Council Member Tim Hubbard is advocating an 18-month moratorium on new warehouse development in Calverton pending completion of the comprehensive plan.
Hubbard’s fellow board members were wary of his proposal at yesterday’s work session, however. After nearly an hour of discussion, there was no agreement among board members on what a moratorium should look like if adopted — or even whether one should be adopted at all.
“The industrial area in Calverton seems to be a hot spot for people wanting to come and build warehouses,” Hubbard said. “And it’s almost like the floodgates opened up and we got inundated… This I strongly feel needs to go into a moratorium. And I think we need to have the comp plan look at this and the comp plan help deal with this,” he said.
“The infrastructure for some of these structures is not there yet. The town roads are not equipped to handle the amount of truck truck traffic that some of these are going to demand. The fumes, the pollution, there’s so many different things that have to be looked at. And some of these locations just are not ideal in my mind,” Hubbard said. “They’re too close to residential areas. One structure is poised to be 50 or 60 feet high. It’s going to be seen for miles around. I’m not sure that’s something they want to dot our beautiful town with.”
Hubbard’s pitch to the board came one week after Planning Board members expressed unanimous support for a moratorium on new industrial development in Calverton and asked the planning department to draft a resolution asking the town board to adopt a moratorium. The Planning Board intends to act on that resolution at its next meeting.
Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said she’s willing to consider a moratorium, but advocated making it apply only to future applications or applications at the very beginning of the review process — effectively “grandfathering” proposals that have already had substantial review at substantial expense on the part of developers for application fees and studies. Three large pending applications — HK Ventures, NorthPoint’s Riverhead Logistics Center and Ostad’s Calverton Industrial Subdivision ould meet that criteria, she said.
Council Member Bob Kern said he is concerned about the negative impacts a moratorium would have on the town’s tax revenues over the next few years. He said any moratorium should include an exemption process that would allow “benign” projects — those that would not have impacts on traffic or residences, he said, citing as examples “agrivoltaics” (integrated solar production and crop cultivation) and battery energy storage systems.
“There’s no traffic, there’s no trucks, there’s nothin. Electricity going in and out. It’s in nobody’s way,” Kern said.
“Who would make that determination?” Town Attorney Erik Howard asked.
“We’re not seeing applications that don’t have impacts,” Planner Greg Bergman said.
Council Member Ken Rothwell said a moratorium would jeopardize an agreement the town has been working on for the past year-and-a-half with HK Ventures to expand the Riverhead Water District to serve the project, which would make it easier for the town to extend the district to homes in the surrounding area.
“They’ve become a great savior in terms of our water district… helping out with a storage tank on their facility,” Rothwell said. “And a moratorium jeopardizes all that.”
The future of the HK Ventures proposal — a 412,000-square-foot industrial park on Middle Country Road in Calverton — is uncertain, according to the developer’s attorney, after a recent action taken by the Planning Board.
HK Ventures had reached the very end of the State Environmental Quality Review Act process with the acceptance last month of a final environmental impact statement. But last week, the Planning Board directed the developer to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement to study the cumulative impacts of its project with other, more recently filed, pending applications, as well as with the large number of commercial solar energy facilities already approved in Calverton. The project’s SEQRA scoping statement required the analysis with respect to the solar facilities, but it was overlooked.
HK Ventures’ attorney Keith Brown told the planning board before its vote last week that the additional review requirement might “kill” the project. But the Planning Board was unmoved.
Aguiar said the developer “was going to enhance our water district by $2.5 million.”
The HK Ventures application, Aguiar said, “has been advanced and we can’t say let’s just do a moratorium. There will be litigation. There will be litigation on that one… Don’t string people along. It’s before the Planning Board. It’s been presented. You don’t string people along, accept the exorbitant fees and then go, well you know, there is complaining so now let’s just go and we’re going to cut everybody off, let’s do a moratorium, we’re going to fall back on the comprehensive plan… I don’t want to go into litigation…It’s going to cost the town quite a bit of money. If certain projects are well advanced, you don’t have to have a permit,” Aguiar said.
Hubbard said while HK Ventures is “much further along” than the other projects, “…we know HK Ventures is not vested. Let’s be clear about that. They are not vested,” he said, referring to New York’s legal doctrine of vested property rights, which generally requires a property owner to have undertaken “substantial construction and made substantial expenditures prior to the effective date” of a more restrictive zoning code provision.
“So they can litigate all they want,” Hubbard said, “but we have the law on our side.”
The town attorney agreed. “If someone is vested, then likely we would lose. If they’re not vested, which means, there’s substantial expenditure, substantive construction, I feel comfortable that we will be in good shape,” Howard said.
Hubbard said he may be willing to write a moratorium that excludes the HK Ventures project, citing their prospective agreement with the water district to improve infrastructure.
“I do want to hear from the water department regarding the upgrades that are being done and how necessary they are in order to help out the other plans and the water district in the Calverton area,” Hubbard said. “That might be a deciding factor that might make me support leaving HK out of the moratorium,” he said.
Water District Superintendent Frank Mancini then joined the discussion.
“So one thing I want to clarify is we cannot ask the developer to dig us out of the capacity issues we have right now,” Mancini told the board. “So the money we asked for solely benefits that project, (and) was based on their individual needs.”
Bergman told the board that plans advanced by both HK Ventures and Riverhead Logistic Center do not comply with the code. “They both need variances for building height and impervious coverage. Both applications require relief from the Zoning Board of Appeals. So it’s not even like the case would be made where it’s an as-of-right development,” he said.
“Well, most applications variances. Correct?” Aguiar said.
“That’s not accurate,” Bergman answered.
“I think most do,” Aguiar said.
Planner Matt Charters added, “If every applicant is asking for a variance for a specific thing, is the code functioning correctly?”
Kern urged caution with a moratorium. “We have to be very, very careful what we’re asking for. Just as let’s be careful what we build.”
“It’s a moratorium. It’s a pause. It’s not a no,” Hubbard said.
“It’s a pause to you. It’s not your money,” Kern replied. “You know, somebody comes in, they’re not going to wait 18 months for Riverhead to get their act together,” he said.
“I’m seeing this with the town square where people came in willing to invest and then the pattern book happened. Every single one of those people that were willing to invest went outside of the town to put their money somewhere else,” Kern said. “You can’t — you know, we got to be really careful. It’s a delicate balance, what we’re doing.”
Hubbard disputed the assertion that the pattern book, which was initiated by the Town Board during the previous administration, caused investors to leave town.
“I don’t know of anybody that went outside of the town,” Hubbard said.
“I’m talking about four or five years ago,” Kern said. “I know two.”
The pattern book, commissioned in 2019, was adopted by the Town Board in January 2021. It has not been codified. Zoning code amendments to implement its recommendations were shelved in May of this year after the Business Advisory Committee — which Kern chaired prior to his election to the town board last year — objected to the amendments. Kern asked the Town Board to table the resolutions to adopt the code amendments recommended by the pattern book. The board complied and has not had another public discussion about them.
The consultants who drafted the pattern book also recommended creating the town square where the long-vacant former Swezey’s buildings were — a recommendation the Town Board embraced and moved forward with, purchasing three properties on the south side of East Main Street for $5.5 million and demolishing two of them to make way for the town square.
Kern’s assertion that the pattern book scared away prospective downtown investors is contradicted by the fact that one New York City real estate investment firm has spent at least $9.9 million to buy 10 commercial properties in downtown Riverhead — almost all of them along Main Street — since January 2021.
“I think people are panicking right now because they’re seeing all these projects,” Aguiar said. “I understand people’s concern right now, we just have to be very, very careful with the projects that we have accepted and how far they are along,” she said. She asked Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree to provide the board with that information, so board members can make a decision.
Howard said the comp plan allows the town to “manage risk going forward rather than dealing with it sort of on an ad hoc application to application basis, like what’s happening now.
“It’s not ad hoc,“ Aguiar replied. “Because one — you have one project that was well in advance. And then after that, I guess people got word and a bunch of applications were following. You guys can decide, you know, and the planning board, you know, that these applications are reviewed separately by the planning board. And so we don’t have to accept every application, and we can create a moratorium for all those that are coming in,” she said.
“If someone makes a complete application, we start SEQRA, there’s timelines we get — the code says, you’ll review a complete application, we can’t just say, well, we’re not going to do that,” Bergman answered.
“And there are state mandated deadlines that we have to follow,” Murphree added.
“The planning department, the planning board has to work with the code we have right now,” Howard said. “So the comp plan is going to have proposals to amend our code to implement the plan that they come up with. So that’s something that I feel like it’s important.”
Aguiar responded that she, as a state-licensed real estate agent is “very familiar with people’s property rights and ownership of land.”
“The courts are very, very liberal with property rights ownership. Most of the Article 78s, a lot of times, the town will lose them, especially if somebody owned the land, (and) tries to develop something that is (a) zoned use,” the supervisor said.
Howard said the town would lose only if it tries to take away vested property rights. If they’re not vested, he said, the town is on solid ground.
“And again, the land use moratorium with the pendency of comprehensive plan is considered by New York courts as meeting a valid public purpose for the moratorium,” Howard said.
At the end of the discussion, it was not clear whether a three-vote majority exists to adopt the moratorium Hubbard advocated.
Council Member Frank Beyrodt did not give his opinion during the work session discussion but in a phone interview today said he is “not opposed to the moratorium” but would “like to see it a little bit shorter.”
“Can we agree to get information?” Hubbard asked yesterday.“Which projects, how far along they are, how close they are now. Even money invested into it. But get us the information so we can look at it and have a further discussion as soon as we can on this, and continue with that way.”
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