A "for sale" sign on Sound Avenue at the site being eyed for a "five-star...luxury resort and spa” on the L.I. Sound in Riverhead. Photo: Peter Blasl

The Riverhead Town Board is considering amending the town’s zoning code to allow the development of a luxury beach resort and spa proposed on a dormant farm in Riverhead.

The code change would allow the development of an “agri-tourism inn and resort” — including the building of lodging, and indoor and outdoor accessory uses like restaurants, spas, pools and other recreation — as long as a minimum of 70% of the developed property is preserved and used for agricultural production. 

The development would only be allowed in the RA-80 zoning district, an area that covers most of the land north of Sound Avenue from Baiting Hollow to the Southold-Riverhead town line, and which contains a lot of unpreserved farmland. 

The board discussed the draft of the code during a work session on Thursday, praising it as a unique way to protect some of the town’s unpreserved agricultural lands and bring more tourism into the town. 

What town officials did not discuss is that there is already a developer interested in building such a resort. Alfred Weissman Real Estate, a Westchester-based developer, was interested in building the North Fork Resort, a “luxury resort and spa” on a “105-acre site on the North Fork Wine trail.” The land “offers the potential to build a truly unique campus beach resort experience,” and would offer “an organic farm to table experience,” according to a description of the project that was on the developer’s website in July.

The project was first reported by RiverheadLOCAL after the developer, Alfred Weissman Real Estate, contributed to Council Member Tim Hubbard’s campaign for town supervisor in April. According to campaign finance disclosures, the development firm gave a total of $1,275 to Hubbard this year, above the $1,185 receipt limit candidates can take in from a single donor every election cycle. (Hubbard has said he would refund contributions his committee received in excess of the receipt limit. The disclosure that will show the campaign contributions from Oct. 23 to Nov. 30, and whether any excess donations were refunded, is due to be filed Dec. 4.)

Town officials, including Hubbard, confirmed in July that they had met with the developers to discuss the idea. Community Development Director Dawn Thomas said at the time it was “just a concept proposal,” but that the town was considering allowing the development as a viable way to preserve farmland.

“Agri-tourism is a way to continue to protect our agricultural heritage, and we’re trying to find different means that gives our local farmers an opportunity to expand that still preserve the overall agricultural site and the environment that everybody loves here in Riverhead,” Council Member Ken Rothwell, the board member who led Thursday’s work session discussion on the topic said during the meeting. Thomas said in July that Rothwell was one of the board members in discussion with Alfred Weissman Real Estate about the firm’s project. 

Rothwell said the code change would provide an opportunity for “something different” than the traditional hayrides and pumpkin-picking associated with agri-tourism — offering people an experience to live on a farm and enjoy meals prepared using locally grown ingredients. 

“When we have farming out here in Riverhead and within our agricultural community,” Rothwell said, “what this bill would really envision is that you can have a chef from New York City to come out and physically be on site to see where crops are grown, where plants and things are grown, to stay there, to understand that there’s a better picking of fresh food, vegetables, things like that, hand grown.”

He said resorts would not put children into the school district, would increase the tax base and create jobs. He said the use would give farmers the opportunity to have “less of a traffic impact and better financial growth.”

The development of a resort would require a property totaling more than 100 acres and require a special permit of the Town Board, according to the draft code. The code would allow the developer to build on 15% of the land as of right, and up to 25% of the land with the purchase of farmland preservation credits. The code also states the development would be “configured in such a way to protect the Sound Avenue historic corridor and provide open space views of agriculture from all external roadways.”

Deputy Town Attorney Annemarie Prudenti said a survey of the area found that approximately six parcels meet the requirements of the code. The code also allows the resort to be built on multiple parcels that are owned by a single entity.

“We did a hard look when we created this legislation to make sure it met within the confines of the current comp plan,” Prudenti said. The legislation conforms to the existing comp plan because it promotes agri-tourism, she said. The town is currently in the process of updating its currently comprehensive plan, adopted by the Town Board in 2003, along with its transfer of development rights program. 

Hubbard said in an interview after the meeting that he was told the code would not require analysis through the State Environmental Quality and Review Act. 

Adopting changes to the allowable uses within any zoning district, affecting 25 or more acres, is a Type I action under SEQRA, according to the SEQR handbook published by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation. Type I actions require the submission of a full environmental assessment form 

The Town Board was supportive of the idea. However Council Member Bob Kern said the code does not go far enough in its effort to encourage preservation in the zoning district area. Opening up the code to more parcels would help preserve more land, he said.

“The 100 acres [requirement] seems arbitrary to me,” Kern said. “I don’t know why it’s not between 50 and 100 [acres],” making the new uses available on smaller parcels and increasing the development potential for such uses.

Rothwell, town staff and other members of the board disagreed. “I understand. But I would like to take baby steps and just be able to monitor it very closely [and] see the effects before we expand,” Rothwell said.

Long Island Farm Bureau Executive Director Rob Carpenter said he is supportive of the new code as an effort to preserve farmland, and of promoting agri-tourism and educating the public about farming through the new use.

“This could be a potential gold mine for people who want to come out and learn about agriculture, learn about farming, and do things to help come out and create farms,” Carpenter said. “So from our perspective, this is a very good thing.”

Carpenter recommended that the code be referred to the town’s Agricultural Advisory Committee for discussion. The group, comprised of farmers and appointed by the Town Board advises the board on legislation related to agriculture and could have ideas to improve the code, Carpenter said. He said the concept of an “agri-tourism hotel” was discussed favorably by both that committee and the transfer of development rights committee.

He said he would like the committee to also look at the restrictions on the land required to be preserved.

“I’d like the opportunity for the [agricultural] advisory or farm bureau to weigh in on some of the restrictions to see if we could maybe word them a little better or expand uses of the preserve land,” Carpenter said. “Because there’s many more forms of agriculture, especially if it’s a year-round facility, that you’re going to need to consider such as hydroponics, such as growing mushrooms, such as doing things over the winter time.”

Prudenti said the legislation already provides for 300,000 square feet of agricultural structures. “The goal is to maintain the scenic corridor, give that farmland vista, but at the same time, allow for some agricultural structures as just described, but not load a 70-acre lot with structures. Because then we deal with stormwater and then you’ve kind of defeated that agricultural landscape,” she said.

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said she personally knows of a location in upstate New York that offers a similar experience. “It is one of the biggest attractions out there, people will take their families, or they, you know, couples together, so let’s go be farmers for the weekend,” she said. “And it’s a booming, booming, booming agricultural effort.”

The current draft of the code would allow pick-your-own operations, corn mazes, hayrides, farm tours and similar activities on the 70% of the lot area reserved for agricultural uses, in addition to the resort/spa uses allowed on the remaining area of the site.

The code discussed by town officials Thursday fits the vision of the Westchester-based developer looking to build the “North Fork Resort” luxury inn and spa along 600 linear feet of L.I. Sound beachfront on a 105-acre property in Riverhead just east of Willow Ponds condominiums.

“[W]e are in the early stages of considering a project in the area,” Michael Cohen, Alfred Weissman’s head of acquisitions, wrote in an email to RiverheadLOCAL in August. “We are very familiar with the area and are drawn to the natural beauty and the farming community that is the heart of the local economy and culture.“

Cohen said the project would bring a “dormant former farm back to life and allow visitors to the area to experience some of what makes the area so beautiful.”

“The farm might include vines, vegetables, fruit, chickens, quale, cows, horses… We would work with local farmers to produce the food or wine on site or purchase from them from their production,” Cohen wrote. “Aesthetically, we would look to design the architecture so that it would blend into the landscape. Low rise and rustic tones and green design components, with the intention of blending into the land.” 

“The guest experience would be a combination of activities traditional to a vacation spot, like swimming, yoga, spa and a farming experience that would allow guests to enjoy staying on a working farm, seeing, understanding and appreciating what they are consuming,” he wrote.

Cohen wrote the firm loves Riverhead as a location. “It is the gateway to both forks and has so many positive things going for it. The Aquarium, The Suffolk Theater, the projects to revitalize downtown, the outlets, the farming community, the culture of support for local businesses and local production, to name a few,” he wrote. “We also appreciate the fact that so much farmland has been preserved and that there is a system in place to help farmers preserve land and continue to farm without being hurt financially.” 

The email states many of the advantages of the type of development, many of which were echoed by town officials on Thursday. “A project like ours would be fairly low density, activate a dormant farm, provide many good paying local jobs, add to the tax base without burdening the school district, fire or police, be a benefit to local businesses and provide an experiential view and appreciation of the farming, culinary and wine production locally,” he wrote. “It might also provide a mechanism, through the local TDR system, for farmers to preserve additional farmland and to be financially beneficial to them.”

Cohen did not return an email Friday requesting comment for this story.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com