Triple Five chairman Nader Ghermezian with members of his family and employees at the Feb. 27, 2018 opening session of the town's Q&E hearing. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar and town board members should guarantee community participation in official meetings during the abnormal time created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is particularly important as COVID-19 creates doubt about a reasonable assurance of performance by the purchasers of all remaining land at EPCAL. The deal should be shelved rather than moved ahead beneath the cover of a crisis that excludes normal discussion. The town should not lose its legal opportunity in mid-May to terminate the deeply flawed contract which includes a gift of 1,050 acres of environmentally sensitive land to Daniel Preston and the Ghermezian family.

It may seem wrong to bring this up during a time of unprecedented health risk and economic cost to ourselves, family and friends as well as of challenge to our community. But consequential actions with permanent impact should not be taken outside of normal scrutiny by citizens and the press. Granted, government meetings with the public physically present cannot take place because of required physical distancing. However the approach announced by the town is unduly restrictive.

The Notice of Change about the April 7 meetings of the Town Board and Community Development Agency, stated that they “will be suspending their rules.” The public will “have an opportunity to email or telephone their comments only regarding the specific resolutions being considered at the April 7, 2020 Town Board and Community Development Agency meetings by sending an email or by telephone on the date of the meeting between the hours of 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.” It also stipulated that “there will be no public comment regarding any other matter.” This is not called for and may not even be permitted by the governor’s executive order.

The supervisor and the board ought to consider the experience of a neighbor: “The Board of Trustees of the Village of Westhampton Beach will hold a public hearing on Wednesday, April 15, 2020 at 5:00 p.m. via a special Zoom meeting…All persons in interest will be heard by the Board of Trustees at the public hearing.”

If Riverhead used Zoom, the two board members who do not attend meetings, Jodi Giglio and Tim Hubbard, could fully participate rather than only by phone. Comment by the public could be by video or by phone with the Supervisor or a member of her staff controlling access. The whole meeting can be easily made available to the public on the town’s cable TV channel and livestreamed on the town’s website.

In normal circumstances, EPCAL Watch would request answers during the public comment time to its April 3 letter to the board, and then engage in an informative mutually beneficial dialog with members. The letter set forth six urgent questions (excerpted below) about the status of the pending contract with Calverton Aviation and Technology. As the potential termination date for the contract is fast approaching, it is imperative that the supervisor and members respond during an open public comment period at a Board meeting.

Little more than a month remains until, as the contract stipulates, “In the event the Filing Date does not occur within one year from the end of the Due Diligence Period, either party can terminate this Agreement upon written notice to the other party.”

The option of termination would in any case have merited serious consideration by the board because of the questions contained in the EPCAL Watch letter, among many others.. The uncertainty and instability created by COVID-19 makes serious discussion obligatory. The town does not want to lock down its economic, ecologic, and regionally-important future during these times of uncertain outcomes.

Triple Five is already expressing concern that its mall tenants will not pay rent, endangering its mortgage obligations. They themselves have raised questions to the media about meeting their obligations absent rent payments and thus of possible default.

The ability of the Ghermezian family to fulfill its intentions and obligations to Riverhead has been drastically curtailed by the damage to their primary investments in entertainment malls in Edmunton and Minnesota, as well as to their gambling interests in Las Vegas and barely begun mega mall in Miami. A Forbes article calls the Ghermezians’ “cursed” American Dream in New Jersey a “ghost mall.”

“Coming into contact with fellow shoppers may be troubling enough for many people getting used to crowds again, but entertainment venues take that trepidation to a new level…Triple Five and the Ghermezians will no doubt continue to have many restless nights waiting for their dream to begin.”

Clearly, the economic fallout from this public health crisis has changed everything. Riverhead cannot afford to sell an unequaled resource at a bad price based on determination made 18 months ago that this buyer was “qualified and eligible.”

We need an open and live discussion by board members with town residents about the EPCAL deal, including of potential termination next month. Any inclination by some board members to move ahead behind windows shaded by our health crisis must be resisted. At a minimum, elected officials must recognize that COVID-19 has fundamentally changed economic parameters. The qualified and eligible process should be reopened to determine whether the Ghermezians are still a credible buyer.

If you share this concern, please contact [email protected]

EPCAL Watch questions to the Board:

  1. Does the town have to vote formally to agree to continue performance under the contract?
  2. What is the venue for the town and CAT to negotiate a new timeline and will the public have an opportunity to weigh in?
  3. Will the town require CAT to provide updated financials, a completely realistic and logical request in light of the far-reaching economic impact of the pandemic?
  4. Will the town publicly discuss the information it will be submitting to the DEC in response to the NOIA in connection with WSRR permit so that the Board members and the public are all aware of the representations being made?
  5. Will the town post this application in its entirety on the EPCAL Development page on its website?
  6. Will CAT be required to discuss its Intended Development Plan to construct 10 million square feet of aviation related industrial space, which differs with respect to intensity, from the mixed use development, the subject of the SFGEIS, and as contemplated in the zoning?

John McAuliff is a member of EPCAL Watch. He lives in Riverhead.


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