Director of Economic Development & Planning Dawn Thomas, Planner Matt Charters and Deputy Town Attorney Annemarie Prudenti discuss the proposed Agri-Tourism Resort zoning with the Town Board on Nov. 30. Photo: Alek Lewis

When Riverhead Town officials unveiled a proposal on Nov. 30 to allow luxury resorts and spas north of Sound Avenue, they hailed the zoning change as an opportunity to preserve agricultural lands and bring more tourism into town. 

Left unspoken was the fact that a developer already had a project in the works. 

Alfred Weissman Real Estate, a firm in Westchester County, had already featured the proposed North Fork Resort, a “luxury resort and spa” on the Long Island Sound, in the “new development” section of its website. 

Though the developer was never mentioned, consultants paid by Weissman helped town officials craft the proposed code changes that would make the Sound-front resort development possible, emails obtained by RiverheadLOCAL through a Freedom of Information Law request show. 

MORE COVERAGE: Westchester developer interested in building spa and beach resort on L.I. Sound in Riverhead

The town officials who worked on the code’s development never publicly said Weissman helped draft the code, and Supervisor Tim Hubbard said he had no knowledge of the developer’s involvement.

The emails demonstrate the involvement of the developer at the inception of the code amendment that would directly benefit his project, even as town officials reassured the public that the North Fork Resort project did not have anything to do with the proposed zoning change.

An April 13, 2023 email from Eric Russo, attorney for Alfred Weissman Real Estate to Dawn Thomas discussing turned over by the town in response to a Freedom of Information Law request.

“People are jumping ahead to a project. First, we’re just talking about zoning implications. TDRs, transfer of credits, protecting agricultural land. You start there, then you look at a project that comes before you that perhaps needs a special permit,” Council Member Ken Rothwell told a resident of the Willow Ponds condominium complex adjacent to the proposed North Fork Resort site at the Dec. 19 Town Board meeting. “And then you address those issues, those concerns with that project. And you decide if that project is right for that location.”

Former Supervisor Yvette Aguiar added: “We don’t have a site plan.” 

No formal site plan application had been filed, but town staff had reviewed and commented on site plans for Weissman’s project while collaborating with its attorney and consultants on the code amendment.  See plans below.

Town officials, including Community Development Director Dawn Thomas, Rothwell, then-Council Member Hubbard and Deputy Town Attorney Annemarie Prudenti, met with the developer’s representatives in October 2022, according to email correspondence in the week leading up to the meeting.

Town officials agreed to amend the town’s zoning code to allow the North Fork Resort project to proceed in late 2022, according to an email sent to Thomas on Dec. 8, 2022 by the developer’s attorney, Eric Russo, managing partner of the Sayville law firm VanBrunt, Juzwiak and Russo. 

Emails indicate town officials continued to meet with the developer’s representatives about the project and zoning amendment through the summer of 2023. Prudenti shared a draft of the code with Russo, and Russo sent site plans to the town at Prudenti’s request so the town could create the transfer of development rights code required for the development’s preservation of agricultural lands. 

Prudenti did not return a call Tuesday requesting an interview.

MORE COVERAGE: Luxury inn and resort uses would be allowed north of Sound Avenue under code change being considered in Riverhead

Russo also shared a map with Thomas depicting parcels of land that would be affected by the code change, “to possibly assist in your team’s GIS research.” 

In April 2023, Russo made a formal offer to help with the code amendment and have a planning consultant complete the environmental assessment documents the town would need to adopt the code change. He said Weissman would pick up the cost. 

“As we discussed earlier this week, our client, Alan Weissman, has agreed to assist and fund payment for VHB Engineering…to work with the Town of Riverhead… as to the preparation of the necessary SEQRA analysis review/compliance for TDRs and Special Permit Amendments for Agri-Tourism due to limited Town staff available, current Town workloads and time constraints,” Russo wrote in an April 13, 2023 email to Thomas. “As agreed, please discuss and review the feasibility of same with Annmarie Prudenti. If this is acceptable, please advise and reconfirm same. The work scope proposal for the services required can then be specified, directed and agreed to by the Town with all concerned. We await your reply.” 

The town did not provide an email replying to Russo in its response to RiverheadLOCAL’s Freedom of Information Law request. But later emails provided show the town welcomed the help of the real estate firm’s consultants.

“If VHB would like to connect with Matt Charters in Planning to work through the TDR component, that would be great,” Thomas wrote in an email to Russo on April 27. Russo wrote a follow-up email stating that he would make the “necessary contact and request” to assist.

The parcels north of Sound Avenue in Riverhead that are the subject of the Alfred Weissman Real Estate development proposal.

Drafts of the code were shared between town officials and the consultants. Language that made it into the final draft of the code, including a requirement that a minimum of 70% of the property be preserved for agricultural production, was agreed to by the developer and the town before the draft code was publicly unveiled, the emails show. 

One email indicates town officials and development consultants collaborated on the code using a shared document. “Attached please find comments (via tracked-changes) on the Agri-Tourism Special Permit language that was provided,” an email from VHB Senior Principal Terri Elkowitz says, using the language associated with Microsoft documents that can be edited by multiple parties.

Emails from VHB officials on July 18 and 19 mention “SEQRA documents” being prepared by the firm. That referred to the State Environmental Quality and Review Act, the law that spells out  the environmental review required for development proposals, code changes and other actions. For changes to local zoning codes, which are classified as Type 1 actions under SEQRA, the town must prepare a full environmental assessment form. Amending a transfer of development rights program, which the proposed code calls for, requires the preparation of a generic environmental impact statement.

It isn’t clear whether the town received the documents referenced in the emails. Several documents including the “SEQRA documents,” the “work scope proposal,” and the document with “tracked-changes” were not provided in response to the FOIL request. 

RiverheadLOCAL has asked Town Attorney Erik Howard, the town’s FOIL appeals officer, to certify there are no other records responsive to the FOIL request in possession of town planners, Thomas or Town Board members.

Written correspondence provided by the town ends with several emails on July 19. Those last emails indicate the code was nearing completion.  It isn’t clear whether Weissman or its consultants had any input on the draft of the code that is going to public hearing on Feb. 21. That most recent code limits the number of guest rooms to 100, with the maximum increasing one room per acre over the minimum 100 acres required under the code. Weissman’s draft site plans submitted to the town during the code’s development show three separate buildings with a total of 155 guest rooms. 

MORE COVERAGE: ‘Agri-tourism Inn and Resort’ proposal revised, new hearing set: Town Board meeting wrap-up

Even though the town was near completion of the first draft of its code, and even though Thomas was a part of nearly three dozen emails discussing the project and the draft code revision, Thomas said in a July 26 interview that she was only “a little bit” familiar with the project. 

“I mean, it’s not a project,” she told RiverheadLOCAL. “It’s just a concept proposal.”

“They were thinking about the potential of building that type of a thing on the Sound,” Thomas said. “And, you know, so [it’s] interesting to have a conversation from people who want to build things, because those are always possibilities, you know, to consider what the market is driving. So we had a couple of conversations with them about whether it would be something we’d be interested in pursuing or considering.”

“It occurred to me that this kind of a thing might be of interest,” Thomas said. “It is in a residentially zoned area… a project like this wouldn’t put kids in the school district. It wouldn’t be a heavy-use project and maybe it would be something to consider. So that is what we talked about.”

Thomas did not return a call Tuesday requesting an interview.

It wasn’t until July, when campaign finance disclosures showed Hubbard received $1,000 from Weissman, that the  development proposal came to light. Hubbard said at that time he knew of the project, and had attended a pre-submission conference with the developer, but did not know that Weissman had contributed to his campaign.

A separate limited liability company affiliated with the Weissman firm, according to state business records, contributed $1,000 to Rothwell’s campaign committee in July. 

Hubbard said in a July interview he would not support changing the zoning to allow hotels or spas. He has since changed his mind, he said, due to the potential for the proposed code to preserve farmland.

“I’m not aware that any outsiders were involved in this at all,” the supervisor said in an interview Tuesday, after being told of the emails among town staff and the developer’s representatives. He made a similar statement when asked whether Weissman had input on the draft after the Nov. 30 work session when the first proposal was discussed.

“I would much prefer that we did our stuff in-house; that we didn’t use somebody from the outside to help craft a code or a zone change. I think we’ve got enough people on staff that we can do that ourselves,” Hubbard said Tuesday. 

“But I also will look into it and find out why, and if, this in fact happened. Because, like I said, this is my first time hearing about it. So I would like to investigate it a little bit further and find out what the deal was with it.” Hubbard said.

Rothwell said Tuesday he was aware that Prudenti talked to Russo about the code but said he did not believe Weissman representatives actually worked on the code amendment.

“I would expect that the planning department or the legal department talks to different developers. [It] doesn’t mean anybody’s going to get what they want, [it] doesn’t mean the code is going to be to their desire,” Rothwell said. “But anybody can come with us with ideas and share what they’d like to see.”

Rothwell, who is CC’d on an email Prudenti sent to Russo with the first draft of the code amendment, said he has not personally spoken with Weissman representatives about the code amendment or the North Fork Resort other than during the October 2022 meeting. 

Aguiar did not return a call Tuesday seeking comment for this article.

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