The 650,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center built in a former farm field in Nampa, Idaho. Photo: Tracy King/Adobe Stock

Riverhead Town is assessing potential impacts of the proposed Riverhead Logistics Center, a 15-acre ‘high-cube’ warehouse, as if it’s a traditional storage facility, as opposed to a potential e-commerce fulfillment center — a dreadful mistake that could have irreversible consequences.

We’re baffled by the town’s use of what appears to be the wrong measure for projecting traffic impacts of modern “class A” high-cube warehouse/distribution facilities like the 641,000-square foot Riverhead Logistics Center proposed for 39 vacant, wooded acres on Middle Road in Calverton.

The town has agreed to use trip generation estimates adopted by the Institute of Transportation Engineers for a standard warehouse rather than the estimates for the new high-cube warehouses now being developed to meet the needs of modern freight handling and logistics in the era of e-commerce, including distribution centers and fulfillment centers.

MORE COVERAGE: Not a ‘traditional warehouse’: Residents tell planners NorthPoint should be analyzed using traffic data for high-cube fulfillment centers

The town’s industrial zoning codes, adopted in 2004, allow “warehouse” as a permitted use in the Industrial A zoning district. The code makes no distinction between a standard warehouse and a high-cube warehouse because high-cube warehouses didn’t exist when the code was adopted.

But there’s a big, big difference between a traditional warehouse and the “modern, class-A, high-cube warehouse” NorthPoint wants to develop. Mind you, that’s what NorthPoint itself calls its planned Riverhead Logistics Center. Those are specific terms in the logistics industry used to describe state-of-the-art, often highly automated, facilities built specifically to benefit the e-commerce supply chain. Traditional warehouses are built to store goods for an extended period of time. The high-cube warehouses are built to get goods in and out, typically for direct delivery to consumers.

The Institute of Transportation Engineers publishes a manual of trip generation estimates for every conceivable land use. The manual is relied on by planning agencies and their traffic experts to assess traffic impacts of proposed developments. The ITE manual has been updated to reflect the new high-cube warehouse uses and contains new trip generation estimates for the new high-cube warehouse use — which it subdivides into five distinct categories, depending on the specific use proposed.

According to the ITE manual’s tables, traffic impacts of the high-cube warehouses used as fulfillment centers are seven times greater than traffic impacts of traditional warehouses.

But Riverhead Town is not using the new ITE “high-cube warehouse” land-use code to assess the potential traffic impacts of the proposed high-cube warehouse on Middle Road. Instead, the town is using the general warehouse land-use code to assess traffic impacts — effectively pretending the developer isn’t going to build the type of warehouse facility the developer has told the town it’s going to build.

The town’s justification for this is equally puzzling. Its traffic consultant, L.K. McLean Associates, says the estimates using ITE manual’s general warehouse land-use code (150) are “reasonable.”

LKMA’s explanation for its conclusion that using the land-use code that doesn’t pertain is found in its Jan. 11 memo to the planning department. LKMA acknowledged that the estimated daily vehicle trips are higher for high-cube warehouses than for traditional general warehouses. But, the consultant said, the peak-hour trip estimates — one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon — are actually lower for high-cube warehouses than they are for general warehouses. So that makes using the wrong code “reasonable,” the consultant concluded.

We’re not traffic engineers. But that rationale simply defies logic.

We also note that the town’s traffic expert, for reasons unexplained in the letter, used for comparison between general warehouse and high-cube warehouse, trip-generation numbers for the “high-cube warehouse: non-sort” land-use code in the ITE manual, rather than the “high-cube warehouse: sort” land-use code. The latter is the land-use code that applies to fulfillment centers of the type used by Amazon. NorthPoint says it does not yet have a tenant for the massive high-cube warehouse it proposes, though it lists Amazon among its roster of tenants at other locations in its portfolio. This part of LKMA’s analysis also left us with questions.

A reporter called the author of the LKMA letter seeking explanation of these issues, but he did not return the call.

A reporter also requested interviews with NorthPoint representatives who have been interviewed by RiverheadLOCAL in the past, seeking clarification regarding the company’s use of the general warehouse land-use code in its documents, but no one from NorthPoint responded to the request.

We believe these questions require answers — solid, thorough answers. When we asked town planning staff, we were referred to the traffic consultants’ letter. For reasons stated above, that just doesn’t cut it.

The volume of traffic, the types of truck traffic, the air pollution caused by the volume of truck traffic, the impacts on local two-lane roads not built to withstand the traffic — these are just some of the consequences that will only be thoroughly assessed by using the accurate land-use code for these facilities.

We need not rely on imagination to understand these impacts. We can look at what has taken place in other communities:

A ‘Warehouse’ By Any Other Name: How outdated zoning codes are fueling the sprawl of e-commerce warehouses.

‘Monstrosities in the farmland’: how giant warehouses transformed a California town

‘Warehouses in their backyards’: when Amazon expands, these communities pay the price

Communities Near Warehouses Unprotected by Outdated Zoning Codes

We’re encouraged by Planning Board Vice Chairperson Ed Densieski’s effort to get these questions answered, so that the community and the Planning Board can understand exactly what is being proposed by NorthPoint and so that the Planning Board can make an accurate assessment of the actual impacts of that proposal.

A good start for board members and residents it to have a look at the Lehigh Valley (Pennsylvania) Planning Commission guidebook. The LVPC has done extensive work to provide guidance to municipalities to help them prepare for and review these new warehousing uses. Their guidebook can be viewed online at this link.

Densieski is right. Projects like the Riverhead Logistics Center can “change the face of the town” and there will be no “do-over,” as he has said. The Planning Board needs to get this right. And the Town Board must be sure its comprehensive plan update analyzes these matters thoroughly and the zoning code revisions the town will adopt as a result protect the town from unwanted and unexpected impacts of these new uses.

Too bad the Town Board did not heed the Planning Board’s call for a moratorium while all of this is sorted out — exposing the town to irreversible damage that will likely occur in the interim.

Editorials are the opinion of RiverheadLOCAL and are written collaboratively by Denise Civiletti, Katie Morosky and Alek Lewis.

The survival of local journalism depends on your support.
We are a small family-owned operation. You rely on us to stay informed, and we depend on you to make our work possible. Just a few dollars can help us continue to bring this important service to our community.
Support RiverheadLOCAL today.