File photo: Denise Civiletti

It’s been nearly four years since Riverhead Town decided to update its comprehensive plan — and although a lot has happened, little progress has been made. 

The update was originally supposed to have been completed by the end of February 2021, according to the town’s contract with the consulting firm hired in October 2019 — in response to a request for proposals process that started that April. But the contract wasn’t signed until January 2020. The coronavirus pandemic, which struck just as the process got underway, upended the contract timetable. But delays continued even after the September 2020 “relaunch” and community outreach meetings were again affected by the COVID surge in fall and winter of 2020-2021.

By summer of last year, town officials decided to cut ties with its planning consultants and terminated the town’s contract with the firm, citing its “slow pace of progress and shallow depth of study.” The town searched for and hired a new consulting firm in January. 

Most of the public outreach for the plan has been completed — and criticized by many as ineffective in gathering the wider community’s opinions. 

Apart from a few recommendations made by the planning firm’s transportation and infrastructure subcontractors — which met with so much community backlash they were amended almost immediately — and an analysis on Riverhead’s affordable housing stock, the firm produced very few deliverables.  

Having recently rebooted the update process, town officials are hopeful the new firm, BFJ Planning, will take the project over the finish line. 

But roughly one year out from the new projected adoption date, there is still no “vision statement,”  the statement of goals and objectives that will guide development of the plan — and Riverhead’s future. 

That could be a big problem.

A comprehensive plan is an all-encompassing blueprint for the future of a municipality, guiding it on a wide range of issues, the most impactful of those being how land should be used and what development should be allowed or prohibited, incentivized and disincentivized. It’s also a blueprint for how to spend money on capital improvements for infrastructure. And it’s a cohesive local public policy guide for years to come. Although state law does not mandate a municipal comprehensive plan be updated, the lifespan of the plan is considered to be around 10 to 20 years. Riverhead’s plan was last updated in 2003, adopted after a process that took more than four years. 

It is a necessary document — and one of a municipality’s most important resources — making its development a high-stakes endeavor. 

State law requires all zoning code changes to be made pursuant to a “comprehensive plan” or “well-considered plan.” This provides strong support for adopted zoning codes if the codes are challenged in court. 

Zoning laws regulate what can be built, where it can be built and what that development should look like — making those laws one of the biggest responsibilities of the town’s legislature, the Town Board. 

“Defining a town, village or city’s sense of place and its vision through a plan requires extensive community input,” a New York Department of State memo states.

While the bulk of the public outreach for the plan is considered by officials to have been completed by the original planning firm — which is reflected in the scope of work for the contract with the new firm — the outreach done has been criticized by many as ineffective, failing to capture the viewpoints and input of the wider community.

Once the comprehensive plan is finished, the Riverhead Town Board will likely move to make some big changes to town codes, including which uses are in the town’s various zoning districts, as well as where those zoning districts will be located. These changes — especially the rezoning of certain areas — can have a massive impact on property values and the character of the town’s hamlets.  

“Changing outdated planning and zoning practices requires residents to paint a picture of what their community looks like today, what it should look like tomorrow and fifty years from now, and frame that picture in a written comprehensive plan document,” the state department memo states.

Usually — and as was the case in the 2003 plan — the comprehensive plan’s vision is created through a collaborative process with residents, elected and appointed town officials, town government staff, and business leaders in the community. The main vision statement was supplemented by vision statements for each chapter of the 2003 plan, drilling down on the topic or topics each chapter would tackle.

“I think the most important thing is the vision. People without a vision perish. And we’ve got to have something we all can really look at, at the very large picture,” North Fork Environmental Council President Mark Haubner said during the first meeting of a new steering committee formed to guide the plan. “It’s going to be very… amorphous,” Haubner said. “It’s going to be something that we can all strive for. And then after that has to come the separate visions.”

The weak community input process to date, resulting in lack of a clear vision for the town’s future, could leave BFJ without a proper roadmap for developing the plan. It could also increase antagonism between some residents and a town government that has rejected popular recommendations for a moratorium on industrial development and has pushed ahead — separate from the comp plan process — with new zoning to allow battery energy storage systems

The town’s building and planning administrator, the official charged by town code with overseeing planning in the town recently said progress on the plan is “in a good spot.” The plan’s vision can take shape throughout its development, he said. 

But significant public blowback at a hearing on the draft plan, once completed, could require the town to either redo elements of the plan — which would cost more time and money — or adopt it in spite of opposition, and further diminish the public’s trust in town government.

As the plan is developed and adopted over the next 12 months, they could well become the most consequential months in Riverhead Town’s history. 

Riverhead enters this period amid a good deal of community turmoil, with controversial development applications galvanizing public opposition, and — just this week — the summary suspension of the town official responsible for developing the town’s long-term plan.

MORE COVERAGE: Riverhead suspends Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree, pending disciplinary proceeding

In this series, RiverheadLOCAL will look at where things stand, explore where they might go, and speak to the decision-makers and community members whose ideas and actions in the weeks and months ahead will, quite literally, shape the future of the town — and perhaps the region — for the next quarter century or more.

Editor’s note: This article is an analysis of news events that have transpired, and therefore draws on the views, perspectives and experience of our reporters in order to provide a deeper understanding of those topics. 

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: