South Jamesport resident Ethel Sussman discusses downtown parking with Riverhead planning and zoning administrator Jefferson Murphree at a downtown community forum in February 2020. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Civic and environmental group members say they were stunned last week by the announcement that a “central advisory committee” had been established by the town board to work on Riverhead’s comprehensive plan update.

The committee, announced in a press release by Supervisor Yvette Aguiar on Jan. 4, will “review submissions” from the town’s outside planning consultants and “offer critical feedback and recommendations to the town board,” according to the release.

“The Riverhead Town Board has finalized the appointment of 14 members to the Central Advisory Committee,” the release said.

The town board had never discussed the creation or composition of the committee at a public meeting, nor has the board adopted a resolution to establish the committee.

“This was something the consultants said we needed to do,” explained Councilman Tim Hubbard, the town board liaison to the new committee.

The “central advisory committee” members named in the release — actually numbering 16, not 14, people — includes 10 town officials: Aguiar, deputy supervisor Devon Higgins, Hubbard, building and planning administrator Jefferson Murphree, planning board chairman Stan Carey, Police Chief David Hegermiller, water district superintendent Frank Mancini, sewer district superintendent Michael Reichel, recreation superintendent Ray Coyne, and conservation advisory council member Chuck Thomas.

Other committee members are: School Superintendent Christine Tona, PBMC president and CEO Andrew Mitchell, L.I. Farm Bureau administrative director Rob Carpenter, Long Island Builders Institute CEO Mitch Pally, Richmond Realty principal Ike Israel and Atlantis Holdings executive director Bryan DeLuca.

“Where’s the representation of community residents, civic and environmental groups? They’re not even hinted at,” said Riverhead Neighborhood Preservation Coalition cofounder and executive board member Phil Barbato. RNPC is a coalition of six civic organizations and is supported by the North Fork Environmental Council and the Group for the East End, two environmental groups that are active in Riverhead Town.

The 2003 comprehensive plan process incorporated a citizens advisory committee that represented a broad cross-section of the community, including civic and environmental organizations, hamlet task forces, senior citizens, business groups and more. It had 33 members, according to the plan document’s acknowledgement pages.

“The consultants felt the 2003 plan had too many chefs,” Hubbard said.

Aguiar said in an interview Tuesday the advisory committee is “very diverse” and includes “people who have the knowledge, such as Mitch Pally” of the L.I. Builders Institute, who is an expert in development and construction, according to the supervisor.

“The role of the committee is to gather together to help guide the planning department,” Aguiar said. “There will be plenty of different opportunities for the entire public to weigh in, including public hearings, surveys, interviews and meetings,” she said.

The committee already had its first meeting on Monday, the supervisor said.

Aguiar referred additional questions to Murphree, who is “taking the lead on this,” she said.

In an interview Tuesday, Murphree said including representatives of the various civic and environmental groups and other parties would result in a committee too large to be functional.

The 2003 advisory committee had over 30 members, Murphree said. “If you’ve ever tried chairing a committee that large, you’d know it’s not feasible,” he said.

“The next part of what we’re doing is meeting with the civics and hamlets,” Murphree said. “People will have plenty of opportunity to weigh in.”

Former supervisor Laura Jens-Smith, who had advocated for a comprehensive plan update and oversaw the consultant selection process that led to hiring Environmental, Planning and Engineering Consultants in October 2019, said the committee members picked by the town are anything but diverse, as Aguiar stated.

“Everyone on this committee has a shared interest in development,” Jens-Smith said.

“The comprehensive plan sets the direction of the community for the future,” Jens-Smith said. “You need an advisory committee that represents all aspects of our community.”

North Fork Environmental Council vice president Mark Haubner, who also serves on the town’s environmental committee, said the focus of the committee is obvious from the supervisor’s press release. It’s all about the economic growth of Riverhead, he said, as if that’s all there is to a comprehensive plan.

“What about energy, coastal resiliency, housing opportunities, social equities, open space?” Haubner asked.

Former planning board chairperson and town board member Barbara Blass was very involved in the 2003 comprehensive plan process, as both planning board chairperson and town board member; she was the town board liaison to the citizens advisory committee.

“It was definitely community-driven,” Blass said in an interview yesterday.

The 2003 plan was developed by the planning board and work commenced in 1999. The planning board appointed a citizens advisory committee to oversee preparation of the plan, according to the document. The committee was “responsible for raising issues of concern and reviewing and commenting on first drafts of the chapters in the plan as they were released,” the document states.

“Two rounds of CAC meetings were held,” the plan document says. “All CAC meetings were held in town hall, were open to the general public and were noticed in local newspapers. Through the CAC meetings, anyone interested in the town’s future was invited to express his or her viewpoints.”

Blass said the CAC also had subcommittees to address specific topics and members of the community were invited to serve on the subcommittees as well.

“We had a tremendous response,” she said.

“The town’s comprehensive plan is supposed to embody the vision of the residents. They’re the most significant stakeholders,” Blass said.

“The community needs to be involved inn the formation of the plan,” Blass said, “not just in response to a plan presented to them.”

Blass noted that while the previous citizens advisory committee had more than 30 members, it worked in smaller groups and was not at all difficult to manage because of size.

There was a lot of “spirited discussion” on the way to building consensus for a vision of the future, she recalled. “Isn’t that how it should be?”

The former councilwoman said it’s extremely important to have local residents involved in the process, because they’re the people with local expertise at the hamlet level.

The consultants and many of the members of the new advisory committee do not live in the Town of Riverhead, even if they work here, she said. So that kind of intimate knowledge about the various hamlets and neighborhoods is lacking.

“This can’t be a top-down process if it’s going to work. That will guarantee push-back and controversy,” Blass said.

Blass said she is certain AKRF, which has a lot of experience and expertise in community planning, understands this. She expressed doubt that the firm advised the town to limit the committee in size or scope.

The rollout of the new central advisory committee and its make-up are “indicative of a shift in policy away from public participation in this administration,” Blass said. “It often seems the public is an afterthought.”

Steven Holley, the AKRF project manager who is designated to oversee community outreach, according to materials distributed to the town board and the public in September, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

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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.