Photo: Denise Civiletti

In memoriam

Riverhead native Dashan Briggs was one of seven airmen killed in a helicopter accident in Iraq in March. The town turned out to pay its respects to Briggs as his funeral procession made its way to Calverton National Cemetery. The town also named the street where he grew up in his honor. His football uniform number was retired and the Riverhead lacrosse program held a fundraiser game in his honor to help support the family he left behind.

Tragedy struck in September when 12-year-old Boy Scout Andrew McMorris of Wading River was killed and three others injured during a Sunday afternoon hike in Manorville when they were struck by a car driven by an allegedly drunk driver.

Other prominent Riverhead citizens passed on this year, including former highway superintendent Charles Bloss, former planning board member and prominent farmer Lyle Wells, and Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance Corps charter member Marie Dunleavy, wife of former councilman John Dunleavy. Also among the deceased this year were prominent business people Ernest Olsen, founder of Homeside Florist and Greenhouses, Suffolk County National Bank chief lending officer and executive vice president Robert Dick, and John Anderson, founder of East End Asphalt. Riverhead also said goodbye this year to World War II veterans Theodore M. Sysol, of South Jamesport, who landed at Normandy, decorated combat veteran John F. Cuddy Sr., of Jamesport and U.S. Navy veteran William Mailander of Riverhead.

A Riverhead police dog was killed in the line of duty this year. K9 Rocky died in a car accident as K9 officer John Morris gave chase to a man who had injured two officers in a sobriety checkpoint and fled. K9 units from across the region turned out to honor Rocky.

Generous donations from local residents and businesses helped the Riverhead Police Department acquire and train a new dog, Odin. He and handler Morris are expected to be patrol-certified by the end of February.

Zeldin celebrates his victory with his supporters in Patchogue Tuesday. Photo: Peter Blasl

Other noteworthy news in 2018

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) won a decisive re-election in November, but will return to Washington as a member of the minority party in the House of Representatives for the first time since taking office in 2015.

The federal government in January unveiled plans to allow offshore oil exploration and drilling in the Atlantic Ocean and other regions, drawing immediate fire from elected officials, environmental groups and residents.

The battle over helicopter traffic continued in 2018. Zeldin gained passage of legislation requiring the Federal Aviation Administration to hold local public hearings on the North Shore Helicopter Route, but the agency held public information forums instead, angering Zeldin, local elected officials and residents bothered by noise from helicopters they say has destroyed their quality of life. 

Northwell Health/Peconic Bay Medical Center’s new critical care tower began to rise over the hospital’s main campus on Roanoke Avenue. PBMC also opened the first caregivers’ center on Long Island. And Northwell, partnering withEngel-Burman Group, broke ground on the Wellbridge addiction research and treatment center in Calverton.

The Riverhead Town Animal Shelter finally has a new home. The North Fork Animal Welfare League, which runs the shelter, purchased Scoshire Kennels in Jamesport and has relocated the shelter to the new site.

News happens…See you in 2019.

We need your help.
Now more than ever, the survival of quality local journalism depends on your support. Our community faces unprecedented economic disruption, and the future of many small businesses are under threat, including our own. It takes time and resources to provide this service. We are a small family-owned operation, and we will do everything in our power to keep it going. But today more than ever before, we will depend on your support to continue. Support RiverheadLOCAL today. You rely on us to stay informed and we depend on you to make our work possible.

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.