Riverhead Town’s proposed six-month moratorium on industrial development in Calverton hit a snag yesterday when the Suffolk County Planning Commission declined to approve it, authorizing a three-month moratorium instead.
The county planning commission has the authority to make formal recommendations to local municipalities about land-use and planning policies — including the approval of major actions like moratoriums. To approve a measure contrary to the planning commission’s recommendation, a municipality needs a supermajority vote.
Yesterday, the commission voted to accept its planning staff report outlining conditional approval of a three-month pause, over the objections of Riverhead Town officials who attended the virtual meeting. The staff report also recommends that the town come back after three months, present its progress on the comprehensive plan update, and request an extension, if necessary.
The proposed moratorium would suspend the processing of applications within the town’s industrial zoning districts outside the Calverton Enterprise Park. The proposed moratorium law also includes exemptions, including one large project, the 412,000-square-foot light industrial park proposed by HK Ventures on Middle Country Road in Calverton.
Calverton residents have been clamoring for a moratorium on new industrial development for the past few years, as Riverhead’s now long-overdue comprehensive plan update languished and stalled. The town late last year replaced the planning consultant originally hired in 2019 to undertake the update.
The comprehensive plan update, a once-in-a-generation policy document intended to guide land-use decisions for 10 to 20 years, is now scheduled to be completed in April 2024. The adoption of such a plan is typically followed by a slew of changes to municipal land-use policies and zoning rules based on the plan’s recommendations.
Almost all of the town’s vacant industrial land is located is in the Calverton hamlet, which is also home to the Calverton Enterprise Park, the former Northrop Grumman military manufacturing facility. The town had been in contract to sell 1,644 acres of town-owned vacant industrial land inside the enterprise park — a controversial $40 million land deal with a Triple Five Group company. The Town Board voted last week to declare the now five-year-old contract null and void after the Riverhead Industrial Development Agency on Oct. 23 rejected the buyer’s application for financial assistance.
The commission’s staff report states that a moratorium is “from one perspective, the most extreme land use action that a municipality can take because it suspends completely the rights of owners to use their property.” Yet the town’s moratorium law does not discuss any alternative to the moratorium less burdensome on property rights.
The exemptions spelled out in the moratorium “could be further clarified,” the staff report noted.
The report also noted “several concurrent moratoria” in the town that may affect individual permitted uses in the industrial zoning districts. The only other existing moratorium in Riverhead Town was a moratorium on new commercial solar energy projects. That moratorium expired last month. Another moratorium has been proposed on new commercial battery energy storage facilities, but that has not been adopted. In a separate action yesterday, the commission approved the town’s proposed three-month moratorium on commercial battery energy storage system facilities, also known as BESS.
The report criticized Riverhead’s assessment of environmental impacts. No environmental assessment form was prepared by the town in connection with the proposed local law, which the town classified as a type II action under the State Environmental Quality Review Act.
“A Full Environmental Assessment Form and expanded part 3 would be valuable in outlining relevant findings that would support the proposed local law,” the staff report said.
The town officials at the virtual meeting objected to the conditions put on the industrial moratorium, arguing the six months in the town’s resolutions would expire around the time the Town Board completes its updated comprehensive plan.
Deputy Town Attorney Annemarie Prudenti told the commission that the town anticipated significantly changing its industrial zoning districts through its comprehensive plan. This includes reducing the bulk of future development and implementing a revamped transfer of development rights program that would help generate money to preserve farmland within the town.
“[W]e need that six months in order to truly accomplish it,” Prudenti said. “And so we’re recommending, or asking, if you would consider condition one: being a six-month period of time rather than a three-month. I mean, it’s beyond Herculean for us to do it within a three-month period of time.”
“As you’re probably also aware, in order to make the nexus with additional density for industrial [development] with the transfer of development rights, that requires a generic environmental impact statement,” Prudenti said, referring to the environmental review requirements outlined in state law. “So we’re working on that now. But we truly believe we need the six months to accomplish it — and we do think we could accomplish it if you give us that six months.”
The commission denied the town’s request and approved the staff report as introduced.
“I would like to assure them — I don’t know how the vote is going to go — but with three months, if you guys are doing the work and doing what needs to be done, we don’t have a problem extending moratoriums, if what needs to be done gets done,” commission chairperson Jennifer Casey said, commenting on the town’s request before the commission’s vote.
Riverhead Town’s representative on the planning commission, John Condzella, voted to accept the staff report and the recommendations.
“I think it is a very responsible time for the town to hit the pause button here and take a good look at these issues, just to ensure that we’re having smart planning and smart growth,” Condzella said. “I’m confident that they’ll do a great review of this and the outcome will be better for all the parties involved.”
The Town Board can override the planning commission’s recommendations and adopt its local law as is with a supermajority vote, which for the five member governing body is four members. However, only three out of five members of the Town Board are known to support the industrial moratorium proposal.
A majority of the Town Board rejected the industrial moratorium proposed by Hubbard in January. Hubbard reintroduced the industrial moratorium, as well as a moratorium on BESS, in September. It wasn’t immediately clear whether Hubbard had the support of a majority of the board, but he later announced later both proposals had majority support.
Prudenti said in an interview after the meeting that it is unlikely there is support on the Town Board to override the commission’s recommendations.
The Town Board can vote on the moratorium law as soon as next Thursday — two days after the town’s general election. The Town Board can go ahead with voting to adopt a three-month moratorium without the law having to be noticed again, Prudenti said, because the moratorium would be less impactful as the previous version that received a public hearing during two separate meetings last month.
Hubbard, who introduced both the industrial moratorium and battery energy storage moratorium, did not return a call requesting comment.
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