Both drag racing events planned for the Calverton runways were approved today by the Riverhead Town Board.
The vote was 4-0 in favor, with Councilwoman Catherine Kent abstaining, on resolutions approving both the special event permits and the runway use agreements, for the two events. Kent said the applications required additional review and tried to table both resolutions, but failed to gain a second to table.
The “Race Track, Not Street” is a series pf eight race events — five daytime and three nighttime — over four consecutive weekends beginning Aug. 21. The Scrambul Runway Challenge is a two-day event on the weekend of Sept 25-26. The dates for both events have been pushed back to later in the summer after residents raised concerns about the races taking place during bird-nesting season. The grasslands at the Calverton Enterprise Park provide habitat for nesting birds.
The town board vote came after a lengthy public comment period during which residents opposed to the proposals or requesting additional review urged the board to either vote against them or table them — and advocates for drag racing urged the board to approve them both.
Motorsports advocates, who have for years been seeking motorsports uses at the former Grumman site in Calverton, were elated by the board’s decision approving both events and greeted the approval with applause. At least two longtime racing fans and drivers, John Montecalvo and Helen Lawrence, grew emotional and brushed away tears after the board voted to approve the events.
Advocates, including Johnny Consoli, founder of the Facebook group Long Island Needs a Drag Strip, which has been a vocal proponent of drag racing at Calverton, urged the board to approve the permits.
Drag racing, Consoli and others said, is a family-friendly activity and something the region needs. It will bring an economic boost to the the area, he said.
Opponents generally questioned the process followed by the town and the level of scrutiny given to these proposals, which some said was insufficient.
Barbara Blass of Jamesport said the town did not conduct adequate environmental review of the applications. She cited as an example a statement by racing promoter Pete Scalzo at the board’s May 27 session that a substance he planned to use to increase traction on the runway for his “Race Track, Not Street” drag racing series raised possible “environmental concerns.” During that meeting Scalzo offered to provide the product ingredients so the board could look into it.
“No one asked him to elaborate or asked follow-up questions. He was telling you about a potential negative environmental impact and you didn’t want to hear about it,” Blass said.
“This continued lack of concern, lack of due diligence is disgraceful and unacceptable,” Blass told the board.
She said the applicant reassured the board that this product is used all over the country. But, Blass said, “I doubt there is one track anywhere, NASCAR or otherwise, that is situated over a sole-source aquifer and surrounded by similar significant habitat,” she said. “Did it cross anyone’s mind to ask whether it could potentially contaminate our drinking water?” she asked, noting there are two public water supply wells on the property.
Blass said 20% of the product is a proprietary resin and the rest of the ingredients are solvents of different kinds. She asked if the board knew how the product would be applied and by whom. She read the product’s label warnings.
“We are in the beginning of the permitting phase, that it goes to the board before it goes through further review,” Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said. “We’re not going to be doing the fire reviews and the planning reviews and everything, and then the board decides not to do it. That’s a total waste of time and I will not have it,” Aguiar said.
“This is a short-term temporary environmental impact,” Riverhead building and planning administrator Jefferson Murphree said, so it’s a type II action under the State Environmental Quality Review Act and does not require extensive environmental review.
“That’s how we classify all the special event permit applications in the town,” he said.
Other residents were opposed to the idea of a drag strip in Calverton altogether, most citing potential noise from racing activity. Residents of Timber Park, a neighborhood across from the former aircraft manufacturing site, expressed concern about noise pollution emanating from the drag races.
Grace Swift of Calverton said she has been a lifelong racing fan and said she had fond memories of Islip Speedway decades ago.
“I live just north of the cemetery and if I heard you, I would think it was music,” Swift said.
Jeffrey Taveras, assistant director of Calverton National Cemetery, said the cemetery administration was concerned about the noise impacts on interments and family members visiting the cemetery.
“The closest runway is 1,800 feet away from what we consider sacred ground,” Taveras said.
Taveras contradicted a statement made by Councilman Ken Rothwell that Saturday services were no longer taking place.
“We have been continuing to provide services on Saturday,” Taveras said, in order to allow for families that could not have services during the COVID closure to do so now.
“We have about 2,000 families that were not afforded that opportunity,” Taveras said.
But Rothwell said after the meeting the Saturday services are scheduled to end after June 19, two months before the first drag racing event will take place. He said he had previously confirmed this with Taveras and was perplexed by the assistant director’s comment during the meeting. Taveras did not return a phone call seeking comment.
“I, too, have my mother-in-law and father-in-law buried in Calverton National Cemetery and my father-in-law would be the first one to say it’s too damn quiet up here,” Councilman Tim Hubbard said in remarks before casting his vote in favor of the Scalzo application.
Hubbard said “it’s not fair” to compare the drag racing events with the noise coming from Riverhead Raceway, the quarter-mile oval NASCAR track that’s been operating on Old Country Road in Riverhead since 1949.
“You can’t compare the horsepower of a car at Riverhead Raceway …to a street-legal car that drives on our highways every day,” Hubbard said. “It’s not apples to apples — two cars going off for five or six seconds versus 15 or 20 cars with super-horsepower going around and around and around an oval,” he said.
“The noise is going to be minimal,” Hubbard said, noting that the site is still an active airport and “could in the future have planes taking off and landing from the site.” He said he believes these events will be “best for the Town of Riverhead.”
Kent said she believes the local community would enjoy these events and she is not against them. “But I am against moving things forward if there are still questions. I feel that it’s our job to makes sure all the questions are answered,” she said. “We don’t have all the information and we still have questions, so I am going to abstain from this vote.”
Councilman Ken Rothwell said the events will boost local businesses, especially restaurants, that have suffered through the pandemic.
“This is not a permanent thing,” he said and the events will only take place during “a small portion of the year,” he said.
“You have 47 weeks of quietness and solitude” at the site, Rothwell said. The town board has to balance the interests of the residents who live near the site and the residents who live in other parts of the town, Rothwell said.
Councilman Frank Beyrodt thanked “the applicants, both of them, for their patience and perseverance through this whole process.” He expressed confidence that the events will be successful “and they will bring tons of money to our community.”
The supervisor said the “town remains very sensitive to those opposing drag racing events” and the issues they’ve raised.
“I’m very, very confident that the issues are all being addressed professionally,” Aguiar said.
“I can’t tell you the amount of emails and the people stopping and saying, ‘Make this happen, we need this, please, please,’” she said.
“It looks like racing is on track in Riverhead, so I vote yes,” Aguiar said.
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