Local residents raised a myriad of concerns about the proposed eight-building light industrial park on Middle Country Road in Calverton during a site plan hearing in front of the Riverhead Planning Board last night.
Impacts to traffic and the character of the area were on the minds of the speakers, many of whom were residents of Timber Park, a subdivision of homes located just north of the proposed development off of Fresh Pond Avenue. This is despite much of that analysis already being done as a part of the lengthy environmental review of the project over the last few years.
The findings statement adopted by the Planning Board for the HK Ventures proposal states that the project will not have significant negative environmental impacts, as long as certain conditions are met. Among those conditions is the completion of the intersection reconstruction at Edwards Avenue, which has “significant congestion,” according to the findings statement.
But that didn’t stop residents from critiquing the project from HK Ventures of Great Neck, which wants to construct the buildings for warehousing and manufacturing on 30 acres of vacant land. The buildings would have a total footprint of roughly 412,000-square-feet and be able to hold a total of 60 tenants.
“I can tell you that this is all dramatically impacting us a tremendous amount,” Krystle Weismiller of Timber Park said. “As it is now, we all face very difficult circumstances getting from point A to point B. We can’t reroute our children to school — we can’t change our lifestyles — because we want to bring in these buildings. These pretty renderings, they look good on paper, but they don’t work for the public.”
Traffic was a significant issue for many speakers. Residents said the intersection of Fresh Pond Avenue and Middle Country Road is dangerous, especially for those looking to make a left turn onto the state road, and that the development has the potential to exacerbate those conditions. Others were concerned about the overall traffic flow in the hamlet.
“For the past 11 years, I consider myself an expert on the traffic in front of 3685 Middle Country Road,” Riverhead Charter School Superintendent Ray Ankrum said, referring to the school’s campus in Calverton. “I hear a lot of concerns from parents with regards to the traffic that the school brings. And so my concern is that any additional amount of business in that area is going to be a nightmare for folks that are trying to travel between the hours of seven and nine, and four and six.”
The development team pushed back on hearing speakers’ assertions that the development would exacerbate the traffic conditions at the intersection of Fresh Pond Road and Middle Country Road. The traffic signal the developer would erect on Middle Country Road at the entrance to the site, along with related roadway improvements, could help those turning left onto the state road, they argued.
Many speakers at the hearing asked the developers what tenants they were pursuing for the property. Amazon or other large product distribution companies could bring even more traffic to the area, speakers said.
While the company is currently not taking offers for prospective tenants, the expectation is that the site will be used by small- and medium-sized businesses, Scott Johns of HK Ventures said during the hearing.
“There’s a lack of facilities of this nature for plumbers, carpenters, electricians, pool companies, storage for wineries or any other business in this area that requires storage space,” Johns said. “The spaces are geared towards smaller tenants; this isn’t a facility that will be accepting Amazon or Walmart or any other large big box company.”
“So it’s not a distribution center,” Johns added. Although “Distribution may happen,” there is little to no space in the development that would accommodate a large client, he said.
The buildings on the west side of the property would be built to allow for loading for box trucks, while buildings on the east side of the property will be sized for tractor trailers, the site plan shows. The tenant spaces within the west buildings are built to be smaller (4,900 to 5,600 square feet), while spaces on the east buildings are built to be larger (roughly 9,000 to 11,000 square feet).
Residents were also concerned about the tenants gaining 24/7 access to the property,
“Is it going to be around the clock truck traffic?” Baiting Hollow resident Claudette Bianco asked.
Project officials said that while certain tenants will be given access to the property 24/7, the hours of operations, and the majority of deliveries and pickups, will occur Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m..
“The ability for other tenants to get 24-hour access is for that plumber to be able to get into his shop so he can pick up a water heater and bring it to your house,” Johns said. “It’s so that your pool company can come and pick up new filters or so a manufacturer who has a time-sensitive process going on has access to that space to ensure the completion of what they’re working on.”
The development will be built in two phases, with the four buildings on the north side being built in phase one and the four buildings on the south side being built in phase two.
Much of the criticism from residents stemmed from the zoning of the property where the development was proposed. Although currently vacant, the land was previously farmed and is classified by the town for tax purposes as agricultural, according to town tax records. The parcel is zoned Industrial C, which allows light industrial uses, including warehousing. Most of the land near the property is occupied by agricultural uses, homes or smaller commercial developments. And speakers lamented that the development did not fit the character of the area
“[I]t just seems like this town, and this board in particular, takes so much flak because there’s not a grand plan in place,” Timber Park resident Steve Kuhl said. “We have so many projects that come to you guys that are looking for approval and looking to be planned out and then executed it, but without a comprehensive plan in place — an updated one [in] 2020-something — you’re getting every single warehouse project, every single improvement project that comes down the line is going to bring flack like this over and over and over.”
“Riverhead needs a brand new, updated comprehensive plan for development,” Kuhl said. Riverhead Town is currently in the process of updating its plan, which guides land-use and other policy. “Otherwise, you’re in for angry audiences every time we meet.”
Keith Brown, the developer’s attorney, noted the project’s mass is “well under” what is allowed in the current zoning code. “With respect to the comprehensive plan, I will tell you that we cannot project out to the future and look into what the comprehensive plan may be at some point,” he said. “We operate only under the current comprehensive plan, which we comply with with in all respects.”
The project received two variances from the Riverhead Zoning Board of Appeals: for increased maximum height and impervious surface coverage. Brown said the height is necessary to allow for the design of taller cubes — the structures that hold the pallets and storage.
Riverhead Planner Greg Bergman said the buildings would not fall into the definition of a “high cube” warehouse, which is typically defined as a building with at least 200,000 square feet of gross floor area and a ceiling height of 24 feet or more. The largest building in the development would be roughly 57,000 square feet.
“This project is immense and it is going to transform that area,” Riverhead resident John McAuliff said. “It’s not the same as what’s already there. It should not be there, it certainly shouldn’t be right on the roadway. It’s the kind of project that ought to be within EPCAL if the town takes control of EPCAL again, which hopefully it will.“
To the protests of board chair Joann Waski, McAuliff also raised the subject of HK Ventures’ principal, Arik Kislin. Kislin has alleged ties to Russian organized crime and handles large-scale investments for its members, as first reported by the Riverhead News-Review, which cites a 2013 report from investigators looking into Kislin’s hotel business. Kislin has not been charged with any crimes and denies the connection, the News-Review article states.
“I think it is the responsibility of your board to find out who the investors are behind this principal, because one of his roles is to provide channels for [the] Russian mafia,” McAuliff said. “So I think you don’t want to talk about it, but who else will talk about it.“
The next step of the planning process is for the Planning Board to vote on site plan approvals. No building permits for the project can be issued until the intersection of Edwards Avenue and Middle Country Road is reconstructed and improved, a determination made by the board as a result of the environmental review. HK Ventures challenged that determination in court, alleging the requirement would stall the project and deprive the company of its property rights. The state’s reconstruction of the intersection is expected to be complete in early 2025.
“In terms of the overall project, it’s obvious, at least to me, that this project has been heavily vetted by both your planning department, its outside consultants, its outside environmental consultants [and] its outside traffic consultants,” Brown said.
Editor’s note: This story has been amended to clarify that the property in question is not in current agricultural use, but its land use classification remains “agricultural vacant land,” according to town tax records.
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.