Nobody likes a land use moratorium. The need for a moratorium is a sure sign that proper community planning has broken down. Existing codes are no longer working and haven’t been properly updated and steps have not been taken to prevent development from running amok.
That’s where Riverhead Town is today. Its comprehensive plan, developed between 1999 and 2003, is old and outdated. It does not address a variety of new types of land uses and new realities in demographics, traffic patterns, energy and technologies. Many aspects of our zoning code just don’t work, for example: the long-stagnant transfer of development rights program.
If ever there was a town in desperate need of a “stop-gap” moratorium, it’s Riverhead in 2022.
Riverhead has an enormous amount of just-about-anything-goes industrial zoning in its western region. Maybe it made sense decades ago, but it doesn’t make sense now.
As a result of that zoning, we’ve seen the development of hundreds of acres of commercial solar energy production facilities without any planning for that use by the town.
Now we’re seeing applications for battery energy storage system facilities to complement those solar installations. The BESS technology is fairly new and still evolving. Again, there has been no planning for this use and the zoning code does not even mention it.
We are also seeing what can reasonably be described as a rash of proposals for logistics and distribution centers aimed at addressing the explosion in demand for online order fulfillment capability. These logistic centers are massive warehouse-type uses that differ significantly from traditional warehouses in how they are used and the impacts they have, including truck traffic and air pollution from the truck traffic. Again, our zoning does not contemplate this use and is inadequate to address them.
That shift to online shopping puts brick-and-mortar retail at risk, and Riverhead Town, which in the past 20 years developed the most intense and successful retail corridor in eastern Suffolk County, is at particular risk if the national chain retailers in that corridor fail. What will become of Route 58 if that happens? More apartments? Assisted living? Health care facilities? Zombie shopping centers?
There are a host of emerging environmental issues that require attention, too.
Let’s face it, a lot has changed since “Y2K” and we’ve done little to adapt to those changes. Instead, Riverhead has maintained a laissez-faire, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may, attitude. That kind of “deferred maintenance” is just not good enough.
Granted, town officials for much of the past decade have acknowledged the need for a comprehensive plan update, but could never muster the financial resources to undertake the project. When a windfall came into town coffers — ironically, a “community benefits” payment from a commercial solar developer — the Town Board in June 2019, instructed the planning director to search for a consulting firm to update the comprehensive plan.
Here we are, almost three-and-a-half years later and while we’ve shelled out more than $300,000 in consulting fees, we don’t have a comp plan update and, in fact, have very little to show for that outlay of cash. Some officials say we got our money’s worth for what we spent on the now-terminated consulting contract. There were community outreach meetings, a survey, an online “pinpoint map.” But it amounts to so little and is of so little practical value that one of the consulting firms solicited for a proposal to continue the work said they have to start from “ground zero.” And from what we’ve seen of the existing work product, we agree.
We don’t believe this fiasco is solely the consulting firm’s fault, though some officials would like to make the firm a scapegoat. There’s an old saying: garbage in, garbage out. And we recently saw the effect of the “garbage in” part of that equation when the planning director brought three hand-picked consulting firms to a Town Board work session to make their pitch for taking on the comp plan project. None of the firms could say what they would do or how much it would cost because the planning director couldn’t bother to provide them with any information about what’s been done to date. And we have since learned there was no written scope of work provided to guide them in preparing their proposals. How this can be acceptable to the Town Board is beyond our understanding.
In any case, that’s where we are today. And it’s not good.
The Town Board must take take bold action to ensure mismanagement of the process stops — now.
That starts with a land use moratorium in Riverhead. At the very least, there should be a moratorium for applications and approvals in the town’s industrial zoning districts. And it must not exempt — or “grandfather” — applicants that have already filed their applications. Statements have been made from the Town Hall dais that once an application is filed, the applicant’s right to develop is “vested.” This is completely false. The law in New York is well-settled that the right to develop is not “vested” by the filing of an application. Far from it. (See the N.Y. State Department’s guidance on land-use moratoria published by the Division of Local Government Services to assist local officials.)
Adopting a moratorium is in some ways like admitting failure. No politician likes to do it and they are under intense pressure from developers, their attorneys and consultants to avoid it at all costs — except the costs of poor planning and inappropriate development are borne by us, the residents — not the developers, their attorneys and consultants.
A moratorium may be a bitter pill to swallow, but sometimes it’s necessary to save the patient.
But make no mistake: treatment for what ails Riverhead doesn’t end with the moratorium. We could put development on hold for a year and find ourselves in exactly the same place. This is not idle speculation. Just look at the recent past.
The Town Board must take a more active role in overseeing this process. Its passivity to date has gotten Riverhead into its current situation — wasted years and wasted money. We have no more time to waste and we certainly don’t have the money.
No more “fiddling while Rome burns.”
Any elected official who lets the comp plan continue to languish and allows out-of-town developers to do the town’s “planning” for it, must pay the price the next time they face the voters.
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