Andrew Leven of Riverhead, a candidate for Riverhead Town Board, speaks at an informational meeting Aug. 8, 2023. Photo: Alek Lewis

Last night was the big reveal at the IDA meeting in Town Hall. Justin Ghermezian, accompanied by attorney Chris Kent, shared their new “vision” for EPCAL. That is, to cash out. By building 10 million square feet of mixed use development and refurbishing the 10,000- and 7,000-foot runways. Which, the many residents in attendance were told, would not be used to transport cargo. No. It would be used for things like flying in spare parts, or machinery, needed by as-yet nonexistent tenants on the site. After all, why use a truck, car or rail to bring a spare part to EPCAL when you can instead fly it in on a jet using the runways that CAT will spend “at least” a million dollars to refurbish?

Who will CAT’s tenants be? Unknown, and unknowable. Because there aren’t any. The market will dictate. But, CAT assured the residents, their consultants have concluded that the market will support the dreamed-of technology hub. In a complex as big as the Tesla gigafactory (which is the largest in the world). Placed in the middle of Riverhead, where it can be expected to generate 66,000 new vehicle trips per day.

Why did CAT previously present a jet cargo port to this same IDA, complete with renderings? It was an inadvertent mistake by yet another CAT consultant, Mr. Ghermezian explained.

As if these consultants were free agents. They are not. They work for CAT. Who (like every such client) hires consultants who will say what they are paid to say – or they will not be hired. There is an interview process. Meetings. Input. Invoices submitted and paid. And a final decision by CAT on what the consultant will (or will not) say and how they will say it. Which CAT then bootstraps into “objective support” for doing precisely what CAT wants to do.

When so understood, the conclusion by CAT’s consultant that the EPCAL gigafactory will be a technology hub is actually unsupported. And the veracity of Ghermezian’s claim that the jet port presentation by another CAT consultant was a mistake is actually unlikely.

How unlikely?

CAT is not a charity. They are developers, who do what developers do – push, cajole, dissemble, and cash out. They will build whatever a tenant wants, will have the legal right to do so if it is a permitted use, will sue Riverhead if it tries to interfere with that right, and will win. Period.

What is CAT legally permitted to build at EPCAL? Riverhead created a new zone for this project. In that zone, EPCAL will have the legal right (with some minor exceptions) to engage in “all uses that promote economic development.” Enough said.

How is our town addressing this? By shifting responsibility – not taking it. Yvette Aguiar says this is a bad deal for Riverhead that she would never have agreed to. But also won’t break. Tim Hubbard, who personally introduced the ordinance creating the EPCAL zone that will give CAT the legal right to build virtually anything it wants, apparently didn’t read the ordinance he introduced. The IDA – which is not designed to give tax breaks to developments that, like EPCAL, would be built on speculation, nor equipped to assess the massive impacts that this massive project entails – came naked to the meeting. No planner was on the dais. Or traffic engineer. Or land use attorney. Or anyone with the necessary expertise to unpack CAT’s dissembling.

With what result? After all this time, and in front of residents whose lives will be directly impacted, a mere handful of questions were asked by IDA members of CAT. None of those questions touched on the parking lot that CAT is literally on the verge of transforming Riverhead into. The IDA members instead asked about the siting of the two massive, soon to be refurbished jet runways, near the contemplated warehousing – and whether whatever was carried by the jets that land there would go into the warehouses. They need not have bothered.

Kent said the runways would be limited to “ancillary” uses. Which he neither explained, nor was asked to explain. So I will do it for him. Ancillary uses are “permitted land uses that are secondary and complementary to the principal use, but not accessory. An example of an ancillary use is an office supply store in an office park that only serves the principal office uses within the district.” Does that help?

Most of the residents who spoke last night were given two minutes. I was given about three. At the conclusion of which, an IDA member referred to the fact that I came to Riverhead from New Jersey.

Which is true. I did not grow up in Riverhead, and did not go to school with the many residents whose most important financial asset – their homes – will be significantly harmed by this project, and whose quality of life will be profoundly diminished. Neither did any number of IDA members. So how does that cut?

When I look at the forest and the trees, here is what I see. A town whose leaders are in over their heads being played by an international developer who scours the world looking for weakness.

What was actually revealed last night was an unwillingness to acknowledge the obvious: that our current decision-makers lack the confidence and competency to either own or fix the problem that is EPCAL. With a staggeringly bad result. Millions of dollars of lost property value borne on the backs of hundreds (and likely thousands) of individual homeowners. Roads choked almost beyond imagining. Airplanes swooping in over residential neighborhoods – jets blaring – to land spare parts, machinery, and other “ancillary uses.”

Why is this debacle continuing? Sometimes we owe it to ourselves and our families to really look in the mirror, even when we don’t like what we see. What do I see? Too much pride, without enough confidence to be competent. Riverhead may be small, but we can handle it. Except it is not being handled. EPCAL is being badly mishandled. To the detriment of us all – whether we grew up here or not.

Andrew Leven, an attorney, is a candidate for Riverhead Town Board and a resident of Riverhead.

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