Riverhead’s comprehensive plan update is now expected to be completed by the spring of 2023, Riverhead Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree told the town board at its work session Thursday.
The new projected completion date is at least seven months beyond the completion date set forth in an amendment, approved by the town board last July, to the Jan. 2, 2020 agreement with planning consultants AKRF. The amendment extended the contract period 12 months, to Aug. 31, 2022. The plan, draft environmental impact statement, public hearing and completion of the final environmental impact statement on the plan were expected to be completed by Aug. 31, according to the schedule in the July 2021 amendment.
Work on the plan, scheduled under the original agreement to begin in February 2020, was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The “kickoff” meeting with the town board did not take place until September 2020.
The public outreach portion of the planners’ responsibilities was scheduled to be completed last fall, according to the July 2021 amended schedule.
The second round of public outreach meetings, which according to the amended agreement were to have been completed last fall, are about to get underway, Murphree told the board Thursday. They will begin with a meeting of the Central Advisory Committee, formed by the town supervisor last year to assist in the planning process.
Then there will be a series of five meetings community meetings “later in March into April,” Murphree said. He described the community meetings as a combination of the four hamlet meetings held in September and the five topic-oriented meetings held in November and December. Murphree said he’s hoping to hold the community meetings at Riley Avenue Elementary School in Calverton, since the four hamlet meetings were all held at the senior center in Aquebogue last fall.
The planners’ goal is to have a first draft of goals, policies and recommendations to the town board at the beginning of June and a draft plan ready for review by the end of summer, Murphree said Thursday.
Once the draft plan is completed, the planners will prepare a generic environmental impact statement, which Murphree said will be done through next fall and winter.
“And we’re looking for having adoption of the plan in the spring of next year,” Murphree said.
Planner: Here’s what we heard from the public
Robert White, AKRF senior vice president and project manager for the Riverhead plan, summarized for board members the topics of concern they heard through meetings with public officials, stakeholders and community outreach so far.
“We’ve heard a lot about farmland preservation…economic development and redevelopment opportunities, particularly along Route 58,” White said.
“In terms of agriculture, we heard both about preservation and viability…in a diversifying agricultural economy,” he said.
“Parks and recreation needs came up. Water resources in the context of both protecting groundwater and and surface waters in the Peconic watershed. Housing and community services got touched on in terms of housing needs, both from the perspective of redevelopment opportunities and new housing, and from the perspective of providing a diverse housing type,” White said.
“And transportation infrastructure. We heard about traffic needs, improvement needs in terms of traffic circulation, and also infrastructure,” he said.
Another primary focus was water supply and the Riverhead Water District, he said.
See AKRF’s: “Summary of Interviews” (April 22, 2021) and “September 2021 Community Meetings—Summary of Comments”
Supervisor Yvette Aguiar on Thursday listed her priorities for the comprehensive plan update: the transfer of development rights program; the “thousand-plus sensitive environmental acreage in EPCAL has to be secured;” the pattern book adopted by the town board must be made part of the plan; and, she added, “let’s not forget the overlay district.”
How will plan boost transfer of development rights program?
A subcommittee of the town’s farmland preservation committee was established in 2015 to enhance Riverhead’s sputtering the transfer of development rights program.
The goal of the transfer of development rights (TDR) program is to preserve farmland and open space by allowing property owners in designated “TDR receiving areas” to purchase development rights off farmland in designated “TDR sending areas.” The idea is to leverage private investment to preserve farmland and open space — without the expenditure of public funds. The program has not produced as many development-rights transfers as officials had hoped for when it was initially passed in 2005.
The TDR subcommittee developed a number of proposals subcommittee members believe could preserve at least 300 acres of farmland at no cost to the town, “even if modestly successful,” TDR subcommittee co-chair Richard Wines told the town board during a Nov. 20, 2018 meeting.
The recommendations included expanding designated TDR sending areas to include farmland south of Route 25 in Laurel, Jamesport and Aquebogue, expanding TDR receiving areas and capacities by creating new uses that would be available only with the purchase of development rights through the TDR program — such as assisted living facilities and housing on Route 58. Those are uses that “make a lot of sense” for the area surrounding the hospital, Wines said at the time.
Using TDR to preserve that acreage would save $18 million in acquisition costs and avoid $2 million per year in tax dollars if the land were developed with houses that put more children in local schools, Wines said at the time.
But the town never budgeted the estimated $100,000 required to complete an environmental impact study for the zoning code changes proposed by the subcommittee.
The proposals — and the town’s TDR program — continue to languish.
Aguiar asked Murphree if the comprehensive plan update would result in “something solid” on the TDR issue, and he said it would.
Councilman Frank Beyrodt, a former Long Island Farm Bureau president whose family owns and operates DeLea sod farms, has been an advocate for improving the TDR program by adding receiving areas and potentially new uses within them. He said the current real estate boom is “a real great opportunity to balance smart growth in certain areas with preservation of open space and farmland in other areas.”
Murphree agreed. “And I think, to preserve more farmland, I think this needs to be understood by the community, that means that there needs to be more development in key locations, in the town,” Murphree said. “And I’m totally on board with that. And I think there should be a more density in certain areas of the town. And then we do that with a TDR component, you preserve more open space somewhere else. And that’s, that’s the way the TDR program functions,” he said.
“That’s the purpose of the TOD,” Aguiar replied. “And the town square. Not so much the town square but the development,” she said.
“Yeah, the downtown more urban areas,” Murphree responded.
But neither the TOD — “transit-oriented development” — plan nor the Railroad Avenue Overlay District adopted by the town board last year to allow denser development and new uses in the DC-3 (“Downtown Center”) district incorporated transfer of development rights as a means to obtain higher development density.
Murphree said he is “not a fan” of allowing redevelopment of vacant space along the Route 58 commercial corridor with housing.
“I know that there is a push by some in the community to have rental housing along Route 58,” he said. “I think the recommendation of rental housing on 58 is more in line of opening up receiving areas, more of a TDR program. I think first and foremost is what type of development do we want and where and the TDR should follow that,” Murphree said. “The TDR shouldn’t be leading it. And so yes, we need more receiving areas for TDRs. I think it can be done elsewhere and in a more productive manner that’s more market-driven, rather than just saying, okay, we’re gonna put residential on Route 58.”
Aguiar in August 2020 endorsed the concept of redeveloping vacant retail spaces on Route 58 as “micro apartments,” which would provide affordable housing opportunities for senior “snow birds” or hospital employees.
She had Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn and Mitchell Pally, CEO of the Long Island Business Institute, who were working together on a county proposal, make a presentation to the town board on Aug. 20, 2020. Aguiar subsequently named Pally to the town’s Central Advisory Committee for the comprehensive plan update.
Murphree said Peconic Bay Medical Center may be planning to use the Mercy High School campus for employee housing. He also said, he has identified a property in “close proximity” to the hospital that would be a good site for an assisted living facility and was working with the property owner on that concept.
Councilman Bob Kern asked if the planners had identified properties surrounding EPCAL that might be good places for residential development.
“We haven’t gotten that far yet. In terms of adding residential component to the hamlets, I’m sure the civics would have — will certainly weigh in on on that recommendation,” Murphree replied.
Councilman Tim Hubbard, the town board liaison to the Central Advisory Committee, said the comprehensive plan update is “going to address the DC1 and DC3 issues, combined with the pattern book, so we can get a formula that everybody will understand…what we’re going to allow… what we’re not going to allow, what we’re looking for — design, style, and all that.”
The pattern book was adopted by the town board in January 2021 but has not yet been codified as part of the zoning code.
Community outreach so far
AKRF’s White presented a summary report to the town board Thursday concerning the community outreach done to date. See AKRF report, “Compendium of 2020-2021 Public Outreach to Identify Issues and Opportunities”and “Attachments” to the compendium with details of comments.
The consultants interviewed 12 town departments and 10 other stakeholders, beginning in 2020, according to the report which was distributed to the board and posted on the comprehensive plan update website. The interviews were held to identify the issues and opportunities facing the town over the next 10 to 20 years. The interviews centered on issues and opportunities such as: zoning changes, farmland preservation, agriculture, economic development, parks and recreation, water resources, housing, and community services, and transportation and infrastructure, according to the report.
The planners held four hamlet-focused meetings in September. Common/shared issues that surfaced in the meetings were hamlet boundaries, drinking water quality, retaining rural character, zoning updates, the report said. Examples of zoning updates discussed include agritainment uses, tightening special permit and solar requirements, developing a small-lot ordinance, protecting scenic corridors and the need for a variety of housing options, such as assisted living, veteran housing, and short-term rentals. Other shared issues included: overcrowding in schools; needs for Downtown Riverhead, such as historic and safety concerns and flooding; and climate change.
The five topic-oriented meetings covered: transportation; environmental protection/sustainability; Downtown, Route 58 and economic development; housing and community services; and agriculture and farmland preservation. Issues and opportunities identified at these meetings were: solar farms, climate change, wetlands, Downtown revitalization, Route 58 retail reuse, recreational cannabis sales, affordable home ownership needs, transfer of development rights, and zoning updates. See topic-meeting presentations and minutes. (AKRF project website.)
The online survey, initially expected to go live in March 2021, was delayed to August, as the new website was being developed. The survey was open from Aug. 6, 2021 through Jan. 24, together with some paper copies of the survey, garnered “about 470” responses, according to the report. The five most important issues identified for the comprehensive plan update were: farmland and open space preservation; reuse of vacant retail space on Route 58; reduced traffic congestion; Downtown revitalization; and natural resources and environmental protection, the report states.
Survey respondents thought uses that could complement active uses and reduce vacancies on Route 58 include: entertainment; fee-based indoor/outdoor recreational facilities; professional offices; medical/health care; and personal care services (e.g., salon, dry cleaning, fitness center). See summary of survey responses in AKRF “Compendium.”
Nearly half of the respondents felt that additional multifamily apartments are not needed in the town, the report states. See AKRF’s summary of comments.
The Social Pinpoint map had 110 place-based comments identifying “a number of issues and opportunities, including park and recreational needs, problem intersections and parking lots and neighborhood assets,” according to the report.
The planners also received “a number of comments” through the website and from people who attended a meeting in person and filled out comment forms. The report said “the general focus of the comments was on: farmland preservation, scenic corridors, hamlet boundaries, and the need for transportation improvements.
Hamlet boundaries ‘a real lightning rod’
Murphree said the issue of hamlet boundaries “was a real lightning rod” for members of the community.
“Everybody has their own opinion as to where their hamlet boundary is. And as soon as you put a line on a map, that the hamlet boundary is one location, the person on the other side is going to disagree,” Murphree said.
The planning consultants initially drew hamlet boundaries on a map of the town that were based on census tract data, AKRF planner Lorianne DeFalco said at the first hamlet meeting on Sept. 13, which covered the Aquebogue, Northville, Jamesport, South Jamesport and Laurel hamlets.
Residents took strong objection to where the lines were drawn on the hamlet map, complained about it in a civic association survey months prior to the meeting and complained again at the meeting because none of the lines had been moved.
DeFalco and White said at the meeting that the hamlets identified on the map the firm prepared were a means of organizing the planning areas and would not result in any zoning or naming changes.
“It was really a way to organize our outreach,” White told the board Thursday.
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