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Supervisor Yvette Aguiar will bring a proposal to the town board this morning for converting vacant retail spaces to “micro apartments.”

With the decline of brick-and-mortar national retailers — a trend hastened by the COVID-19 crisis — many municipalities are scrambling to find ways to fill vacant retail spaces and make up for lost property tax revenues.

Riverhead, which adopted zoning in the early 2000s to create a “destination retail” regional shopping district on Route 58, saw the development of numerous “big box” stores occupied by national retail chains. Some, like Toys ‘R’ Us and Kmart, have since gone belly-up, leaving gaping vacancies on the town’s main commercial strip.

Aguiar will ask the town board to consider allowing vacant retail spaces to be redeveloped with “micro” apartments, which she says would fill a need for a variety of household types without impacting the school district. She points to a growing number of one-person households in Suffolk County — 113,170 people as of 2018, according to data in a presentation she plans to make during the town board work session this morning.

Aguiar’s presentation does not specify a minimum or maximum size for the micro apartments, but these types of dwellings are usually 450 square feet or less — with some municipal ordinances allowing units as small as 250 square feet. The supervisor’s presentation recommends amending county health department regulations for calculating wastewater “flow rates” for units under 450 square feet.

“This is the new wave across the country,” Aguiar said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. Micro units are popular because they are more affordable and versatile, she said.

It could also be an avenue for farmland preservation in Riverhead.

Town officials have been discussing the “adaptive reuse” of vacant buildings on Route 58 for a few years. In March 2017, a committee tasked with breathing new life into the town’s transfer of development rights program suggested zoning code amendments to allow residential development on Route 58 with the use of TDRs. The TDR program aims to preserve farmland by allowing a developer to buy the farm’s development rights and use them to increase development on another site located in a designated receiving zone.

Then-supervisor Sean Walter said he favored a Route 58 corridor study to begin implementing such a change. That study never got underway, with officials citing cost as an obstacle.

After the town receiving funding under a community benefit agreement with a solar energy company developing a site in Calverton, the town board last October authorized an update of the townwide comprehensive plan, which was last updated in 2003, at a cost of up to $675,000.

Last October, the town authorized a contract with AKRF Environmental, Planning and Engineering Consultants. The consultants’ proposal called for completion of the plan within 18 months.

There has not yet been a public update on the status of the master plan. The town board’s meeting schedule was disrupted earlier this year by the COVID crisis, which also severely impacted business activity in all areas of the private sector.

Aguiar said Tuesday afternoon the master plan “should be ready in 18 months.”

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