Members of the public review display boards depicting BFJ's comp plan update summaries at the Dec. 13 workshop in Town Hall. Photo: Alek Lewis

A crowd of more than 50 people went to Riverhead Town Hall on Wednesday to share their thoughts on preliminary goals and recommendations for the town’s comprehensive plan update.

The consultants for the plan, BFJ Planning and LKMA, gave a presentation in the meeting room summarizing each chapter’s goals and some recommendations. After the presentation, participants then spent roughly 45 minutes in the hallway reading poster boards with more specific recommendations, placing green stickers next to what they liked, red stickers on what they didn’t, and attaching sticky notes with written comments to the boards.

“Once we hear back from you then we can refine the document. We can say okay, everyone agreed with this, this is great, we can keep it in,” BFJ Associate Principal Noah Levine said. “But maybe this idea wasn’t so great, we need to work on it.” 

Noah Levine of BFJ Planning at the Dec. 13 public workshop. Photo: Alek Lewis

The poster boards and presentation slideshow are both available on the town’s comprehensive plan update website

The comprehensive plan is a long-range, all-encompassing blueprint for the future of a municipality, guiding it on a wide range of issues, the most impactful of those being how land should be used and what development should be allowed or prohibited, incentivized and discouraged.

Major goals and recommendations of the plan, which were detailed in previous presentations by the consultants to the Town Board, include decreasing the allowable density of industrial development as-of-right and code changes to exclude heavy industrial uses in some areas; revamping the town’s transfer of development rights program by making preservation credits more valuable for developers; and expanding the hospital zoning district to include more uses. 

MORE COVERAGE: Planning consultants brief town on proposals to revise industrial zoning, revamp transfer of development rights program

Public input on the display boards took the form of green and red stickers, and hand-written sticky notes. Photo: Alek Lewis

Most of the recommendations were received positively — evidenced by a wealth of green stickers on the poster boards. However several recommendations received a mix of red and green stickers, including a proposal to reevaluate the 500-apartment unit cap in the town’s Downtown Center 1 zoning district (East Main Street); removing the minimum home size in residential districts; and the proposal to change zoning to allow for “agritourism resorts” in some residential districts.

After community members had a chance to comment on the poster boards, BFJ opened the floor to the verbal public comment on the recommendations. 

Gordon Huszagh of Jamesport, the former president of Suffolk County National Bank, said future development must maximize living-wage job creation and cater to those making a living wage.

“I believe that’s one of the challenges that Riverhead has, period: living wages,” he said. “Route 58, for the most part, are minimum wage, part-time jobs. All banded together, [it] doesn’t really provide a living wage for people.”

Comments also focused on the impacts of agritourism on the town. Huszagh said that farms that engage in agritourism with impacts like heavy traffic should be providing their own parking and traffic control. 

Joan Cear of Jamesport spoke about the impacts of agritourism businesses. Photo: Alek Lewis

Joan Cear of Jamesport said the town should not change the zoning to permit “agritourism resorts” — something currently being considered by the Town Board. At least one company has spoken to town officials about building a spa and beach resort on the Long Island Sound, where the zoning change is proposed.

“Resorts are not the purpose of farmland,” Cear said. “And having a resort there further discourages people from going into downtown, from visiting the small businesses, the restaurants, the inns in other areas. It gives the agritourism businesses a real unfair advantage. And it’s contrary to the other goals of the plan.”

“I think that the town should consider establishing a new property tax rate for agritourism businesses,” Cear said. “They’re not agriculture, really, they’re businesses. And I feel like they should be taxed at a different and higher rate than farmland. And the town would benefit from that because the town already bears the unintended consequences or unintended burdens that have come from the agritourism businesses.”

Phil Barbato of Jamesport requested clarification of how the planning consultants would be handling the subject of EPCAL now that the town canceled its contract with Calverton Aviation & Technology. Photo: Alek Lewis

Another topic for speakers during the hearing was the future of the undeveloped land at the Calverton Enterprise Park. The town owns roughly 2,100 acres at the former Grumman manufacturing facility, including its two runways. The town was originally not including the site in the update, as it was in contract to sell most of its land to Calverton Aviation and Technology. That has changed since the Town Board canceled the $40 million deal with CAT in October.  

“I think you’ve sort of included it, but I don’t know how yet. I think that there’s going to be development there,” said Phil Barbato of Jamesport. “If you’re not going to be reviewing what’s going to happen there and change the zoning or recommended changes to the zoning, then I guess you have to assume it’s going to be developed at the current zoning. What’s the impact of that? Is that going to be included in your overall evaluation?”

The Town Board is currently considering a zoning amendment for the town-owned property that would restrict aviation uses at the site. Otherwise, the plan does not mention changing the zoning of the property, which allows all uses that promote economic development. The goals state the possibility of promoting the site to “green technology companies” and giving priorities to projects that “create jobs and training opportunities for Riverhead residents in emerging industries.” 

MORE COVERAGE: ‘To plane, or not to plane…’ Public hearing tackles heart of the debate surrounding EPCAL’s future

John McAuliff of Riverhead said it’s time for the town to do a “deep dive” into the best use of the EPCAL land. Photo: Alek Lewis

“I think that we’re at the point, given all of the history of the last seven years about EPCAL, and particularly the intensity that emerged about the threat of air cargo, that we’re at the point where we really need a deep dive into what the best use of that land is,” John McAuliff of Riverhead said.

Separate from the town-owned, undeveloped land is the “industrial core” of the property, which is governed by the Planned Industrial Park zoning use district. Assembly Member Jodi Giglio of Baiting Hollow, a former Town Board member, said the comp plan should recommend allowing businesses in the industrial core to build on more of their property and expand. 

“They are a little community amongst themselves with Riverhead Building Supply and Island International and Eastern [Wholesale] Fence, Stony Brook Manufacturing — they’re their own community,” Giglio said. “They feed off of each other. And nobody wants to go anywhere — but there’s no room for expansion. So they’re going to be faced with a choice.”

Assembly Member Jodi Giglio, a former Riverhead Town Board member, who once worked as a steel broker for a business in the Calverton Enterprise Park, said the comp plan should recommend allowing businesses in the industrial core to build on more of their property and expand. Photo: Alek Lewis

Ed Harms, managing partner of Island International, said his is one such business.

“Our firm here currently in EPCAL is capped at its capacity for what it can generate for the community because of our inability to take further action, and build additional buildings on the space,” Harms said. “There’s very limited property available. It’s not reasonably priced. Other options that are within a geographic realm that can be utilized are laden with other environmental and development challenges.”

That can be done, Giglio said, by making the Planned Industrial Park district a “receiving area” in the town’s revamped transfer of development rights program. The expansion of the rarely used town program is one of the topics being tackled in the update. The program allows developers who want to build with a higher development density in a “receiving area” to purchase development rights from farmers in a “sending area” to keep their land for agricultural production. 

Richard Wines of Jamesport, former chairperson of a town committee focused on improving the transfer of development rights program, advocated for increasing opportunities for transfer of development rights in order to preserve more farmland. Photo: Alek Lewis

Richard Wines of Jamesport, who previously co-chaired the town’s committee on transfer of development rights, also supported making EPCAL a receiving area. Wines said the town should also consider Route 58 as a receiving area in order to preserve as much farmland as possible.

“So we need to look at ways of making this protection real [for] Sound Avenue, Main Road — and transferring development wherever we can,” he said.

Barbado, a farmer, said the town needs to evaluate the “worst case scenario” of the land receiving development rights. 

“In other words, if all the TDRs get transferred to a limited number of spaces, what’s the impact on water supply, groundwater quality, tourism, you name it,” Barbato said. “I don’t know how you’re going to evaluate that, but that definitely needs to be done.“

The future of the town’s environmental sustainability efforts were also speakers’ focus. Mark Haubner of Aquebogue said the town should have a “resilience hub,” a center that can act as a second senior center, withstand storms and provide space for emergency services.

Linda Nemeth of Calverton said the town should be requiring new developments to be environmentally conscious. “They could have included that in any of your requirements. But the amount that people want to spend when they’re coming in here, and then the amount that they want and abatement, the amount of kids we get from them are so out of scale with what we can do.” 

Nemeth said the town should encourage assisted living and nursing home facilities. They can benefit the senior populations and offer well-paying jobs to the community, she said.

Some speakers raised the importance of housing opportunities within the town.

“As far as the school, of course there are students coming in, but we have a plethora of new teachers because we need them and they are coming as far as an hour away because we need to have affordable housing for professionals who want to have ownership opportunities out here,” said Garrett Moore of Riverhead, a teacher at Riverhead High School. “That is definitely what they’re looking for. And we’re going to lose some of these teachers because they are looking for other places to be able to get employment because they don’t want to travel an hour plus to work every day.”

Wading River Fire Commissioner Greg Meyer said the town should look into affordable housing for emergency services workers, as the Wading River Fire Department has lost members because they can’t stay in the area.

The meeting is the second and final public input session conducted by BFJ Planning, who were hired at the beginning of the year to complete the update. BFJ took over from the first firm hired to develop the plan, AKRF, which held community meetings to gather input; the town’s contract with AKRF was terminated in July 2022 due to “the slow pace of progress and shallow depth of study put forth by” the firm, according to the Town Board resolution terminating the contract.

Levine said draft chapters of the comprehensive plan are scheduled to be complete in January. The Town Board public hearing on the draft comprehensive plan will occur in February and the plan will be adopted in April, according to BFJ’s timeline.

“And as the process moves forward, we will rely on you to kind of hold us to make sure that we’re addressing the important topics,” Levine said. “I think we and the town had a lot to chew on. There are a lot of really good ideas. Some ideas were things that maybe we hadn’t considered, some we have considered and weren’t really fully able to explain. But we take your advice seriously and we thank you for your time.”

Correction 12/21/23: This article has been amended post-publication to correct the spelling of Mark Haubner’s name, as well as correct an error related to a paragraph with an incomplete sentence.

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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