With the goal of generating more money for new park and recreation projects, Riverhead Town is seeking to increase its earmarked fee on new residential development from $3,000 to $5,000 per residential unit or lot.
Members of the town’s Recreation Advisory Committee and the Town Board said the town is lacking in funds for new capital projects for parks within the town, and the increase in the fee will help generate more revenue.
“[R]ight now we’re hurting for money,” former Council Member George Garbrielsen, the co-chair of the Recreation Advisory Committee said. “We got so many projects going, and the money’s not there right now.”
New York State law allows a town to require the reservation of land for a park, playground or other recreational purpose if it determines that the projected population growth of the land will result in additional park and recreation needs. In lieu of a park, or if a park cannot be located on the land, the state law authorizes the municipality’s planning board to collect fees that are to be used exclusively for park or recreational purposes.
The town currently has $53,000 in the fund, Recreation Superintendent Raymond Coyne said in an interview, but the revenues in the past were much higher.
“When I got here there was, I think, $1.5 to $2 million to work with” in the fund, Coyne said. “And we put it to work.”
Due to an overall decrease in residential development, as well as the town not collecting the fees for the development of some apartment buildings downtown, the fund has not been replenished, Coyne said.
Recent capital projects, including a swing set in Wading River, have been funded by money received through community benefit agreements with solar companies, Coyne said. The Recreation Advisory Committee, which recommends and suggests capital projects for the funds to be spent on, is unanimous in its support of raising the fees, committee co-chair Marjorie Acevedo said.
Coyne has identified several priority capital projects over the years that town officials have struggled to find funding for, including bathrooms at Veterans Memorial Park necessary for the operation of a new ice rink; additional pickleball/tennis courts at several parks; and the construction of multipurpose turf fields at flagship parks.
“I think it should happen,” Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said, referring to the fee increase. “The board supports it. I think it should be done immediately, because there are projects continuing…” Other Town Board members concurred.
Town Board members said they intend to “grandfather” in developments already in planning review and approval processes, exempting them from the increased fees — and potentially losing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars. For instance, if 203-213 East Main Street, a proposed mixed-use project with 165 apartment units currently in the site plan review process, were to be exempted from the increased fee, the payment of recreation fees would be $495,000 at $3,000 per unit, rather than $825,000 at $5,000 per unit.
The Town Board did not discuss specifically which projects would be grandfathered in or what specific criteria projects must meet in order to be grandfathered. Deputy Town Attorney Annemarie Prudenti suggested it could be based on preliminary subdivision approval.
The recreation fee was instituted in the late 1980s originally at $3,000 per lot, Gabrielsen said. The fee was raised to $5,000 in 2006 and decreased again to $3,000 in 2011. Gabrielsen and other members of the Town Board hoped at the time that the decrease to $3,000 would stimulate residential development during a period where real estate market values were low.
Gabrielsen told the Town Board that the fee increase from $3,000 to $5,000 is just a “small step.”
“It’s going to help. Will it solve the problem? Probably not,” Gabrielsen told the board. “I don’t know if at this point we have to actually start budgeting recreation [capital projects.]” Another option is bonding to pay for the projects, but interest rates for borrowing are high right now, he said.
“You’ll get a little pushback from the developers, that’s going to be normal. But this can really be a step in helping our rec programs moving forward,” Gabrielsen said.
Council Member Ken Rothwell, the Town Board liaison to the Recreation Advisory Committee said there are many outdated and unkempt facilities in town parks. He said the increased fees will allow for the recreation department to spend less of its budget on new projects and more on overall maintenance and repair.
Prudenti said the money received by the recreation fees can only be used for capital projects, not general maintenance. Opinions from the state comptroller’s office and case law also establish that the money must also be used in the general proximity to the residential development, Prudenti said.
Town Board members discussed lobbying for changes to the state law to allow for partial use of the recreation funds for maintenance and of existing park facilities, as well as to require that large commercial and industrial developments pay into the fund.
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