Traffic on Sound Avenue in Riverhead Saturday, Sept. 17. Photo: Denise Civiletti

The appointment of a new planning firm to take on Riverhead’s long-stalled comprehensive plan project could come as soon as the next town board meeting, officials said, if board members reach a consensus after interviewing two “finalists” at next week’s work session.

The board has narrowed the field to two firms, H2M Architects + Engineers and BFJ Planning, out of the three presented to the board by Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree at the Aug. 18 work session, Council Member Tim Hubbard said in a phone interview Wednesday.

“We felt collectively as a board that two of them seem to outshine one of them,” Hubbard said during a public hearing Tuesday night on whether the town should extend its solar moratorium. The names of the firms were not mentioned during the meeting and the board has not had a public discussion on the candidates since the firms were presented during a work session last month.

MORE COVERAGE: Residents support year-long extension of solar moratorium during public hearing

Representatives from H2M and BFJ will attend next week’s work session, Murphree said in an email yesterday. The third firm, Cashin Associates, was not invited back.

H2M, BFJ and Cashin met with the town board last month but said they could not provide specific proposals, estimated timelines or estimated fees because the town did not provide them with information about what AKRF had completed before its contract was terminated.

Murphree told board members last month the information the firms would need to prepare proposals could be found on a website built for the town by AKRF, but the site had been down for two weeks.

“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,” Murphree said, acknowledging that the planning department had all the AKRF documents in its files.

AKRF told RiverheadLOCAL last month it was working with the town to get the website transferred to a server under the town’s control, at which point the town could put it back online. The website was live again shortly thereafter.

Riverhead paid AKRF about half of the $675,000 contract fee, officials said last month.

MORE COVERAGE: Three planning firms pitch services to Riverhead Town Board for comprehensive plan update

Hubbard said yesterday H2M’s estimate was roughly $800,000, while BFJ’s estimate was roughly $300,000. 

Hubbard explained the disparity in fees by a difference in the approach the two firms had taken.

“It appears that H2M is looking to do start-to-finish, like nothing had been done prior… start from the ground zero and work up,” Hubbard explained.

“The other one [BFJ] is saying, basically, in their proposal, that they can use some of the information that was done and they’re looking to you know, just expand upon it and complete it as it’s needed to be done for a complete comp plan,” Hubbard said.

Hubbard, one of two Town Board liaisons to the planning department, said he was not aware whether a written scope of work for the comp plan update was provided to the candidate firms by the planning director. A scope of work would guide the firms in crafting their proposals, summarizing what’s been done and what the town is looking to have done.

“We need to compare apples to apples,” Hubbard said. “There is no room for error this time.”

AKRF was selected in a process begun in June 2019. It was one of two firms that responded to the town’s request for proposals. The other firm was BFJ. The AKRF contract was awarded in October 2019 and signed in January 2020.

Officials have said progress on the plan was initially delayed by the COVID-19 crisis, which struck the region in March 2020. AKRF 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 during the COVID shutdown. AKRF principal and project manager Robert White said the firm had been doing prep work — researching, reading previous planning documents and preparing maps.

The update was originally scheduled to be complete by August 2021 but the target completion date was pushed back twice, once to August 2022 and then, to spring 2023. The Town Board on July 6 terminated the AKRF contract, with members expressing disappointment with progress on the project. Supervisor Yvette Aguiar on June 24 announced the town’s intention to kill the contract.

During the long delay, new commercial solar energy production facilities have been approved and development applications for battery energy storage facilities and major industrial plans have been filed, including proposals for more than 1 million square feet of logistics and distribution centers.

The town board has also undertaken efforts to amend its zoning code and land use regulations — including the adoption of a high-density overlay district covering a swath of downtown near the Riverhead railroad station, and consideration of new codes to regulate battery energy storage systems, gun sales, as well as a significant change to the transfer of development rights program, among others. Residents have argued such amendments should properly be done in the context of a comprehensive plan update, rather than piecemeal.

Some residents have called for a moratorium on new development applications pending the completion of the comprehensive plan update. The Town Board is moving forward with a one-year extension to a moratorium on new commercial solar applications and two board members — Aguiar and Hubbard — have voiced support for a moratorium on other types of proposals, though none has been drafted or publicly discussed in detail.

MORE COVERAGE: Residents support year-long extension of solar moratorium during public hearing

The comprehensive plan is intended to guide land-use and zoning decisions, conservation of natural resources and the overall growth of the town for a period of up to 20 years. The town’s current comprehensive plan was developed between 1999 and 2003. It was adopted in 2003 and implemented with new codes beginning in 2004.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.