AKRF Senior Vice President Robert White, right, and Riverhead Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree, during a public meeting at Riverhead Town Hall in April. Photo: Denise Civiletti

(Updated: 4:57 p.m.) The Town of Riverhead will terminate its contract with the planning consultants working on its comprehensive plan update, after town officials grew “increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of progress and shallow depth of study put forth by” the firm, according to a press release issued this afternoon by Supervisor Yvette Aguiar’s office.

The town board has unanimously agreed to cut ties with consultants AKRF and retain the services of a different firm to complete the comprehensive plan update. Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree has “begun to engage with reputable firms, who specialize in the Comprehensive Plan process,” the press release states, and will begin to receive proposals from firms to replace AKRF.

“The Town Board endeavors to move swiftly to select a firm and complete the Comprehensive Plan process,” the press release states.

A comprehensive plan is a document meant to guide the direction of a town’s planning and land development over the next 10-20 years. The Riverhead Town comprehensive plan was last updated in 2003.

The town board awarded AKRF Inc. of New York the contract for consulting services in October 2019 after issuing a request for proposal under former Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith. The town board approved the payment of not more than $675,000 for AKRF’s professional services, paid out of funds generated by a community benefit agreement with a commercial solar energy company, according to the resolution awarding the bid. The town has paid them $320,781 to date, Riverhead Financial Administrator William Rothaar said today. Payments were keyed to contract milestones, Aguiar said.

The project was intended to be completed in 18 months — by May 2021  — according to the original contract. After the contract was signed in January 2020, the COVID-19 crisis struck.  The firm did not make its first public presentation until September 2020, seven months after the intended February kickoff of the project. Town and AKRF officials said the firm had been working on the project and blamed the slow start on the pandemic.

The contract with AKRF has been amended and extended twice since the original agreement was made: once in July 2021 and again in February 2022. The extensions have also removed tasks listed in the original agreement for the firm to complete. The most recent extension put the completion date of the plan at spring 2023. A draft plan was expected for presentation to the town board by the end of this summer.

Through the nearly two-and-a-half years employed by the town, AKRF has hosted several meetings to engage the community in the comprehensive plan update process: one round of “hamlet meetings” focused on the 11 hamlets in the town, and two rounds of “topic meetings” focused on topics such as economic development, farmland preservation and housing. 

AKRF also launched a website for the comprehensive plan update that hosted surveys and an interactive community map, where anybody could make recommendations for the plan. The firm also prepared several documents and presentations, along with a traffic analysis consultant L.K. McLean Associates, to present to the Central Advisory Committee for review, including an affordable housing memo.

Richard Wines, chairperson of the Riverhead Landmarks Preservation Committee and member of the town’s farmland preservation committee and a task force set up to improve the town’s transfer of development rights program — which aims to preserve farmland by offering increased density on non-agricultural land in exchange for the purchase of development rights from farmland — said he’s been “very distressed by the current consultants.”

“They never met with any of the town committees that have all the expertise,” Wines said, including the landmarks, agriculture advisory, farmland preservation, TDR and open space committees. “That just seems like an obvious place to start,” Wines said.

“I don’t see anything they couldn’t have done during COVID,” he said. “That was a mystery to me.”

Given the long delays already and the time it will take to hire a new consultant and bring the new firm up to speed, a “moratorium  would make sense now… until they can beef up the town’s preservation program,” Wines said

AKRF also led the formation of the 18-member Central Advisory Committee, made up of business leaders, town officials, a representative of the school district and two representatives of civic and environmental advocates. The CAC was meant to guide the comprehensive plan process and  “offer critical feedback and recommendations to the town board,” according to the supervisor’s announcement of the CAC’s formation. The group has met four times since January 2021, most recently in March.

Members of the CAC expressed similar frustrations with the process.

“​​Things have gone slowly. It was really disheartening,” said CAC member Sid Bail of Wading River, longtime president of the Wading River Civic Association and a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee that worked on the previous master plan update from 2000-2003. That plan was prepared by Manhattan-based planning consultants Abeles, Phillips, Preiss & Shapiro.

“It will be interesting trying to rally enthusiasm in the general public after this,” Bail said. “It seems a bit of a fiasco.”

Bail said he is worried about the length of time this update will take and the things that may be enacted or approved in the interim. The town has already approved major development projects and undertaken zoning amendments that would have made sense to be part of the comprehensive plan update, he said.

CAC member Ike Israel of Riverhead, a real estate broker and developer, was also surprised by the news. 

“It’s extremely disappointing,” Israel said. “We’ve lost a lot of time and public input.” 

Israel, who has represented significant downtown property owners, said he’s been waiting to talk about increasing the 500-unit cap on downtown apartments. The plan’s stall could hinder redevelopment in the DC-1 Main Street zoning use district,  he said, noting that the current comprehensive plan is nearly 20 years old.

He also said he didn’t understand the delay being blamed on COVID. “I don’t know what they were doing during COVID,” he said.

Robert White, senior vice president of AKRF, did not return a phone call seeking comment for this article.

Throughout the comprehensive plan update process, the town board has continued to approve multi-million dollar development projects and amend its zoning and land use development code without the guidance of the document. Some residents have called for a moratorium on all development projects until the plan is complete, a request which has fallen on deaf ears by the town board.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with information about the amount paid to AKRF to date.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: [email protected]