Photo: Denise Civiletti

It’s bad enough that certain town officials don’t seem to have much respect for citizens who participate in local government by speaking out at meetings. 

But it’s inexcusable that some town officials have no respect for the law, either — the law they took a solemn oath to uphold when they were sworn into office.

Some elected and appointed officials are all too willing to ignore state laws under which they are supposed to be operating as public officials. This has been very evident in Riverhead Town Hall in the recent past.

We have witnessed officials, including the head of the planning department, skirt around the requirements of the State Environmental Quality Review Act many, many times. It’s obvious they view SEQRA, as the law is known, as an annoyance, rather than a tool to ensure that impacts of proposed actions — including new codes and proposed development projects — are thoroughly reviewed and their impacts fully assessed before they are adopted or approved. 

Officials sometimes seem to do everything they can to avoid the “hard look” mandated by SEQRA. They are too willing to bypass in-depth review on projects that obviously have major potential impacts. They hand out “negative declarations” —which terminate further environmental review — like candy. They ignore the law’s mandate to assess cumulative impacts of projects currently under review, failing to look at the big picture. The law recognizes that the sum is often bigger than the parts. Riverhead officials do not — and those of us who actually live in this town are suffering the consequences of their failures. 

Mind you, SEQRA is not optional. Following its processes — which are spelled out in the state statute with great specificity — is mandatory.

But apparently not in the Town of Riverhead, where those of us who follow this admittedly dry process closely are too often shocked by how often the law’s requirements are ignored.

The disdain for the law exhibited by these public servants often leaves us wondering just who they are working for — the taxpayers and residents of the town or the profit-seeking developers and their coterie of lawyers and consultants.

But their disdain is not limited to SEQRA. These same folks apparently feel free to ignore other state laws as well. Recent case in point: the decision by the planning director to ignore the plain and clear language of state law regarding local codes having to do with the transfer of development rights.

The transfer of development rights, known colloquially as “TDR,” is a means by which the development rights of one parcel of land (the “sending” parcel) under a local zoning code are transferred to another parcel of land (the “receiving” parcel.) The net result is the preservation of the “sending” parcel. This is a tool useful for preserving farmland and open space.

It’s a useful tool that allows for land preservation without the expenditure of taxpayer dollars, because developers who want to increase development density in a designated receiving area spend their own money to buy development rights from land in a designated sending area. Note the word “designated.” It’s an important word because under state law, the town board must adopt a local law designating the sending and receiving areas. 

State law says the development rights transfers can’t be done willy-nilly — and for good reason. Increased development densities, regardless of the zoning in the receiving areas, have impacts: increased traffic, water consumption, sewage treatment, increased demands on police, fire and emergency medical services and, if receiving areas are residentially zoned, more classrooms, teachers and other school costs.

For that reason, state law mandates — mandates, not recommends or suggests — that local laws providing for the transfer of development rights, both new enactments and amendments, be adopted in keeping with the municipality’s adopted comprehensive plan. This ensures the impacts of the TDR code have been thoroughly reviewed and assessed — as required by SEQRA — by an environmental impact statement that assesses the impacts of all the land uses recommended in the plan.

No town can just ignore this mandate, and move forward with changes that are not analyzed in a comprehensive plan, because towns, as creatures of the state, can only do what the state authorizes them to do. 

So it’s absolutely jaw-dropping that the town’s top planning and zoning official, who should be familiar with this law, has recommended that the town act to amend the TDR program without first updating its comprehensive plan — as clearly mandated by state law

Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree presented the Town Board with an amendment to the TDR program that would add industrial zoning use districts as TDR receiving areas without so much as a mention of the comp plan update required before the board can lawfully take that action. 

The TDR code amendment Murphree proposed would allow the developers of warehouses to increase the height of their buildings — and therefore the total cubic feet of storage space — from 30 to 50 feet.

This recommendation is not made in a vacuum. Remember, the town currently has proposals pending for more than a million square feet of new warehouses — not counting a nearly 140-acre industrial subdivision. They are all in Calverton, an environmental justice area, and would potentially all — singly and, most importantly, collectively — impact the same community and environmental resources. These are just the ones that have so far been made public. In Riverhead, a lot happens behind the scenes, in closed-door “planning conferences” with developers before proposals see the light of day with what usually amounts to a dog-and-pony show just prior to a public hearing.

Was this proposed local law reviewed by the town attorney’s office? Didn’t they look at the state enabling legislation? This is equally astounding.

Consider this, as well: The TDR subcommittee has been asking the Town Board to amend the zoning code to create new receiving area opportunities for years. And each time TDR committee member Richard Wines brought the subject up at past work session meetings, he was told the same thing: This has to wait till we do the comp plan update, and we don’t have the money to do the comp plan update right now. 

The town got the money for to update our 20-year-old comp plan through a community benefits agreement with a solar power company in 2019. It picked a planning consultant to do the update late that year. The consulting contract was signed in early 2020. The update should have been done by now. But the process was clearly bungled and mismanaged by the town official in charge of the project. We’ve heard many excuses for the delay. It’s easy to scapegoat the planning consultants, as town officials have been all too happy to do. But the reality is, if the town official tasked with planning for our town had been more on top of his job — and if the Town Board had been more scrupulous about overseeing the process, as they should have — we don’t believe we’d be in this position right now.

And by “this position” we mean on the receiving end of a barrage of development proposals without a comprehensive plan in place — commercial solar facilities, battery energy storage systems, more apartment buildings, and all the new warehouse proposals, to name a few. 

And even as the comp plan update continues to languish, the same planning and zoning official is directing developers to apply to the Zoning Board of Appeals for a special exception use to secure the right to develop battery storage energy facilities, though that use is that is not allowed anywhere in our town by any provision of the zoning code. And he did this even as the Town Board has a public hearing on a proposed code to regulate battery energy storage facilities. Let’s recap: the town is preparing to adopt a code to regulate where these facilities can be built and how they are operated — again without any real environmental review and without a comp plan to address it — and even as that is taking place, the planning director is telling developers to go to the ZBA to essentially circumvent the code that’s in the works.

What exactly is going on here and why? We can only surmise. But we sure do wish some higher authority would have a look. 

Attorney General James, are you listening? 

The State Attorney General’s Office last month brought an action against the Village of Freeport for approving the sale of a nine-acre ballfield to a developer of a storage warehouse and distribution facility. The grounds for that action? The village ignored the State Environmental Quality Review law when it issued a “neg dec” and approved the sale. The village failed to take the “hard look” SEQRA requires before it decided, without basis, that the proposed sale and warehouse development would have no significant adverse impacts on the community. The AG is asking the court to annul the “neg dec” and annul the contract.

The recitation of facts in the AG’s petition sounds all too familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to the shenanigans in the Town of Riverhead: the short-shrift given SEQRA by town officials; the glazed-over eyes and bored or annoyed expressions of town officials when Riverhead’s “SEQRA watchdog,” Barbara Blass, details the litany of shortcomings in their review processes; the sometimes obnoxious and disrespectful way officials treat Blass and other constituents who raise these questions and complain about their failures to abide by the law.

We wonder if officials don’t pay attention to the law — or to their constituents — because they know local residents lack the financial resources to bring a lawsuit to stop this nonsense. And recent case law on the subject of “legal standing” to sue has made it even more difficult for citizens to use the courts to protect their communities. To have “standing” — and earn the right to challenge a municipal decision — residents  have to show they are directly impacted, usually financially.

We believe officials have become emboldened as a result. And it shows.

The People of the State of New York v. Village of Freeport petition shows that the State Attorney General isn’t going to sit idly by and watch things like this happen. We hope she’s paying attention to Riverhead.

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