Building and planning administrator Jefferson Murphree answers questions at a Nov. 13, 2019 special town board meeting. Photo: Denise Civiletti

The president of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association is questioning the propriety of Riverhead planning and building administrator Jefferson Murphree working as a paid consultant to a developer seeking to build a 7-Eleven gas station and convenience store on the Riverside traffic circle.

Murphree, a Sag Harbor resident, is a certified planner who worked for the Town of Southampton planning department for more than a decade before he was hired by Riverhead, appeared on behalf of the developer at a March 25 Southampton Planning Board meeting.

“Our project design provides a nice transition from the traffic circle into the hamlet center,” Murphree told the planning board during last week’s meeting.

“The applicant has been asked how does the proposed development comply with the 2015 Riverside revitalization action plan? In answering this question, we believe the proposed development complies with many of the stated goals and objectives not only of the 2015 revitalization plan, but also the 2004 Flanders Northampton Riverside Hamlet plan and also the Riverside light study as well. I served as the project manager on both of these studies while I was employed with the town,” Murphree said.

“Some of the stated goals and objectives of these plans which the project achieves includes getting rid of slum and blight, removing a former dilapidated automotive repair garage, providing new small scale retail space that is accessible by the local community and removing old underground fuel storage tanks,” he said.

Jefferson Murphree, second row at right, during the March 25 Southampton Town Planning Board meeting. (Video screenshot)

Murphree detailed reasons why, in his opinion, the site is not appropriate for the type of development envisioned in the 2015 Riverside Action Plan adopted by the Southampton Town Board, which created an overlay district that allows high-density, mixed-use development on Flanders Road in the area of the traffic circle in the hope of establishing a walkable downtown community in Riverside.

He went on to note that the development vision endorsed by Southampton Town requires hookup to a sewage treatment plant, which does not yet exist.

“Property owners cannot be expected to wait indefinitely for a sewage treatment plant to be constructed,” Murphree told the board. “The primary goal of this proposed development is to get rid of an old dilapidated gas station-auto repair garage and replace it with a safe, clean use on the subject property similar to those approved in other hamlets throughout the town that will be attractively designed to encourage both vehicular and pedestrian customers,” he said.

Taldone, who attended the meeting, held via Zoom video conference, highlighted his community group’s objections to the proposal, which he had previously submitted in greater detail in a four-page letter to the planning board.

The use is “the virtual opposite” of what the Riverside Action Plan envisions for the site, Taldone said. FRNCA has also asked the town board to impose a moratorium on new gas stations and convenience stores in Riverside, he noted.

At the meeting, Taldone was under the mistaken impression that Murphree was no longer employed by the Town of Riverhead.

Taldone spoke of how closely Riverside and downtown Riverhead are aligned and said the community group works closely with the Town of Riverhead on issues that affect the two hamlets, “because we are all on the same side with the environment we want to create,” Taldone said.

“Mr. Murphree should understand that, having worked for the Town of Riverhead,” Taldone said. “Be that as it may, we all have to earn a living.”

Taldone’s comment elicited a smile from Murphree, who shook his head and appeared on the video to comment to himself, though his microphone was muted and whatever he said could not be heard.

In an interview yesterday, Taldone said he learned after the meeting that Murphree is still the Riverhead Town planning and building administrator — and he was flabbergasted.

“He spoke as a ‘planning expert’ though not identifying himself as the current planning director of Riverhead,” Taldone said. “How is that not a conflict of interest?” He asked. Riverhead Town was an interested agency in the Riverside Revitalization Action Plan, he said. “We’ve worked closely with (CDA director) Dawn Thomas. The downtown and Riverside are joined together.”

Taldone said he was “horrified” by Murphree’s statements about the proposed use conforming with the Riverside Revitalization Action Plan.

“He cited some of the obvious like the plans elimination of blight as a goal,” Taldone said. “But a nuclear power plant could eliminate the blight but would hardly qualify as a desired use for pedestrian, walkable downtowns,” he said.

Taldone attended the Riverhead Town Board meeting today to voice his complaints about Murphree representing the developer of the proposed 7-Eleven on the Riverside circle.

“I just don’t understand entirely, how it is not a conflict of interest for your staff member to be promoting walkability for you, while trying to defeat walkability by working for our developer in the same location.

“If a bad proposal had come in, I would come running to Town Hall to speak to your planning director, and to speak to your community development agency,” Taldone said. “How do I do that when the planning director of your town is a paid planning expert for the developer proposing what is the opposite of everything we’ve been working for, is sitting at that desk? I can’t do it,” Taldone said.

“So if it’s not a conflict of interest, I think you ought to consider making that kind of side job totally unacceptable for someone in such a leadership position, so that we go back to being friends and partners in the redevelopment rather than adversaries,” Taldone said.

“Okay, so why don’t you write a letter to the clerk,” Supervisor Yvette Aguiar told Taldone. “It seems like your concerns are lengthy. They’re a little complicated, and we can — It’ll be forwarded to our building department and we could take it from there,” the supervisor said.

Asked by email this morning for a response to Taldone’s statements about an alleged conflict of interest, Murphree replied, “I will respond to this question after work today. When I get home.”

Murphree was hired by Riverhead Town in July 2012 to the newly created position of Riverhead building and planning administrator, to oversee both the building and planning departments. Previous to that, he had worked for a short time as director of environmental planning at Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc., known as VHB, a planning consulting firm hired by Riverhead Town in 2011 to prepare a development plan, subdivision map and zoning for the former Grumman site in Calverton.

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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.