A raucous crowd packed the Hotel Indigo meeting room beyond capacity last night to confront the Triple Five affiliate looking to build 10 million square-feet of industrial/commercial development at the Calverton Enterprise Park.
A project engineer for the Triple Five affiliate, Calverton Aviation and Technology, told the Riverhead Industrial Development Agency in September that it plans to turn the vacant industrial land into a regional air cargo logistics hub for package delivery services to consumers on Long Island.
The controversial plan exacerbated the already-inflamed public scrutiny of the $40 million deal with the company, culminating in last night’s tumultuous meeting.
The IDA invited CAT to present its plans to the public. But one of the developer’s attorneys, Chris Kent, lost the room almost as soon as he began talking.
Impatient audience members quickly began heckling, waving signs that read “no jetport” and “stop the warehouses,” and interrupting him with shouted questions and exhortations to “get to the point.”
Kent was a former Riverhead Town council member who was on the Town Board when the U.S. Navy deeded its 2,900-acre Calverton base to the town in 1998, and was actively involved in planning and zoning for the site’s future redevelopment. He began last night’s program with a recitation of the history of the site, which was occupied by Grumman Aerospace from the early 1950s until 1996.
But the people filling the 200 seats and standing three rows deep at the back of the room would have none of it. They complained loudly that they attended the meeting to learn about Triple Five’s plans for the future of the site — not to listen to a history lesson.
Kent tried to shift gears, pulling up an image of the development plan on a large screen at the front of the room, and describing potential uses of the site. He stressed that the developers did not yet have any tenants for the buildings, including the 1 million square feet of space to be built as phase 1A of the development — comprising three “flex” buildings totaling 400,000 square feet and two 300,000-square-foot one-story logistics buildings along the 10,000-foot eastern runway at the site.
The heckling continued as Kent tried to describe the plans, with many in the audience shouting questions about the use of the runways.
“If you let me talk, really, I’m going to cover it all. I promise you. Every time you interrupt me, it takes longer,” Kent told the room. He described the three “flex buildings” proposed as part of phase 1A. The flex buildings would be “occupied by business offices, energy companies, academic companies, environmental companies,” he said. “We’re going to be working with agriculture. We are already in conversations with people about agricultural research and development. This is going to become an innovation technology park. That is the plan,” Kent said.
“The buildings here,” he said, pointing to the two 300,000-square-foot buildings depicted on the plan, “are distribution buildings. They are. Are they for planes? No. Are they designed for distribution? Yes,” Kent said.
“Now the reason we’re doing that — this is our first two buildings that are going to be built,” Kent said. “You have to look at the market. You understand —we’re investing about $250 million in the first stage,” he said.
The audience, which had settled down briefly, erupted again, with people jeering, “Nice for you!” “Keep it!” and “Go back to the Mall of America!” — a reference to Triple Five’s mega-mall in Minnesota.
“Okay. So does anybody have any questions? Come on up. Line up. Come up to the microphone. You don’t want to listen, so I’ll listen to you,” Kent said.
Andrew Leven of Riverhead, a Democratic candidate for town council, was the first of 30 people to address Kent and other representatives of the developer.
“Obviously these runways are going to be used for cargo. They’re going to be used for a warehouse,” Leven said. “It is described in this application. You’ve talked about the fact that when Grumman was running this property, they were doing 19,000 flights a year, when this community was completely different — completely different, right? So rather than playing more word games, if it’s going to be used for cargo — whether you call it a cargo airport or not — it’s still being used for cargo with airplanes on the runways,” Leven said, to applause from the audience.
Leven then discussed the vehicular traffic that he said would be generated by the proposed distribution uses at the site, which he said would be occupied by buildings equal to “13-and-a-half new Tanger outlet malls.”
He said according to data from the Institute of Transportation Engineers, “10 million square feet of just warehouse space can be expected to generate 35,000 individual truck trips per day.”
“We’re not going to build 10 million square feet of warehouses. Write this down. We’re not going to build 10 million square feet of warehouses,” Kent said.
The development plan presented to the Riverhead Industrial Development Agency at its Sept. 21, 2022 meeting depicts 9.36 million square feet of buildings labeled “distribution” or “logistics” buildings situated along the runways, which would be built in phases 1A and 2 of the development, plus a 400,000 square foot “rail distribution building” in an area at the southeast end of the 7,000-foot runway, to be built as phase 1B. The rail distribution building would be connected to the existing LIRR rail spur that enters the enterprise park to the east of the proposed building. In addition, the plan depicts three “flex” buildings on and near the 10,000 foot runway, which total 400,000 square feet and are slated to be built in phase 1A.
The applicant’s business plan, dated April 6, 2023, and subsequently posted by the Riverhead IDA on its website, states that since Calverton Aviation & Technology filed the application with the IDA in September, “CAT has discussed the potential to develop both build-to-suit space and speculative buildings based upon the identified market needs and demands as well as the extension of the on-site rehabilitated rail line as complementary to the proposed construction and future operation of the project.”
Leven said truck traffic could go as high as 66,000 truck trips daily, according to the traffic institute’s data.
“Try to pose a question,” Kent interrupted.
“I have a question. I’m giving some context. I’m trying to make sure people understand, Mr. Kent,” Leven answered, “You know how that works.”
“Yeah sure. This was our presentation. This was our presentation,” Kent told him.
“In your September ’22 IDA presentation you say the Cummings Research Park in Alabama is the most apt comparable development for what is planned for EPCAL. Cummings is 9.5 million square feet. It generates what appears to be tens of thousands of vehicle trips per day,” Leven said. He suggested that level of traffic would create the kind of “offensive noise, dust, smoke, gas or other nuisances” banned by the zoning on the site. “What is the daily trip number that you believe would violate this aspect of the [zoning] ordinance?”
Kent said the answer would have to come from an expert. “I’m not an expert,” he said.
“How about some common sense,” Leven said.
“Yeah, how about some common sense,” Kent replied.
Kent argued with other speakers as well, including Calverton resident Kathryn Wilson, who asked Kent about a statement he made regarding a failed ballot proposition that would have allowed an airport at Calverton. She asked him if there was a proposition for a cargo jetport on the ballot now, would he oppose it. He said he would, but CAT’s proposal is not for a cargo jetport, Kent said.
EPCAL Watch member John McAuliff of Riverhead said the number of people who turned out for the meeting “should be understood by the IDA and understood by the Town Board that Riverhead does not want this project to go forward. Period.” He was drowned out by cheers and applause and a spontaneous chant of “No! No!” From the audience.
“The IDA has to hear people and has to end it now,” McAuliff said. He said because CAT did not make the deadlines, did not “move the money” or fill out the forms on time, the IDA could and should reject the application and send it back to the Town Board, which then should cancel the contract.
Kent said as of the day of the meeting, “I believe we have completed the deliverables. It’s a very complicated project,” he said. “And we have now, I believe, delivered everything to the IDA that we asked for.”
In an interview after the meeting, Kent said CAT has provided financial statements to the IDA, as required by IDA rules. CAT declined to provide financial statements to the Town Board during the town’s “qualified and eligible sponsor” vetting process in 2018, citing the company’s status as a privately held entity.
Timber Park resident Krystle Weismiller asked what type of goods would be moved in and out of the site by rail and truck. Kent said the applicant doesn’t know that yet. He said he has been approached by the Long Island Farm Bureau, which is interested in the rail.
“Right now, all of this is in the planning stage,” Kent said. “What you’re saying here tonight still has an impact on the plans, I can tell you that,” Kent said. “Everyone should feel good about that. And I agree with John [McAuliff], I’m very happy. I’m really happy about this many people in the room. It restores my faith in the populace, to come out and talk about a project.”
“You don’t know what’s going where. You don’t know what’s moving what. You don’t know what the runways are being used for. You don’t know anything,” Weismiller said. “We don’t either. We’re asking for transparency. That’s why we’re all here. So what are you doing? What are you proposing? You’re proposing some buildings that could do this, could do that, could do this.”
EPCAL Watch coordinator and founder Rex Farr of Calverton told Kent, “Certainly tonight, I haven’t heard anything… For us, the bottom line is we don’t believe you.” Farr said the packed room was “just a fraction” of the membership of EPCAL Watch, which is a coalition of environmental groups and individuals, he said.
Kelly McClinchy of Manorville, a member of the Calverton Restoration Advisory Board, spoke of the Navy’s investigation of contaminants at the former Grumman site and questioned how the developer’s proposed construction might affect groundwater plumes containing PFAS.
Kent said he sincerely appreciates the investigative and clean up efforts. “We’re also thanking you because it’s good for us to know what we’re getting ourselves into,” he said.
Lifelong Calverton resident Taylor Pawson said she is a paralegal at a law firm that represents clients in toxic tort litigation. “My clients have cancer, respiratory conditions as a result of 9-11 and being exposed to toxic water and fumes in their neighborhoods,” she said. “I see people die every day. We’re scared. We’re terrified.”
Pawson also asked what will happen to the nesting birds at the EPCAL site, which prevent drag racing events during springtime.
“This is not a good night,” said Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society and a resident of Lake Panamoka in Ridge.
“And we have listened for the better part of several hours, and you’re explaining what it is you don’t know what you’re doing,” Amper said, drawing cheers from the crowd.
“Maybe we have a chance to change that, but not without these people,” Amper said to the room. “I’m sorry, we’ve had plenty of you. Now I think it’s time to hear these people… because they’re living through this. This matters to them. They’re the ones that have preserved the place in the past, the only time that’s ever happened. So you might stop talking for yourselves and start talking for the people who are being adversely impacted by a really bad idea,” Amper said. “You’ve been here all evening explaining why everything you’re doing is right. And it’s wrong.”
Joe Graziano of Calverton, who described himself as an aviation enthusiast, spoke about air traffic. “I want to talk about a typical approach to a runway,” Graziano said. “A typical approach starts about 10 miles out — 3,000 feet. So you have your aircraft, they’re gonna drop down somewhere around the sound or the ocean, come down. That’s gonna affect your towns such as Westhampton, Speonk, Eastport, Center Moriches, Wading River to the north, and as far out as Shirley.”
“Within five miles, the aircrafts now drop their approach level down to 1,500 feet. This is on a clear day, perfect conditions, no clouds in the sky, birds chirping, everybody’s happy,” Graziano said.
“As soon as you start bringing the weather in, especially if you’re going to improve the runway, you’re going to put the latest technology in there,” he said. “You’re going to develop something called a GPS or RNAV approach, a GPS or on our approach on a bad day in IMC [instrument meteorological] conditions. We’ll get an aircraft down to 250 feet,” Graziano said. “That is what our residents are concerned about. That — around those towns — if you think right now you have a turnout, as soon as those towns catch wind that they can have aircraft around 250 feet over their houses, you’re going to need a bigger building,” he said.
Kent said his clients are “very responsible developers.” There will be a lot of studies done, he said.
Timber Park resident Kerry Figerniak asked if Triple Five is in discussion at all with the FAA.
“We haven’t been discussing runways with the FAA,” Kent said. We’ve been talking about having them bringing their [Tracon] facilities here.”
Tracon is the FAA’s traffic control center, the Terminal Radar Approach Control. From 2007 to 2013, the FAA was pursuing building new consolidated control facilities to serve a redesigned airspace for the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia metropolitan region. The FAA’s NY Tracon is located in Westbury and the FAA was considering moving those operations to a consolidated facility.
Riverhead Town officials met with FAA representatives to pitch the EPCAL site for the new consolidated facility, which could have brought more than 900 jobs to the site.
But the FAA suspended the airspace redesign project in 2013, according to a record of decision issued by the FAA in December 2020. It is “no longer expected to be fully implemented” due to changes in technology and airline procedures, the FAA says in the document.
Kent last night said the developer has been talking with the FAA about having a building on the site. “Not about the runways — most of the runways,” he said.
Figerniak asked Kent if he’s spoken to the schools about the project’s impacts.
“First of all, I’ve been doing this for a very long time, about 35 years,” Kent said. “I represent responsible developers, and we try to make projects as least impactful as possible. And we analyze all the impacts that come from the development of the project.”
“This is going to impact the whole town,” Figerniak said. “And not in a good way. And we will have a disaster like everybody else is saying.”
A man who did not identify himself spoke to the audience. Kent and the developers don’t live here, he said. “We’re here to save our houses…He’s not worried about his house. None of the people that are supporting this venture are worried about their house. You think we’re gonna be able to find them if they build this thing and then disappear? They’ll be gone? They won’t be here,” he said.
“We are here to say one thing. And to say it loud. We’re here to say ‘no,'” he said and the audience again erupted with shouts of “no.”
After the meeting, Tracy Stark-James, executive director of the Riverhead IDA, which announced the information session and scheduled the venue, said she attended the meeting to observe. “I’m here to observe like everybody else. This is not an IDA meeting,” she said. In remarks at the beginning of the meeting, Stark-James said, “From day one, the IDA board wanted to make this as open a process as they could.”
Council Member Tim Hubbard was at the meeting and said he was not pleased with how it went. “I attended there last night to hear the plan that they were proposing,” he said. “And I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to hear the plan. I really wish that the plan could have been presented, and then the question period could have started. But they were really never given the opportunity to work on the plan due to outbursts from the audience.”
“Now, having said that, obviously, I understand the emotion, concern, anger involved with many of the people that were there last night. But I just wish that it could have been handled better,” Hubbard said. “I think instead of, you know, opening up and talking about history of the property and all that, it should have been a conversation strictly about what their plan was and it never got to that.”
“And then it was a lot of misinformation of some of the speakers getting up there and the questions and the accusations of what was going to be, what’s not going to be. And I think had the plan been presented,” Hubbard said. “I think some of those questions could have been answered and clarified, rather than indicating it’s going to be an airport, it’s going to be a cargo port. And this is just what people are saying, but they’re not listening to some of the facts. They’re not listening to some of the information.”
Hubbard said CAT sent the town a business plan last week and he was hoping they would discuss that. He said he would look into whether the Town Board could legally ask CAT to come to a work session to present their plan, since CAT is currently before the IDA.
The town joined CAT in its application to the IDA for tax benefits. Riverhead Community Development Agency Director Dawn Thomas signed the IDA application on behalf of the town on Sept. 9. The application documents contain a description of the plan that the April 6 “business plan” document circulated by the IDA last month very closely tracks. CAT presented maps and elevations at the Sept. 21 IDA meeting, at which the IDA accepted CAT’s application for review.
Hubbard, the Republican candidate for supervisor this year, said he would never support cargo jets using the EPCAL site. Hubbard also noted he voted against the contract in December 2017. He subsequently voted in favor of a determination that CAT was a “qualified and eligible sponsor” to purchase and develop the site, giving the project a green light in November 2019.
“I just wish people would just hold it a little bit and then have at ’em with the questions and everything else,” Hubbard said. “I’m sorry I didn’t get to see the presentation. I was really looking forward to see what it is, because I need to be informed as well as everybody else who was here.”
Greater Calverton Civic Association President Toqui Terchun had a different take on the meeting.
“I think that the public owned the room tonight,” she said, “and I’m happy.”
Alek Lewis contributed to this story.
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