Supervisor Yvette Aguiar argues with a resident speaking during the public comment period during the Jan. 4, 2023 Town Board meeting. Photo: Denise Civiletti

How did Riverhead get to a place where a Town Board majority refuses to even hold a public hearing on something as vitally important and the subject of as much community interest as a proposed land use moratorium? 

In effect, the Town Board in its 3-2 vote against scheduling a public hearing, told its constituency, “We don’t want to hear any more of what you have to say on this topic.” 

Certainly, they’ve been hearing plenty in recent months from hundreds of residents opposed to industrial development in Calverton while the town’s $800,000 comprehensive plan update is being written. 

Residents recognize that the approval of more than 1 million square feet of industrial space in Calverton, including a massive logistics center on Middle Road, will permanently change the hamlet’s character and residents’ quality of life. 

Residents recognize that prudent planning and good government require the town to update its obsolete, 20-year-old  land use plan first, then implement zoning changes pursuant to that updated plan, and then carefully scrutinize proposed development plans according to the town’s updated plan and updated zoning. Residents recognize that’s how prudent planning and good government work. 

Why doesn’t the Town Board recognize that too?

To answer that question, perhaps all you need to know is the Town Board’s opinion of just one massive development plan in Calverton, which the proposed moratorium wouldn’t even touch:  Triple Five’s proposal to build 8.4 million square feet of logistics and distribution centers situated along the two runways at the Enterprise Park at Calverton. The Town Board is apparently so enamored of Triple Five’s plans to create an air cargo logistics hub at EPCAL, presented in detail to the Riverhead Industrial Development Agency in September, that it has actually filed a joint application with Triple Five asking the IDA to give the developer tax breaks on what it builds at EPCAL.

But there are other clues to why the Town Board refused to hold the public hearing. Let’s start with the outsized influence of developers, their consultants and attorneys on local elected and appointed officials, as well as on the political parties that put them in office. Then there’s the diminished influence of the general public in local government. Both the outsized influence of the development crowd and the diminished influence of ordinary citizens directly result from the cozy relationships in the I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine world of influence-peddling, the life blood of which is the flow of campaign cash. The decline in civic engagement and voter turnout in local elections over decades reflects the citizenry’s increasing irrelevance in that world. 

Local elected officials are beholden, directly or indirectly, and whether they admit it or not,  to those who contribute what need to get them elected: cash — and often lots of it. 

Politicians deny undue influence from the developers, attorneys, consultants and PACs that fill their campaign war chests. But what motivates these contributions — totaling, even locally, hundreds of thousands of dollars — besides a desire to build friendships and gain favors? Do the politicians who insist there is no connection really think the public is that naive? We certainly don’t. We think the public just isn’t paying enough attention.

We do pay attention and, as we’ve reported, some contributions come as big checks — to the maximum allowed by State Election Law. Some contributors even exceeded the maximum.

Other financial support comes in the form of ticket purchases to the numerous dinners, golf outings and other political events held for the express purpose of raising campaign cash. These events not only fill campaign war chests, but they also give developers and their attorneys/consultants the chance to golf, eat and drink and otherwise schmooze with elected and appointed officials — and the town’s network of attorneys and consultants who also buy tickets to the same events. Funny/not-funny how the revolving door glides smoothly between consulting for the town and consulting for developers, isn’t it?

All that “relationship-building” pays off handsomely in the offices and corridors of town government where these folks ply their trade. It eventually pays off in the Town Hall meeting room itself, where decisions made in private conversations behind the scenes find public expression in votes cast by the board. 

Where’s the public in this scenario? Out in the cold. 

And when members of the public fill the Town Hall meeting room to express their opinions, they are treated as unwelcome interlopers whose opinions don’t matter. Because, in the end, they don’t. As long as the flow of campaign cash continues uninterrupted, and as long as the public doesn’t turn out on Election Day, when the public’s opinion is the only thing that matters, the people who speak out in the Town Hall meeting room really don’t matter to these politicians.

That has never been clearer than it was at this week’s Town Board meeting, where the dismissive attitude of some members toward their constituents was on display for the world to see (if only the world were watching.) 

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar, who is known to interrupt constituents when they address the board, or even attack them for doing so, was in rare form this week, scolding and berating some constituents, cutting off others. When one constituent, who often criticizes the board and always asks a lot of pointed questions — as is her right — asked a question, Aguiar nastily replied,  “I don’t owe you an explanation.” 

Constituents were cut off at the five-minute time limit on speakers, and told the resolution on the meeting agenda was about calling a hearing on the moratorium proposal, not on the moratorium itself — so they should stick to the subject and not comment on why they think a moratorium is needed.

The same standards were not applied to developers’ representatives, an associate in the firm representing an industrial developer in Calverton and representatives from the Long Island Builders Institute, the Association for a Better Long Island, and Ignite LI, all of which represent development interests. The supervisor had no problem allowing them to go on at length, in excess of the five-minute limit on speaker time, about why the proposed moratorium would be bad or — inaccurately — suggesting it would be illegal as applied to one developer in particular.

That was a rare moment of transparency in the Aguiar administration, a moment when the supervisor’s agenda really shone through for all to see.

But if that weren’t enough, consider this. Aguiar, in rambling and sometimes incoherent remarks before her vote Wednesday, actually parroted comments made in a letter from a developer’s attorney. Keith Brown, the Melville attorney representing Great Neck developer HK Ventures,  argued on behalf of his client that the proposed moratorium should exempt HK’s plans because they’ve been under review by the town for longer than the other development proposals that would be captured by the moratorium.  This argument plays to the supervisor’s wrongheaded opinions about the “vesting” of development rights under current zoning codes. Aguiar clings to her incorrect conclusions despite being advised, publicly, by the town attorney that they are incorrect. She has even dismissively asserted that she consulted with other attorneys, whom she declined to identify, outside the town’s own law department.

It’s one thing to say, as Council Member Ken Rothwell did, that you don’t believe in moratoriums because you think they take away an owner’s property rights. It’s another thing to pretend, as Aguiar does, that you know the law better than the town attorney. One need only listen to her expound on that knowledge for less than a minute to understand how ridiculous that pretense is. 

The bottom line, however, remains the same. Riverhead puts the interests of out-of-town developers over the interests of its own residents and taxpayers, for the sake of someone’s — not the residents — idea of “progress.”  

This Town Board has too often taken a hands-off approach to much of the development in the town that they are empowered to review. 

They have given little input when developers make presentations at work session discussions. When one member of the business advisory committee, who happens to represent downtown developers, squawks, things get shelved. The board has not adopted code changes reducing building heights along Main Street, as recommended by a planning study they paid to have done. They have not acted on a parking code that would require developers of apartments in the parking district either provide off-street parking or contribute to a fund that would help pay for new parking downtown. On the one hand, they waste taxpayer money and on the other, they would rather have taxpayers foot the bill for parking structures instead of the developers who will benefit from those structures.  

Town Board members should be advocating for the people of the town, for protecting the town’s drinking water supply, for ensuring safe roads, clean air and quality of life. Instead, they advocate for development interests and the owners of commercial and industrially zoned land. 

As one Calverton resident poignantly asked at this week’s meeting, “What about our property rights?”

The current board seems to believe that is not their role. All they seem to care about is economic development, advancing the belief that more business is always good, no matter what. 

As Council Member Bob Kern likes to ask almost every developer during Town Board work sessions: “When can you get the shovel in the ground?”

And that leads us to one more thought on why the Town Board majority refused to even have a public hearing on the proposed moratorium: The Town Board does not seem to understand or care about the concept of planning, or their role in it.

Let’s start with the supervisor, who during Wednesday’s meeting attacked the Riverhead Planning Board for recommending that the Town Board adopt a moratorium

Aguiar angrily said the Planning Board “punted” the moratorium issue to the Town Board without first consulting with the Town Board.  

First, the Planning Board is a separate body and has the right to pass a resolution making a recommendation to the Town Board without the board’s prior knowledge and consent. This is just laughable and shows the supervisor’s ego far outpaces her understanding of how local government works. (Bear in mind we have also witnessed this supervisor incorrectly assert that she is the “boss” of a council member and that she has some sort of authority over the board of education.)

Second, the Town Board, as the town’s legislative body, is the only body that can pass a local law imposing a moratorium. The Planning Board has no legislative authority. The duties and responsibilities of both boards, as well as that of the Zoning Board of Appeals, are defined by state statutes. All the Planning Board could do was recommend the action to the Town Board. Somehow, Aguiar took it as a personal insult.

Aguiar also said the Planning Board, if it felt there were too many industrial applications being made in Calverton, should have let the town board know. All Town Board members, and most especially the town supervisor, have the obligation  — and the ability — to know what’s going on in town.That goes without saying. Moreover, the Town Board is an “involved agency” on every application subject to coordinated review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act. As such, the Town Board actually did receive formal notification of every proposal that, when taken together, resulted in the Planning Board’s recommendation.

Finally, the Town Board and Planning Board share the same planning department staff. Maybe if the supervisor made better use of the weekly meetings that used to be genuine working meetings known as “work sessions,” there would be more opportunity for department reports, committee reports, and productive discussions about what’s going on. Instead, there are endless dog-and-pony shows.

Maybe, for some people, it’s just easier to play dumb.

We believe a moratorium is absolutely essential to salvaging the derailed comprehensive planning process in Riverhead and making Riverhead’s future viable for residents and businesses alike. We think that to be effective, a moratorium should be for as long as the town needs to update and implement its comprehensive plan update and more sweeping than just three zoning districts in one hamlet. 

Without such a moratorium, we are wasting the nearly $1 million of public funds that will have been spent on a comprehensive plan update completed only after it’s too late to address a variety of important land use, infrastructure and quality of life issues. Without such a moratorium  we are squandering the future of our town. Do the up-island developers, lawyers and consultants care about that? Where will they be a decade from now when the residents are living with the mess they created — at great personal profit?

The Town Board majority is out of touch with the needs and best interests of Riverhead residents — and they don’t show any sign of caring.

No one should be surprised by this, though. The Town Board majority did not keep their views secret before they won election. Aguiar, Kern and Rothwell let them be known, and we reported on them. 

Maybe not enough resident stakeholders were paying attention, as evidenced by voter turnout and election results. 

But the developer stakeholders surely were paying attention — and that is evidenced by the financial support those interests have provided and will continue to provide to these officials.

So, whose interests are being served? That’s no secret either. 

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