Though the Riverhead Town Board never scheduled a hearing on the moratorium the community has been demanding for many months, they had one yesterday, whether they liked it or not.
A standing-room only crowd of angry residents packed the Town Hall meeting room yesterday afternoon. Carrying signs that read “MORATORIUM NOW” and “NO NEW PROJECTS,” they had just concluded a rally outside Town Hall to demand action on a moratorium to pause industrial development in Calverton while the town completes its long-stalled comprehensive plan update, which would analyze the cumulative impacts of massive development proposals in the hamlet.
There is more than 1 million square feet of industrial development proposed in Calverton outside of the Calverton Enterprise Park, including “cube” warehouses and logistics centers that have the potential to bring heavy traffic to the area’s roadways.
The residents were rambunctious and vocal from start to finish in a marathon meeting that lasted more than four hours.
When Tim Hubbard, the first board member to come out in favor of the moratorium, entered the meeting room, the crowd greeted him with enthusiastic applause — something that rarely, if ever, happens. It would be one of the few expressions of support from yesterday’s audience, in a meeting marked by acrimony and contention.
When Deputy Supervisor Devon Higgins took the middle seat on the dais instead of Supervisor Yvette Aguiar, members of the audience began asking from their seats where the supervisor was. Higgins did not respond and opened the meeting, proceeding with the regular order of business.
After Planner Matt Charters explained the purpose of the first hearing, Greater Calverton Civic Association President Toqui Terchun came to the podium.
“I don’t have a comment. I have a quick question. I was looking for the supervisor, I was surprised to find that she’s not leading this meeting,“ Terchun said. “So I asked inside her office, and the woman inside instructed me to ask Devon, the reason why our supervisor’s absent from this meeting,” she said.
“First of all, that’s completely immaterial,” Higgins answered, “but I can tell you the supervisor is feeling under the weather.”
That drew complaints and jeers from the crowd.
“I can tell you the supervisor’s pretty tough and it would take a lot for her not to be here,” Higgins said.
More complaints and jeers.
“The fact that it wasn’t announced at the beginning of this meeting,” Terchun said. “Show respect, that’s all we’re asking for.”
Town Attorney Erik Howard cut Terchun off to remind her that the board had opened a public hearing on a proposed zoning code change and only comments on the subject matter of the hearing should be offered.
It was a sequence that was repeated throughout the long meeting, where hearings on five different proposed code revisions were on the board’s agenda. Howard, Higgins, and the three board members present (in addition to Aguiar, Council Member Frank Beyrodt was also absent) took turns reminding people to confine their comments to the subject matter then before the board — largely to no effect, because members of the public who spoke had one thing on their mind: the moratorium they had come to advocate for.
Before the second public hearing began — to consider another proposed zoning code revision — Hubbard made a statement about why he voted against scheduling the next two public hearings on the agenda, both matters that have sparked some controversy in the community. One would allow food waste processing facilities in the Planned Industrial Park zoning district at the Calverton Enterprise Park. The other would allow battery energy storage system facilities in certain zoning districts throughout the town.
Hubbard said he is not against either use. “I understand their need. I understand what they can do for the community. I do favor them. What I don’t favor is doing this without the assistance of a comprehensive plan,” Hubbard said to applause and cheers from the audience. He said the board, later in the meeting, would be approving a contract with a new planning consulting firm to complete the comprehensive plan update.
Food waste processing facilities and battery energy storage systems would be addressed in a comprehensive plan, Hubbard said. “Instead of us just going forward and doing our own resolutions, I think we strongly need the assistance of the contract for both the digester and the battery storage systems. And that’s why I’m asking for a minimum of a six-month moratorium,” Hubbard said.
Speaker after speaker urged the board to set aside the proposed code changes and act on a moratorium long enough to complete the comprehensive plan update. Board members, the town attorney and the deputy supervisor all tried in vain to keep the hearings on point throughout the meeting.
Even speakers who offered substantive comments about the subject of the hearings added their thoughts about the need for a moratorium and completion of the comp plan update before acting on the changes before the board.
“A mere discussion of the text proposed for a code is not a substitute for a planning process,” former Council Member Barbara Blass of Jamesport told the board.
Blass also noted that the scope of work attached to the comp plan contract includes an assessment of solid waste management needs and capabilities, which includes food waste to energy facilities, as well as an assessment of renewable energy needs and systems, including battery energy storage systems.
“You’ve heard from many constituents over the last several years, and more here today, as well as the five members of your Planning Board, objecting to moving forward on new codes and projects prior to the adoption of a moratorium so that the planning process can get underway,” Blass said. “It’s time to stop reacting to applications, and forcing round pegs into square holes,” she said.
“We all appreciate the freedom and opportunity to address you as our local government representatives. But please just don’t pay us lip service and thank us for our comments — or worse, waste our money by prematurely and haphazardly adopting code changes that could undermine the costly but necessary planning update that’s about to be approved,” Blass said, drawing applause and cheers.
Northville resident Kathy McGraw drove home the same point.
“Back in August when you were interviewing the consultants to finish the update, you asked them all about their expertise with priority areas that needed to be updated in this plan,” McGraw said.
“You specified solar energy, battery storage systems, anaerobic digesters and TDRs (transfers of development rights). Mr. Kern and Supervisor Aguiar and others described these as critical areas to be addressed in the update,” McGraw said.
“BFJ took you at your word, and included all these things in their scope of work, just as Barbara Blass pointed out earlier, and you are about to vote to pay them $422,000 to perform that work. Why?” she asked. “Why on earth are you paying them to study and plan for land uses that you have already moved forward on by proposing new zoning codes to implement these uses? I asked you this question and I believe all the people in this room would like an answer,” McGraw said.
Phil Barbato of Jamesport urged the board to “do things in the right order“ by first completing and adopting the comprehensive plan update.
“Please, let’s not revise the plan, and do the environmental and social impacts of them one application at a time like we are tonight,” Barbato said. “This idea is wrong. It’s bad planning,” he said. “We don’t have a plan, so how can we start approving things that come flying our way, one at a time? That’s bad planning. And that will lead us to the same kind of end result as the towns to the west,” Barbato said.
“So please, let’s just take a pause here. Do the right thing in the right order and comprehensively before we make some really bad decisions, and start ourselves down a pathway towards a place where we don’t want to be,” he said.
Barbato said it’s a fallacy to believe that more development means lower taxes. “Where does that come from? You go anywhere where there’s more development, and they pay more taxes than we do. So I’m so tired of hearing that. Please stop saying that,” Barbato said.
Former Council Member George Bartunek urged the Town Board to adopt the moratorium. He said he served on the Town Board with Barbara Blass and Ed Densieski, who is now vice chairpersons of the Planning Board. Densieski was a staunch advocate of property rights, Bartunek said, “and he is a proponent of asking you to take a pause from any consideration” of the new projects and codes before the town.
Marilyn Hamilton of Foxwood Village in Calverton, spoke for herself and her husband Joseph LaGennusa. “We both want to moratorium. If the warehouse project is allowed to go on, our quality of life will be severely diminished. It has already been diminished by the Brixmor Costco shopping center project with refrigerated trucks running all night long. We want the moratorium.”
Calverton resident Claudette Bianco complained about what she described as the board’s unresponsiveness to residents’ concerns.
“For more than two years, our residents and civic association have spoken out against massive industrial building plans for Calverton. We’ve asked for a moratorium,” Bianco said. “We’ve cited reasons including environmental impact, water usage, traffic, noise and light pollution,” she said.
“We’ve gotten little respect, and no action when we asked you to stop the destruction of our community. Your reluctance to act is arbitrary and capricious, and inexcusable,” Bianco said.
“As you drag your feet, applications are moving forward despite our objections, inching ever closer to the point where they will be vested. At the same time, the planning department must continue accepting new applications,” she said.
“We need you to show leadership and resolve and make the difficult choices to avoid catastrophic and permanent damage. Decisions of this magnitude should not be made in a vacuum,” Bianco said. “We have to live with the consequences of your decisions.”
The board holds the public hearings that are required by law, but does not really hear the public, Bianco said.
“You’re listening to developers who have taken full advantage of your dysfunction and your inactions and decided Riverhead is the place where they can do whatever they want,” she said. “Building with reckless abandon, making campaign contributions to members of the board while having applications before the town is tangible proof of an insidious alliance,” she said.
“Developers will be getting tax breaks and sweetheart deals while we and future generations will pay for it. Either you do not comprehend the gravity of this situation where you just don’t care about our hamlet and its future,” Bianco said.
“Well, we are here to say no,” she told the board. “Developers will not dictate how our neighborhoods will look. We taxpayers and residents will decide what path we take into the future — and who will guide us there. You can rest assured that if these mega structures are built, they will destroy our rural landscape. And it will define your legacy,” Bianco said.
Several more speakers went to the podium to say they opposed action on either of the new uses absent a completed comprehensive plan and urged the board to adopt a moratorium — despite the consistent attempts by officials to have those comments wait till the end of the meeting, when residents are invited to speak on any matter.
Riverhead resident Cindy Clifford, a cofounder of the Heart of Riverhead Civic Association, asked the board to adjourn both hearings.
“It should go without saying that the majority of people here today are putting aside working, shopping, wrapping, cleaning, baking, preparing for company, maybe taking five minutes to just relax. But instead they’re here providing the public part of the public hearing,” Clifford said.
“Your part as the Town Board, who scheduled this for two days into Hanukkah and five days before Christmas, in the middle of a workday, is to hear what we have come to say,” Clifford said. “That two of the five, representing 40% of this board, are not present — in spite of Mr. Beyrodt voting to approve this date and time — broadcasts a lack of respect for our time and possibly what we have come to say,” Clifford said.
A public hearing to adopt a new code, which in turn will allow projects already being pitched to the town by developers is on a “checklist” for approvals of those projects, Clifford said. “(It’s) not lost on us,” she said.
“You could convey your commitment to the weight of these public comments,” she said. “I’d like to request, on behalf of everyone here, that you adjourn these public hearings at today’s conclusion and carry over until early January when residents who couldn’t accommodate the time can attend,” Clifford said.
The board did not heed her requests and closed both public hearings, but keeping the record open for written comments until 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 30.
After closing the hearing on battery energy storage systems, Hubbard made another pitch for a moratorium himself, asking fellow board members to reconsider their stated opposition.
“Damn. We’re spending $800,000 on this plan. Let it do its job,” Hubbard said. “What’s another 6 months or even 12 months? These developers are not going to go away. They’re in it to make money,” he said.
“Common sense tells me if we have a comp plan so close now, in a matter of minutes, to be voted on to handle this, let it do its job,” Hubbard said. “What is the rush? Let it do its job. The developers don’t work for us. They don’t own us. We work for the people. The people have spoken. We listen,” Hubbard said.
“Please reconsider a short moratorium so the comp plan can address these issues,” he said. “Because once we do it, it’s too late. Once they’re up and running, it’s too late. And if we got it wrong, it’s way too late.”
Again, Hubbard’s comments drew applause, but no reply from the two other board members present.
By the time the board finished acting on resolutions on the agenda — including one authorizing the comp plan update contract — most of the more than 120 people present at the meeting’s outset four hours earlier had left the room. Still, eight more speakers went to the podium or addressed the board on Zoom to advocate for a moratorium.
Calverton resident Vinnie Schiavone opened the final portion of the meeting, reserved for public comment on any topic with a quip: “Am I able to say the ‘M word’ at this time?”
Schiavone said though he has lived in Calverton for more than 17 years and raised his family here. “Frankly this is my first Town Hall meeting. If they’re as interesting as this one today, I’ll be back.”
Schiavone expressed support for the moratorium. He said the town needs to update its zoning code to account for the differences between traditional warehouses and distribution centers. He said he previously worked in the industry and was responsible for setting up distribution centers on the East Coast from New Hampshire to Florida.
“The core difference is that warehouses focused on the function of storage, while the distribution center is focused on throughput,” Schiavone said. Distribution centers generate far more traffic, he told the board. He asked them to listen to their own appointed Planning Board.
“They serve as your experts. They have passed a resolution recommending that you pass a moratorium,” he said. The more inaction there is, the more the concern grows with respect to vesting of an applicant’s right to develop. “And then there’s no turning back for some of these applications,” Schiavone said. “So the more inaction that we have — I go back to my original thinking when I walked out of that meeting,” he said.
And that begs the question, he said: “What the hell is going on in Riverhead?”
Bonnie Anderson of Foxwood Village in Calverton said she does not understand the board’s thinking. “Mr. Hubbard is the only one that has stated time and time again for the moratorium. Who are you other people working for?”
Kathy McGraw of Northville asked the board members who have voiced opposition to a moratorium to explain their rationale to the public, to explain “why you are willing to explain to the public why you’re willing to pay the consultants but not willing to eat the year to get their feedback on those two brand-new land uses.”
Kern demurred but Rothwell offered his thoughts, repeating what he told RiverheadLOCAL in an interview last week. The comp plan is going to take much longer than six months, Rothwell said. The town’s planners have told the board nothing is going to be approved or vested in the next six months, he said.
“Realistically, I think the work that was done by the prior company was completely inadequate,” Rothwell said. “And I think that if this new comprehensive plan company is relying on that, I think this is going to take much longer than six months, 12 months, 18 months,” Rothwell said.
He cited the town’s need to pierce the property tax cap for 2023. “I’m not willing to shut down projects for the next 18 months when this town desperately needs to increase its tax base,” Rothwell said.
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