Second time’s the charm.
Riverhead Town officially resumed work on its comprehensive plan update this week with new planning consultants, after pausing the plan’s development for more than six months — and more than three years after first hiring a firm to work on the plan.
Representatives of BFJ Planning of New York City held a kickoff meeting during the Town Board’s work session on Thursday, presenting a timeline and milestones for the development of the plan and priorities, and fielding board members’ questions.
This is the town’s first meeting with the firm since the supervisor executed a contract with BFJ last month for $422,000. BFJ retained L.K. McLean Associates, also a subcontractor with prior planning consultants AKRF, to continue the traffic and infrastructure aspects of the plan. BFJ was picked by board members out of three firms presented by Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree after the town in July terminated its contract with AKRF, citing inadequate progress on the update.
The timeline from BFJ states that the comprehensive plan will be completed and adopted, along with its environmental review, in 14 months. A draft plan and draft environmental impact statement is expected at the 12-month mark.
The environmental review required to adopt the plan pursuant to the State Environmental Quality and Review Act, or SEQRA, will run parallel to the development of the plan, according to the firm’s principal-in-charge of the project, Noah Levine.
Throughout the plan’s development, BFJ will hold eight meetings with a new comprehensive plan advisory committee.
“The role of the committee will really be to guide the comprehensive plan process and help to monitor our timelines. They’ll also help to plan for public outreach activities,” Levine told the board.
“They’ll provide issues and opportunities, which we will kind of present to them when we meet with them regularly,” Levine continued. “And then they’ll help to ensure that the plan is representative of the wider community. And they will also help to review draft deliverables.”
Supervisor Yvette Aguiar formed a central advisory committee in January 2021 to act in a similar role when AKRF was developing the plan.
The comprehensive plan’s advisory committee will be downsized and replaced with new members, Council Member Tim Hubbard said in an interview after the meeting. The Town Board never publicly discussed the move during a public meeting.
Hubbard said the committee is being downsized because “it had too many people on it. [BFJ] said it just gets very mucky with that many people, so they narrowed it down to the main core areas that they felt were most needed,” he said.
Hubbard, one of two Town Board liaisons to the advisory committee, said he did not know many more details, including who will be on the committee or whether the Town Board would act through a resolution to appoint its members.
The Town Board did not adopt a resolution when the first advisory committee was formed in early 2021. Aguiar announced in a press release that she was appointing 14 members to the committee — although in actuality there were 16 people listed on the release — 10 town officials and other members. The appointments sparked controversy, with civic leaders upset at the absence of community members. Aguiar later appointed two civic leaders to the committee.
Hubbard and Deputy Supervisor Devon Higgins said Aguiar, who was absent from yesterday’s work session but participated by telephone, had more details on the committee’s development.
“We are reassessing the list [of committee members] at the moment. It will consist of at least 12 individuals and various targeted subcommittees as the need arises,” Aguiar wrote in an email yesterday to a reporter’s questions about the committee. Aguiar did not respond to a question as to why the committee’s membership is changing from the one formed in 2021.
Two of the advisory committee’s meetings will be held jointly with the Town Board. The Town Board will also have two meetings with BFJ representatives on its own. Levine said BFJ will also solicit priorities and comments for the plan from various town committees, and meet privately with other community stakeholders and town department heads.
Two “workshops,” described by Levine as presentations to the public, will be held during the development of the plan. The first one will be in March, Levine said.
Levine said the first two tasks for the firm will be creating a summary report of the prior work done by AKRF and creating a report on the town’s “vision, planning goals, issues and opportunities” to help guide the development of the plan.
The zoning and land use chapter of the plan will be developed early on, BFJ Founding Principal Frank Fish said. The town has identified industrial zones as a priority, and the firm will look at bulk and area regulations like height, setbacks and lot coverage, Fish said.
“Of course, we’ll try to achieve a balance in those zones, between environmental protection, but also tax base and jobs,” he said.
The firm will assess a number of different uses including anaerobic digesters and warehouses — specifically analyzing the differences between high-cube warehousing and traditional warehousing. The firm will also study solar farm development (the town currently has a moratorium on new applications for solar facilities within the town) and agrovoltaics — the joint development of solar farms and agriculture on the same land area.
Other topics being studied in the plan include battery energy storage, the town’s transfer of development rights program, downtown development and commercial corridors (Route 58)
BFJ also launched a new “rebranded” version of the comprehensive plan update website, to store materials during the plan’s development. The new site will go live as soon as the Town Board gives it the green light.
Town Board members were interested in how the plan would tackle “new technologies,” as Council Member Bob Kern put it. Levine said that there are some things that the town can plan for, but it would be difficult to plan 20 years in the future, and that they recommend towns update their comprehensive plans every 10 years.
Fish said that state law requires that a comprehensive plan say when it should be updated. He said that in Southampton Village, where the firm recently completed a comprehensive plan, the advisory committee is tasked to meet every year after the plan is complete to report to the board on the execution of the plan and advise whether any small updates to the plan are necessary.
“I think the plan needs to be flexible. It’s got to be dynamic. It’s got to be fluid. There has to be checks and balances,” Murphree told the board as the meeting with BFJ wrapped up. “So you have your year-one priorities, your one- through five-year priorities, five to 10 years. And as Frank mentioned, is that there needs to be feedback to you as the board, as to these are the goals that were targeted for year one, or year one through five. Here’s a report card. What did we achieve? What didn’t we achieve? What’s new on the horizon? So there needs to be that kind of annual update to you, so you know what’s going on,” Murphree said.
Riverhead’s current comprehensive plan was begun in 1999 and completed and adopted in 2003. New zoning codes to implement recommendations of the plan were adopted by the Town Board beginning in 2004.
In response to community complaints about retail development proposals along the Route 25A corridor in Wading River, the town hired BFJ Planning in July 2011 to study land uses and update zoning in the corridor. BFJ had undertaken the original Wading River hamlet study for Riverhead Town in the mid-1980s and in 2011 had just completed a Route 25A corridor study for Brookhaven Town. The Town Board adopted zoning code changes in October 2012 to implement recommendations developed by BFJ.
Murphree, a former planner for the Town of Southampton, was employed by the planning firm VHB in 2012— a firm Riverhead hired to develop zoning and a subdivision map for its remaining vacant land at the Calverton Enterprise Park — when he was hired by Riverhead Town as building and planning administrator in July 2012.
While the Town Board has not in public meetings evaluated the town’s progress on attaining the goals and objectives of its 2003 comprehensive plan, as Murphree described during yesterday’s work session, the town has undertaken other planning studies, mostly focused on the downtown district. These include a Brownfields Opportunities Area study for the West Main Street corridor, which was funded by a $567,000 state grant, another study that led to the development of the downtown pattern book, which was adopted but has not been implemented through new zoning code measures, and parking studies for the downtown area.
Town Board discussions about the need to do an overall update of the 2003 comprehensive plan go back to the Walter administration. Board members have long acknowledged the need to address issues like the town’s ineffective transfer of development rights program and the future of “big box” retail uses on Route 58 as online shopping began to threaten brick-and-mortar stores. But town officials said a comprehensive plan update would be cost-prohibitive.
After the town secured funding for a comp plan update through a community benefits agreement with a commercial solar energy developer, the board sought proposals from planning firms in 2019, and by the end of that year, hired AKRF for the job at a fee $675,000.
Officials said the update was stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing shut-downs. AKRF and transportation subcontractor L.K. McLean relaunched the planning effort with a presentation to the Town Board in September 2020, but progress continued at a slow pace, requiring two contract extensions before the Town Board decided to pull the plug last June and find a new firm.
Town officials said AKRF was paid about half of its contracted fee. The balance, with the addition of funds to make up the difference, will fund the $422,000 contract with BFJ Planning. BFJ will pay subcontractor L.K. McLean $123,000 to complete work on transportation and infrastructure issues, according to contract documents.
Editor’s note Jan. 27, 2023, 10:30 a.m.: This article has been updated to reflect a comment from Aguiar sent by email late last night after the article’s deadline.
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