The portion of 1,643 acres being sold by the town to a Triple Five Group affiliate that’s actually developable won’t be known until long after the deal has closed, Riverhead Town’s special counsel told the town board last week.
Riverhead Town’s decision to sell that much vacant land at the Calverton Enterprise Park for $40 million triggered controversy from the moment it was announced in March 2017.
Until that point, the town was attempting to market less than half that amount of land and had entertained at least two offers for roughly the same amount.
The decision two years ago to pursue a sale of nearly all the town’s remaining vacant acreage to Luminati Aerospace for the same price was defended by former supervisor Sean Walter with the argument that state environmental regulations would not allow for the development of more than 600.
To support his contention, Walter produced a copy of the subdivision map prepared by the town’s engineering consultants that DEC staff had “red-lined” in 2012 to indicate areas they considered developable. Conveying the undevelopable acreage to the buyer would relieve the town of responsibility for the remaining vacant land, Walter said at the time. He said the cost of “mowing the grass” on the vacant land could be as much as $100,000 a year.
The town’s special counsel Frank Isler, who has been working on the deal since the town board unanimously authorized the letter of intent with Luminati Aerospace on April 4, 2017, told board members Thursday the State Department of Environmental Conservation has never given the town any sort of official determination of what areas of the former Grumman site can be developed.
And Isler told board members the town shouldn’t expect the DEC to formally weigh in on that question in the future.
“When can we expect to get a definitive answer from the DEC on how many acres of land is developable?” Councilman Tim Hubbard asked Isler at the board’s Thursday work session.
“You will not get a decision in this process at all from the DEC on that question,” Isler told him.
“The DEC is only going to look at [the state Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act] permit for the subdivision,” Isler explained, “nothing to do with the development of the property at all.”
The town board, sitting as the board of the Riverhead Community Development Agency, which holds title to the EPCAL site, has amended a prior 50-lot subdivision application it filed with the Riverhead planning board in 2014. The new application seeks to divide the land into just eight lots, three of which would be transferred to Calverton Aviation and Technology pursuant to its purchase agreement with the CDA.
“After we sell the property the applicant will have to come in with a site plan application and will have to show the DEC they’re not proposing to build in sensitive areas regarding habitat,” Isler said.
“They’re going to have to get approval or blessing from the DEC, more likely than not, they’ll have to get a taking permit from the DEC,” he said, referring to a new permit requirement under ‘incidental take’ regulations adopted by the DEC in 2010 aimed at enhancing protection of endangered and threatened species.
Isler said he attended a meeting at the DEC “a year or so ago” with the prospective purchaser.
The DEC told the purchasers development is going to depend on where they want to place their development, Isler said.
“We [the town] had placed it where they knew there was going to be impact, so we had to come up with a plan to preserve areas for habitat,” Isler said. “They have a blank slate right now,” he said.
“So that will drive how much development and where the development will be. Whatever they do in terms of development there and wherever it goes, they’re going to have to go through SEQRA on whatever application they submit,” Isler said, referring to the process of review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act.
“You won’t know where or how much is being developed until we’re no longer owning the property,” Isler told town board members.
The closing is not contingent on any future approvals, Isler noted.
Purchaser Calverton Aviation and Technology — successor to Luminati Aerospace in the deal — is currently in a second, 90-day “due diligence” period allowed by the contract of sale.
CAT has until May 20 to give the town notice it will proceed with the purchase. If it notifies the town it intends to proceed, the town has one year from the date of notice to file the amended subdivision map. To be able to do so, the town needs approvals of the subdivision from the Riverhead planning board and the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, as well as a permit from the DEC under the Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act (because a portion of the site is within the WSRR boundary.)
Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said the town has been been working on the subdivision map revision since before CAT signed the purchase agreement in November. Town planners have been doing a “consistency analysis,” comparing the revised map with the original 50-lot map to determine whether the previous SEQRA environmental analysis is sufficient to cover the new application.
The revised maps were to be submitted to the Riverhead planning board Thursday, Isler said. The application is on the planning board’s March 21 agenda for discussion, he said.
The town will file an application with the Suffolk County health department next month as soon as it concludes SEQRA review, planning administrator Jefferson Murphree told the board.
Meanwhile the town has been moving forward with upgrade and expansion plans for the Calverton sewage treatment plant. The town board has scheduled a March 19 hearing on more than $3 million of additional borrowing required to fund the cost of the upgrade, which has gone up since the town first authorized more than $7 million in bonds 10 years ago to cover a portion of the cost. It has obtained state and county grants to underwrite the project.
The length of time it will take to obtain the required health department approval is unknown and out of the town’s control, officials said.
If the health department grants the town an exemption because of the large size of the eight proposed lots, the application will be expedited, Isler said.
“If we have to go through a full review it’s anybody’s guess,” he cautioned. “It will likely be five months or more. The DEC permit will take five or six months,” Isler said.
Jens-Smith asked if the approvals could be wrapped up by the fall.
“If the stars line up,” Isler answered.
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