The pending sale of a large tract of town-owned land to Triple Five-affiliate Calverton Aviation and Technology is the new Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar’s top priority, she said this week.
“It’s the sale of the largest tract of industrial land in the Northeast corridor,” Aguiar said yesterday. “It’s important to the town to get this done and get it done right.”
It’s so important that Aguiar traveled to the state capital yesterday to meet with state officials about the future of the site.
“Today’s my fifth day and I’m going up there to meet on this,” Aguiar said in a phone interview yesterday morning as she drove to Albany.
During her first regular town board meeting Tuesday, Aguiar assured residents she intends to do everything in her power to ensure that 1,000 of environmentally sensitive lands inside the Calverton Enterprise Park are preserved.
“As much as I wanted to save 1,000 acres, it is a contract,” the supervisor said. “We’ve had three lawyers look at it — at a cost of $100,000 — and they all said the same. We have to go forward,” she said.
“As an individual overseeing this project, I’m going to make sure the thousand acres are preserved. There are ways of making sure that land is protected. It is in the contract but no one’s spoken about it,” Aguiar said during Tuesday’s board meeting.
That little-discussed provision makes the sale subject to all covenants, restrictions, and easements that may be imposed by the planning board, the town board, the county health department, the State Department of Environmental Conservation and “any other approving governmental entity as a condition of any approvals required to obtain subdivision approval.” The caveat: the covenants, restrictions and easements cannot prohibit or restrict the use and development of the property as permitted town’s zoning code, subject to agreed-upon limitations in the contract — e.g. no residential uses, no commercial passenger airport.
The 1,000 acres in discussion are “undevelopable” under state environmental regulations, according to some town officials, though there has never been a formal decision by the State DEC as to what lands are or are not developable at the site. DEC officials did mark up the town’s draft 50-lot subdivision map several years ago to indicate areas that should be left undeveloped.
The deal struck first with Luminati Aerospace and then with Calverton Aviation and Technology — a joint venture between Luminati and Triple Five — calls for the town to sell 1,644 acres of vacant land for $40 million. That sparked controversy because the town had been previously negotiating with other prospective purchasers to sell about 600 acres of land at the site for about the same price.
Former supervisor Sean Walter, an early advocate for the deal, argued that including the additional 1,000 undevelopable acres would relieve the town of future costs associated with continued ownership.
The CAT contract was approved by a lame duck town board in a controversial 3-2 vote at the last meeting of 2017, after Walter had been voted out of office. The election had been hotly contested and Walter’s challenger, Democrat Laura Jens-Smith, made her opposition to the land deal a centerpiece of her successful campaign.
But the contract would not actually be signed until the following November, after the town board approved CAT as a “qualified and eligible sponsor” pursuant to N.Y. State Urban Renewal Law. The state law allows a municipality to sell or lease property in a designated urban renewal area like the Calverton Enterprise Park without going out to bid or obtaining an appraisal, as long as the purchaser/applicant is found to be qualified and eligible to develop the property in accordance with the municipality’s urban renewal plan.
The months-long qualified and eligible process included several hours of public testimony over two nights two weeks apart. The board’s vote was delayed as it waited for an ethics board ruling on whether Councilwoman Jodi Giglio should abstain from the vote because of a private meeting she took with the applicant in NYC while the public hearing was ongoing.
Giglio had been a vocal opponent of the EPCAL deal with Luminati Aerospace and in December 2017 voted against approving the contract with CAT, a company partly owned by Luminati. After the meeting in Triple Five’s Manhattan office, which she attended with former Riverhead community development director Chris Kempner, who was later disclosed to be a broker for Triple Five on a separate land deal in the Town of Brookhaven, Giglio changed her mind and, prior to the second session of the public hearing, came out in favor of the sale. She said she changed her mind after Triple Five assured her that Luminati Aerospace’s controversial founder and CEO Daniel Preston would not have a management role in CAT. At the NYC meeting, she said, Triple Five provided her with Preston’s signed statement to that effect.
A public outcry — and complaints to the ethics board — followed. Giglio maintains that she was doing her due diligence as a town councilwoman by taking the meeting with the applicant. It was “a long and tortuous eight months,” Giglio said in a Dec. 30 interview. She blames the controversy over her meeting with Triple Five on unfair coverage by the media, especially by RiverheadLOCAL.
“I was doing my job, my due diligence,” Giglio said, “but it was portrayed as if I did something wrong.”
In the interim, the board argued over whether the applicant’s financial disclosure had been adequate to make a qualified and eligible decision. After the ethics board cleared Giglio to vote, the board in another 3-2 vote in November 2018 determined Calverton Aviation and Technology to be qualified and eligible to buy and develop the site in keeping with the adopted urban renewal plan.
The contract of sale requires the town to subdivide the property into eight lots — three of which, comprising the 1,644 acres, including the site’s two runways, will be transferred to CAT at closing. The contract is contingent on the town filing a final subdivision map with the county clerk within one year of the end of the buyer’s due diligence period. The clock started ticking when CAT gave the town notice to proceed to closing on May 15, 2019.
By that time, the town had already begun the process to obtain the subdivision approval required by its contract with CAT. The town had already filed amended its previous 50-lot subdivision map, which had been pending before the planning board since 2015 but never acted upon.
The town’s special counsel, Frank Isler, met with the planning board in March to review the revised map. The planning board held a May 2 public hearing on the revised subdivision map. And on June 20, the planning board granted preliminary approval to the eight-lot subdivision. Final approval will come after the town obtains necessary subdivision approvals from the Suffolk County Department of Health Services and the State DEC.
In the Dec. 30 interview, Giglio accused Jens-Smith of unnecessarily delaying the subdivision and keeping board members in the dark about its status. She said she had not seen the town’s applications to the county health department or the State DEC, or any responses from those agencies and said she was unaware where those applications stood.
Giglio said she would like to assume the role of “point person” for the town to shepherd the subdivision application through the process with the county health department and State DEC. She said she is a logical choice because of her business background as a permit expediter.
“I have the experience and I know how to do this,” she said. Giglio said she had already spoken to Aguiar, Councilman Tim Hubbard and incoming Councilman Frank Beyrodt about it and believed it would be discussed at a work session in the new year.
Yesterday, Aguiar acknowledged that the councilwoman had brought it up, but said as far as she is concerned, it was a non-starter.
“I’m going to take the lead on it,” Aguiar said. It’s her responsibility as supervisor, “and the board will be always be kept fully informed,” she said.
“I’m a New York State-licensed real estate agent and I’m fully familiar with land sales and acquisitions,” Aguiar said.
“I have been briefed by Mr. Isler. If we have to move forward, and I anticipate we are, then we have to make sure we protect that land and hopefully utilize the money and give some of it back to the public.”
In addition to the net cash proceeds of the sale, the property in private hands will generate between $3 million and $4 million in real property taxes annually, according to town officials.
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