Shipping trailers ready to be loaded up at the 640,000-square-foot Amazon warehouse in Nampa, Idaho last year. Photo: Adobe Stock/Tracy King

“There’s some heavy duty projects coming and a lot of traffic and a lot of other things coming with those projects.” 

They will “change the face of the town.”

“We can’t have a do-over.”

These were words spoken by members of the Riverhead Planning Board at Thursday’s meeting, when all five members of the board came out in favor of a moratorium on industrial development in Calverton pending completion of the comprehensive plan update. 

We couldn’t agree more. 

Unfortunately, the Planning Board can’t adopt the local law needed to implement a moratorium. That authority rests solely with the town’s legislative body, the Town Board.

So far the Town Board hasn’t given any indication that it’s willing to embrace a moratorium beyond the one they adopted last year (and just extended for another year) on commercial solar energy systems. And that was done after the cows already left the barn — and deliberately written to exclude pending applications, to boot.

The Greater Calverton Civic Association urged a moratorium in November 2020 and got no response. On March 7, all six civic associations active in the Riverhead wrote to the Town Board urging a moratorium on “all retail, industrial, commercial, and multi-residential housing in the entire footprint of Riverhead until the Comprehensive Plan is completed.” 

Again, crickets.

There was a time in this town when, if all the civic groups wrote to the board expressing a concern about something as important as the lack of progress on the long-overdue comprehensive plan, the Town Board would look to engage the civic groups in a productive discussion. Maybe invite them to the table at a work session to hear them out and respond to their concerns. But the Town Board mostly exhibits disdain for these residents, whom they seem to view as a nuisance, and no members even saw fit to send a reply email, let alone invite the civic leaders to a work session.

The lack of response drove the letter’s signatories to the podium at the board’s March 24 meeting, asking for a response to the three-week old email.

Council Member Tim Hubbard spoke up, saying he didn’t see that a moratorium serves any purpose. If any zoning changes are needed, the comp plan would address them. A “blanket moratorium” wouldn’t be “a wise decision,” he said.

Council Member Bob Kern said a moratorium would lead to a lot of lawsuits by landowners, noting “people have land rights.”

Council Member Ken Rothwell said “it’s improper” to stop projects that are allowed under the current zoning.

“I believe that, you know, commercial landowners are taxpayers too. And they have a right to develop their land. And it’s not our job to prevent them from developing the land,” Rothwell said.

“We cannot just randomly stop progress in Riverhead, immediately shut everything down,” Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said. “There is a process. It is a comprehensive process. We’re in the middle of doing it,” Aguiar said.

Councilman Frank Beyrodt didn’t say anything.

That was March 24. 

Hubbard and Aguiar have recently indicated a willingness to at least discuss a moratorium on certain uses — battery energy storage systems or logistics centers… maybe.

Since March, there has been no progress on the comprehensive plan. In fact, the town board announced in June it would terminate the contract awarded in 2019 to the planning consultants hired to complete the comprehensive plan update. The board voted in July to do so.

The town still has not hired a new firm to pick up wherever it was that the former consultants left off. The truth is there’s very little to show for the two-and-a-half years and over $300,000 spent on the aborted planning effort. Board members have agreed on a new firm, but no resolution hiring them has been brought to the floor and the contract isn’t finalized yet.

The process of hiring a new firm got off to an inauspicious start. First, three prospective consulting firms came to a work session in August to discuss their services — but they couldn’t say how much their fees would be or how long it would take to complete the comp plan begun by the first firm. They weren’t provided with any information about what had already been done, they told the board. Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree explained that the website built by the former consultant was offline and it would be too much trouble to pull all the documents, copy them and send them to the prospective firms. All right then. 

More than a month later, two of the three firms were called back to make a presentation. At that point it became clear that the firms had not been provided with any scope of work on which to base their estimates, accounting for the wildly disparate proposals and cost estimates submitted. One firm came in at $299,000 and the other more than $830,000. 

The Town Board opted for the cheaper price tag, but it didn’t include traffic, transportation and infrastructure. Now, the town is talking with the prior firm’s traffic consulting subcontractor about picking up those pieces.

Now, it’s almost November.

And the beat goes on. Applications are filed. Pre-submission conferences are held. Plans are drawn. And projects which may change the face of our town forever are moving forward, with essentially no comprehensive plan in place to guide new development. And the only town officials with the power to say, “Wait — we need to make sure we get this right” just shrug, throw up their hands, and tell us a moratorium would be unfair to developers. 

Meanwhile, Riverhead is no closer to having a comprehensive plan update than it was a year ago. We’d go so far as to say it’s no closer than it was before the last firm was hired in 2019 — that’s how little work product we’ve seen. It’s convenient for officials to scapegoat the former consulting firm, but they really should look within if they want to know what has gone wrong. There’s an old saying: garbage in, garbage out. On top of that, there’s been an astounding lack of management of the entire process.

Planning Board Vice Chairperson Ed Densieski has always been a vocal and ardent advocate for property rights. If there was ever someone you’d expect would be the last person to advocate a moratorium, it would be him. Yet there he was. 

The size and scope and impacts of the projects coming to town for uses that didn’t even exist when the last comp plan was done over 20 years ago will change Riverhead forever. 

This is a no-or-never moment, Riverhead. We urge the Town Board to do the right thing. Get a moratorium in place quickly. Riverhead has no time to spare.

As Planning Board Chairperson Joann Waski said yesterday, when it comes to development, there are no do-overs.

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