Riverhead planning and building administrator Jefferson Murphree at a comprehensive plan outreach meeting at the town senior center in Aquebogue Sept. 13. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Riverhead Town’s chief planner, who is leading the town’s comprehensive plan update, says he’s never personally experienced the heavy traffic on Sound Avenue on a fall weekend — and doesn’t want to.

“I’ve heard about all the traffic problems during the pumpkin picking season along Sound Avenue and what the chaos in terms of traffic is on the weekends. I have not experienced that first hand. I’ve never driven along Sound Avenue to experience that,” Jefferson Murphree, a Sag Harbor resident who has been the town’s planning and building administrator for the past decade, told a Greater Jamesport Civic Association Zoom meeting Saturday morning.

“I will be honest with you, I don’t want to,” Murphree said.

“And the reason why I say that — we have our own, on the South Fork, we have our own weekend shoulder season with the pumpkin picking. So for in order me to get to Sound Avenue to experience traffic and issues along Sound Avenue, I would have to get through my Sound Avenue in Watermill to get [to the North Fork],” he said.

“I have not come to your beaches during the summer,” Murphree added.

There was one exception, he said. He attended a “Reeves Park meeting on a Saturday morning,” at the invitation of a resident in that community. “That was really beautiful,” Murphree said. “It was a nice way to spend a Saturday morning,” he said.

“I have not gone to, for example, the wineries when they’re having overflow crowded with a bunch of drunk people,” Murphree continues. “I have not experienced that. I’m too old for that. That’s not my idea of a fun time,” he said. “I’ve heard about it and we’re trying to address it through code enforcement.”

Murphree’s comments came after Jamesport resident and civic association secretary Joan Cear said the town’s planning consulting firm, AKRF, “failed to identify key elements of our community,” such as George Young Community Center and East Creek Marina.

“I didn’t feel the consultants had a good sense of our communities east of 105. It seems they relied on nothing but maps,” Cear said Saturday. “Can you help me to understand the processes that they’ve taken and will take to get a better handle on our hamlets,” she asked.

“Have they ever taken a drive through our hamlets at one o’clock on a Saturday afternoon in late September? Have they visited our beaches in the summer to see how crowded they get? You know, what are they doing to really get their heads around our communities?” Cear asked.

Murphree said planners like himself and the consulting firm hired by the town in 2019 to prepare a comprehensive plan update, have to rely on residents for information about the hamlets in the community whose future they are planning. Planners have to “glean” information about communities from “the residents who actually live there.”

Cear challenged Murphree and the planning consultants to do a better job of gathering information by spending time in the communities.

“I would encourage you as, as an official within our town and as the leader of this project, to take the lead and get to know our communities and help us to have a stronger voice and be a conduit for our voices,” Cear told Murphree.

“If you’re not understanding our community, and you don’t know where and you’ve never driven to East Creek Marina, or been into the George Young Community Center, or experienced the traffic on a weekend, I have serious concern about your ability to lead this project,” she said.

“You need to know this town inside and out if you’re going to be our planning and building administrator,” Cear added.

“I’m sorry to challenge you in this way. I realize you get traffic on the South Fork and live in Sag Harbor, but you don’t work for Sag Harbor, you work for the Town of Riverhead, and that’s the town we live in, and you need to know it inside and out,” Cear told him.

“Okay, understood,” Murphree replied. “And that’s one of the down points of virtual meetings is that I don’t get to drive out and visit the community in person on a Saturday morning and perhaps the next time we meet, if you’re going to have a live meeting, I will come out and visit you live one weekend. And you can — I’ll be happy to drive around with you and look at all the different issues that you have on a firsthand basis,” he said.

Former Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith, a Laurel resident and member of the Greater Jamesport Civic Association, said Murphree should drive around the community regularly.

“Jeff, you should get to know the community,” Jens-Smith said. “You know, during the course of your day, you should drive around and see what’s here. It’s important to physically see what is here,” she said.

“I am mostly a desk jockey right now. I don’t drive around as much as I want to. When I drive around for two hours, that’s two hours I’m not at my desk answering the phone I’m not at the counter,” Murphree answered.

Murphree was hired by the town in July 2012 to fill the newly created position of planning and building administrator, at an initial annual salary of $110,000. He held a similar position in the Town of Southampton for 13 years before joining the consulting firm VHB in January 2012. VHB was at that time the town’s planning consultants for the Calverton Enterprise Park, hired by Riverhead in 2011.

Murphree and AKRF are about to begin a second round of public outreach meetings, including five community meetings that Murphree said last week he hopes to hold at Riley Avenue Elementary School in Calverton.

The comprehensive plan update is now expected to be completed by spring of 2023, Murphree and AKRF project manager Robert White told the town board Thursday.

The town voted to hire AKRF in 2019 at a cost of $675,000 plan, funded by payments under a community benefits agreement with a commercial solar energy company.

The plan, an update of the town’s existing 2003 plan, was originally supposed to be completed by Aug. 31, 2021, but was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Last July, the town board extended the agreement with AKRF 12 months to Aug. 31, 2022. See separate story.

Murphree and AKRF have interviewed town government officials and community stakeholders, met with an advisory committee established by the town, held four community/hamlet meetings and five topic-oriented meetings, Murphree said last week. The community and topic meetings were held in-person and virtually via Zoom. The planners on Aug. 6 last year launched a website offering an online survey, a Social Pinpoint map and comment forms to gain feedback.

Traffic congestion on local roads, Sound Avenue in particular, was one of the top issues raised by residents, stakeholders and town officials during the public outreach meetings and in the planning survey, which identified it as one of the top five issues of concern for residents.

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