The Riverhead Town Board listens to presentations by planning consulting firms during its work session on Aug. 18. Photo: Alek Lewis

Representatives from three planning firms seeking to complete Riverhead’s comprehensive plan update presented their qualifications to the Town Board during its work session Thursday.

H2M Architects + Engineers of Melville, Cashin Associates of Hauppauge and BFJ Planning of New York City were the three firms presented by Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree for the Town Board to choose from to complete the plan after the town terminated its prior consulting firm, AKRF, for inadequate work. 

The current update to the town comprehensive plan, which was last updated in 2003, has been in the works since 2020 and originally was scheduled to be complete Aug. 2021. AKRF, who responded to a request for proposal issued by the town, was hired in October 2019, but a kickoff meeting for the project scheduled for February 2020 was delayed for months because of the coronavirus pandemic. AKRF’s timeline for completing the update was delayed twice before the town terminated its contract.

Board members also questioned the representatives of the firms on their expertise with several topics they see as a priority to address in the plan update, which included solar energy systems, battery storage systems, anaerobic digestion systems and the transfer of development rights program.

The Town Board passed a year-long moratorium on solar energy projects last October and is considering extending that moratorium again when it expires. The town received two applications for battery storage facilities, but does not have a zoning code in place addressing the use. (The Town Board held a public hearing on a new zoning code on Tuesday.) The town denied an application for an anaerobic digestion facility for the Enterprise Park in Calverton, which was appealed and subsequently denied by the Zoning Board of Appeals. The developer approached the Town Board to adopt code allowing the use, which has not been acted on by the board. 

Town officials also emphasized that the firm chosen needed to be well-versed in engaging with the community development department, town hall advisory committees and large community stakeholders like Peconic Bay Medical Center and the school districts. That engagement was something lacking from AKRF’s process. Town officials applauded some aspects of AKRF’s prior work, including the public engagement process. 

Town officials said there are studies already completed and underway for different aspects of the town, such as downtown development, that can be used to develop the updated plan.

Murphree also said during the conversation that the town needs a firm that takes initiative on the process. “I think there’s a critical part to this, unlike the past experience was  —  you need to be engaging with us, rather than me telling you what to do in your job,” he said to H2M’s representatives.

Councilman Bob Kern also questioned each firm if they look at surrounding towns when developing a comprehensive plan. He said that was “not done on the last comprehensive plan. That was a big fault, I think whoever did that. We became the supermarket to the East End,” he said, seeming to refer to Route 58, which was intentionally zoned to be a commercial retail destination center for the East End, according to the 2003 comprehensive plan.

There were still outstanding questions by the end of the work session. How much would these firms cost? And how much work still needs to be done? Both of the answers will be based on how much work was done by AKRF, and how much the firm can salvage from that work. 

But the firms were unable to get an estimation of that work, Murphree said, because the comprehensive plan update website containing AKRF’s work on the plan, and which was also maintained by the firm, has been offline for the past two weeks. Town officials expected the website to be up this week, as on Thursday Murphree said AKRF confirmed the website is the town’s property and would provide the information needed to reboot the website later that day. The site went live again this afternoon.

Riverhead Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree during the Aug. 18 Town Board work session. Photo: Alek Lewis

When asked why the town did not do an assessment of the work AKRF had completed to provide to the candidates, Murphree said: “Part of the assessment is what the work that has been done that’s on the website. I can’t articulate that without them seeing the results of the survey, the results of the social pinpointing, all the different reports that AKRF did, they’re all posted on that website, everything,” Murphree said. 

“It’s hard for me to go pull out all the files, scan them, email that to everybody, when it’s already in one location,” he said, acknowledging that the planning department has all the documents on file.

AKRF said in a statement this afternoon that the firm had submitted every document it generated to the town as the planning work process progressed.

“AKRF submitted reports, technical memoranda, presentations, graphics, and other materials to the town throughout the duration of the Comprehensive Plan Update project, and we are working closely with the town to reconfirm they have all those documents in their files,” the company said through a spokesperson.

“All files on the project website were also provided to the town for review and approval in advance of their posting, and AKRF is actively engaged in transferring control of that website to the town. To our knowledge there are no outstanding documents produced by AKRF not previously submitted to the town for its use going forward with the 2003 Comprehensive Plan Update. We continue to wish Riverhead success as they build on AKRF’s work and continue updating their plan,” the company said.

Murphree said he was working with the town attorney’s office to get a budget together for the project.

The firm was paid about half of the $675,000 fee due under its contract with the town, according to town officials.

Murphree also told board members Thursday they would have to decide whether to get a new traffic consulting firm or to continue with LK McLean Associates, the traffic engineering subcontractors hired by AKRF.

During the work session, Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said the firm selected would do an assessment of the work done by AKRF, and suggested the firm could be selected as early as Friday or next week. Aguiar got push back from other board members and said all three companies would come back to the board in a month after assessing AKRF’s work and doing what she called a “cost benefit analysis.”

H2M Architects + Engineers

H2M was the first firm brought in front of the board. The firm has been a long time consultant for both Riverhead’s water and sewer districts.

Patricia DelCol, the client manager and assistant vice president of H2M, said that makes the firm in a prime position to develop the comprehensive plan update.

“So we are very familiar with Riverhead’s needs with respect to these resources with the existing infrastructure,” DelCol said. “We’ve done master planning for those resources as well.”

The project would be managed by Sanyogita Chavan, who according to material provided by H2M has over 20 years managing planning projects in the public and private sector, specializing in suburban communities, and most recently served as director of planning for the Township of Middletown in New Jersey. She told the town board she has “over 20 years of experience writing comprehensive master plans for communities similar to Riverhead.”

DelCol said the firm also employs Rober Scheiner, a former Riverhead employee and the town’s first community development director, as a senior project advisor, which adds to the firm’s familiarity with the town. 

The firm would also be subcontracting with TDR by Design of Smithtown for planning related to the towns transfer of development rights program, which town officials see as a priority to update. The firm’s founder, Mike Hillebrand, attended the meeting.

DelCol said H2M has an “energy market” within the firm for planning related to energy projects, including the solar, battery storage and anaerobic digesters. “So we’re well versed in the requirements and well versed in the power needs in the siting requirements, which is really key,” she said.

“That’s very good to hear,” Aguiar said.

DelCol said the firm is aware of the projects being developed in the downtown area. Chavan said the firm has experience in transit-oriented development, the focus of a large mixed-use building proposed near Riverhead’s Long Island Rail Road station. 

Kern asked how the firm would tackle the development in the application phase. Residents have called for a moratorium on development until the comprehensive plan is complete, but Kern is against that, he said. “I do not want to hold back anything waiting on a comprehensive plan, you know, so how does that all work?”

Chavan said looking at which projects are pending and which are approved is a “key part” of the plan. “Because how are we going to plan to the next 10 years, if we don’t know where the trend is going?” 

“One of the things that H2M does in our master plans is we do a plan, that is not a policy document that will sit on your shelf,” Chavan added. “Our plans are breathable, we give implementation strategies, we hold everybody accountable as to what the timeframe would be, whether it’s, it’s a short term, it’s medium to long term, or it’s ongoing, and then who would be the agency responsible for that.”

“With that, and you said breathable, which I think is so important. It’s like a corporate business plan, right? You don’t plan 20 years and then as technology changes, you say no, we’re not going to change, we agreed on this, you know, 10 years ago,” Kern said. 

“And a case in point would be Tanger Outlets,” Kern said. “They were zoned a certain way and they, really three years ago, should have completely been resolved, you know, especially when the pandemic came, but also with e-commerce. Right? So when you looked at what they were restricted to, they were being choked. And when I spoke with their corporate office, all around the country, every place that they were in, relaxed what their zoning was in order for them to survive. So we were sticking to our 20-year-old master plan, which the way things are, the way things move nowadays, I would be looking at it almost year to year.”

Councilman Tim Hubbard interjected. “I climb a bit different tree from Bob,” he said. “We currently have a moratorium on solar. And we did that purposely so we could have a comp plan address it. The anaerobic digester, the battery storage systems, I think those all should be put on hold until the comp plan can address it.”

“And unfortunately, we’re now a year and a half later without any of this done. But I don’t see that that’s the reason just to let things happen, then address it with the comp plan and find out hey, whoa, whoa, wait a minute, we made a mistake that we shouldn’t have allowed that,” Hubbard said. “And I don’t want to set a precedent for anything else to come along and say, hey, we’ll let them do it.”

Aguiar agreed with Hubbard’s comments.

Councilman Ken Rothwell said he had concerns with hiring H2M because of the town’s past experience with the firm as consultants for helping the town get well permits for the Riverhead Water District from the Department of Environmental Conservation. He said that the firm has taken a long time to secure the permits and has concerns about hiring the firm for the project because of it.

DelCol said the firm is in the process of working with the DEC to get the permits and that the DEC has “been a big part of the problem. But my understanding is that that’s on track and moving forward,” she said.

The firm is in the process of developing Smithtown’s comprehensive plan, where it is in the phase of developing the draft generic environmental impact statement, H2M project environmental planner Lisa Rickmers said. That plan would be complete early 2023, she said. When asked by Hubbard how that work may affect the development of Riverhead’s plan, Rickmers said the firm has enough “bandwidth” to handle multiple projects, as the firm has around 500 staff members.

Cashin Associates

The second firm being considered is Cashin Associates. Paul DiMaria, senior engineer and Ellen Feldman, senior environmental planner presented to the board.

DiMaria said most of the work they do is for municipalities on Long Island. The firm has around four or five planners, which included some independent contractors, he said.

“So it depends on what the project is and what the specialty need is,” DiMaria said, referring to what planners are contracted by the firm. “But I think we have sufficient planners full time to do this work.” 

Feldman said the firm has worked on several projects near Riverhead, including the generic environmental impact statement (GEIS) for the shellfish aquaculture leasing programs in Peconic and Gardiners Bays, the GEIS for the Riverside Hamlet Center Plan and Mixed Use Planned Development District, the environmental assessment for Suffolk County, farmland and Open Space Preservation, the Town of Southold’s local waterfront revitalization program and several other documents for the Town of Brookhaven. The firm has also prepared a comprehensive plan and environmental study of the Barrier Beach and Bay Island communities in the Town of Babylon.

The firm also identified multiple subconsultants for transportation planning, environmental consulting and site planning experience. The firm’s proposal for the comprehensive plan includes M&J Engineering of New Hyde Park, which has done comprehensive plans for town’s upstate and would “assist in planning issues, public outreach, any code issues,” DiMaria said.

“They have a lot of experience in farmland preservation issues, as well as transfer of development rights issues,” Feldman said.

DiMaria said the firm has done a lot of work with energy, in response to a question concerning the topics of solar energy projects, anaerobic digesters and battery storage facilities.

BFJ Planning

The last firm the Town Board heard from was BFJ Planning. The firm has some experience in Riverhead, having been the consultants on the Wading River Hamlet study. The firm originally submitted a proposal to the town to be the comprehensive plan consultant in 2019, before the project was awarded to AKRF.

BFJ principal Frank Fish and associate principal Noah Levine presented to the board. Fish said the firm has 18 people on staff with various specialities. Levine would act as principal-in-charge if the firm was chosen.

The firm has developed many comprehensive plans in New York State, Connecticut and New Jersey, including the Nassau County comprehensive plan, and is currently finishing up a plan for Southampton Village.

“We’re used to doing clients that we’ve inherited from someone,” Fish said. “We can also do a plan within a year.”

Fish said after board members expressed concerns about communication with the school districts that one of the firm’s staff members is specialized in working school districts and integrating that aspect into the comprehensive plan.

Fish said he knows all about the town’s downtown revitalization efforts, as the firm shares office space with Perkins Eastman, the planning firm hired by New York State to be consultants for Riverhead’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative process. BFJ has also been a consultant for state Downtown Revitalization Initiative projects.

Levine said the firm went through the pattern book and other studies produced by the town for downtown revitalization. 

“We want to kind of bring those big ideas and hopefully create a narrative that’s good, not just for the town and kind of the people who are going to benefit from the details, but also for the people to understand what the vision is for the next 10 years,” Levine said.

Fish said the firm just worked on new downtown zoning code for New Rochelle, which included incentive zoning. Fish said the master developer for one of the large projects in New Rochelle was RXR, which was one of two developers named the master developer duo for Riverhead’s transit-oriented development project.

“We have probably five or six major projects pending downtown, not just the [town square and TOD],” Community Development Director Dawn Thomas said. “One of them is the single largest buildings that will ever be built downtown. So, you know, those are critical. We want to make sure the board has the opportunity to get those right. And it’s, you know, so that assistance is really greatly necessary and appreciated.”

The firm also has experience with the major issues mentioned by the town board. Fish said it just completed a solar code in upstate New York. The firm is also versed in the transfer of development rights program, Fish said, and prepared New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s TDR toolbox for municipalities.

Fish said the firm does not have experts on anaerobic digesters and battery storage facilities, but has other firms to work with to supplement BFJ’s expertise.

Levine said the firm’s goal is “to not create encyclopedias. You don’t want to create a document that’s gonna sit on a shelf and will never be read,” he said. “We want to take the data, synthesize it and really try and suss out big issues.” 

“We have the master plan experience in Long Island, which I hope we kind of showed you a little bit of this morning and then we’ve got this toolbox of items we can use for and pick up on what AKRF did in terms of community engagement,” Fish said.

Fish said assuming AKRF got halfway done with the plan, the firm can complete the plan for around $300,000-$350,000. BFJ representatives were the only ones to give an estimated price to the board.

Town Board members did not discuss which firm they preferred at the conclusion of the meeting.

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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]