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It’s been almost five months since the Riverhead Town Board fired its planning consultants tasked with writing the comprehensive plan update. And since that decision was made, the same phrase used as the reason for the firing — “slow pace of progress and shallow depth of study” — can be applied to town officials, who are in the same place they were five months ago. 

The Town Board has not authorized a contract with new consultants almost two months after verbally agreeing to do so. The board is also divided on whether to impose a moratorium on industrial development in Calverton — currently the most vulnerable part of the town due an influx of large projects such as logistic centers, which have impacts yet to be fully analyzed by town officials. 

Suffice it to say, the town’s elected officials are in a state of paralysis, but what they don’t seem to understand is that the rest of the world isn’t waiting for their decision. Developers are continuing to get approvals, applications for new development are being processed and every meeting the Town Board stands still — does not act to reboot the comprehensive plan process, decides not to move to adopt a moratorium — is another two weeks on a developer’s countdown clock to the day a project is legally vested. 

As we have said in previous editorials, Riverhead needs a moratorium while the comprehensive plan is being developed — and not a six-month moratorium being floated by board members, or a moratorium with exemptions for campaign donors, but a full moratorium for however long is required for the comprehensive plan to be completed, adopted, and codified.

Clearly the Town Board understands that the comprehensive plan is important. It has adopted and renewed a moratorium on solar farm development to further analyze the impacts of the use — of course not before exempting every project with an application pending. So why can’t they see that other developments, especially logistic centers with potentially massive impacts to traffic and community character, deserve the same treatment?

It’s mind-boggling and really leaves us wondering what’s behind these decisions — or lack of decisions.

But whatever it is doesn’t make any difference to the people of the Riverhead Town — and especially to the people of Calverton, who unlike the board will feel the consequences of indecision in their backyards. The end result is what matters.

Most Town Board members believe a six-month moratorium is sufficient because the planning consultant selected to complete the plan, BFJ Planning, could, in theory, prioritize Calverton in its analysis. But the work is estimated to take at least 14 months to complete, the town’s head planner says. Actually implementing it will take even longer.

And while we are on the topic of the hiring of BFJ, we have to ask: why hasn’t the town executed a contract yet? We don’t know. Almost every time we’ve asked, we are told by town officials that it should be done in the next week. We’ve been asking that question for a month and a half.

But the board isn’t just dragging its feet on the update or even just diluting the plan’s effectiveness by failing to enact a moratorium, it’s actively subverting the purpose of the plan by forging ahead with new zoning code amendments that will allow uses that have never been — and ought to be — fully analyzed in a comprehensive planning process — including battery energy storage systems and anaerobic digester facilities.

The cumulative impacts of these uses, coupled with an influx of logistic centers and warehouses, can’t be effectively studied by Riverhead’s small planning staff, who must continue processing application after application after application for new development. 

Town officials also say they care about improving the town’s transfer of development rights program. The program allows the town to preserve open space and farmland with the purchase of development rights. The development rights are then used to increase development density. That’s the incentive for purchasing them. But the town undermines the program by allowing increased density without requiring the transfer of development rights.

If the board is serious about preserving farmland and open space through the TDR program, this cannot continue. But it does. And it will for the foreseeable future if the Town Board fails to adopt a meaningful moratorium, and allows projects to gain increased density by obtaining variances from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

It’s been three years since the comprehensive plan update process started. Yes, the pandemic slowed things down. But if the board really sees the value in the comprehensive planning process — a big “if” judging by its actions and inaction to date, it would impose a moratorium  — a meaningful moratorium of sufficient length and without suspect exemptions.

Failing to adopt a moratorium while at the same time dawdling on the comprehensive plan, allowing new land uses and increased development density without the transfer of development rights — in other words, maintaining the status quo — indicate that the board either doesn’t grasp the urgency of these matters or just doesn’t care.

Either way, town officials are squandering Riverhead’s future. The Town Board needs to wake up and and kick it into overdrive — before it’s too late.

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