Supervisor Tim Hubbard reads a statement defending the agri-tourism zoning code amendment at the Feb. 1 work session. Photo; Alek Lewis

Developers often have a hand in crafting new zoning codes, Supervisor Tim Hubbard said Thursday in defense of the collaboration between town staff and prospective developers on a zoning code amendment to allow an agri-tourism resort north of Sound Avenue in Riverhead.

The supervisor’s comments, which came at the start of Thursday’s work session, were in response to a RiverheadLOCAL report on emails documenting how the attorney and planning consultants for developer  Alfred Weissman Real Estate worked behind the scenes on the text of the proposed agri-tourism code. 

MORE COVERAGE: Riverhead Town officials accepted help from developer-paid professionals on code change for Sound-front resort plan, records show

Hubbard said the article “implies a proposed code revision, currently under consideration, came about improperly.“ The revision to the residential zoning district along the town’s north shore would allow resorts on a minimum of 100 acres of land, with restaurants, recreational amenities like spas, and conference rooms as accessory uses. The code would require the resort be built on at least 100 acres of land and that 70% of the land be preserved for agricultural production. 

“To be clear, the proposals to amend the code can, and frequently are, advanced by some combination of staff members, residents, developers or business owners,” Hubbard said. “Code amendments suggestions are also sometimes brought about through the code revision committee.”

“In all cases, it is the job of town staff and officials to consider these ideas and proposals and determine whether they have merit, and that analysis always includes evaluation for consistency with the comprehensive plan and needs of the community,” Hubbard said. “Once we review them, if they are worthy of further consideration, the public will hear about them and have multiple opportunities to comment at public meetings and hearings.“

Hubbard said zoning changes to accommodate prospective developments are “not new or unusual,” and named several examples. Those included the manufacturer’s outlets center overlay district for Tanger Outlets in 1992 and a hospital overlay district to allow for the expansion of Peconic Bay Medical Center in 2016.

“Given the fact that none of the town planners at the time knew how to zone what was needed for an outlet center, Tanger staff made significant contributions to the zoning text,” he said. “Turns out Tanger Outlets is now our town’s largest taxpayer, and those taxes are a tremendous help to our school district and our residents.”

“Like Tanger, proponents of a proposal to allow agri-tourism resorts had a promising idea, and we did not ignore them,” Hubbard said. “We listened and discussed, a process that took over two years.”

Hubbard said the town’s largest considerations for seeking to adopt the agri-tourism zoning use is to allow for the preservation of farmland and to keep the land in the residential zoning district from being developed into housing, which could “potentially [have] significant impact on our schools and services.”

“Top of mind for us is the fact that the town still has 7,000 acres of farmland under serious development pressure and the existing TDR formulas do not work well enough,” Hubbard said. “And since the town cannot afford the $1.5 billion dollars that it would cost to purchase those acres, we need to take every opportunity we can to leverage TDRs. [The] agri-tourism resort zoning proposal does exactly that. It could preserve many acres of farmland at no cost to the taxpayers.”

“It is not only consistent with the existing comprehensive plan, it is exactly the type of zoning we are recommending in the updated comprehensive plan,” Hubbard said. “For all of those reasons town staff felt it was an important proposal to advance.”

Hubbard thanked town staff who worked on the code.

“The time and effort that goes into any possible code amendment is tremendous. We thank you for your commitment, and willingness to continually pursue the betterment of the town of Riverhead,” Hubbard said. “Lastly, the staff depicted in this article are some of the hardest working staff this town has. It is a disservice not only to them, but also to the residents of this town to portray them in any other way.”

Touro University’s Patricia Salkin, an expert in zoning and land use regulations, who frequently writes and lectures on ethics and land use, said in a phone interview Friday the involvement of a developer in drafting a zoning code change is not illegal, though whether it “feels right” or is “morally right” is a separate question.

“I don’t think it’s business as usual, but I’ve seen it before,” Salkin said. She said there is still a public vetting process, a public hearing. “Which again, doesn’t mean that it feels good, and it doesn’t mean it’s the best practice, but that doesn’t mean it’s illegal.” 

Salkin, who was dean of Touro’s Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center before being named the university’s senior vice president for academic affairs and provost of its graduate and professional divisions, said a town’s personnel resources and financial condition are often factors in decisions to have “outside help” on zoning code changes. 

In an interview Tuesday, Hubbard said that he did not know of the developer’s involvement in the code’s development and would investigate it further. “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,” he said.

Two officials who led the agri-tourism resort code’s development, Community Development Director Dawn Thomas, the town’s head planning and economic development official, and Deputy Town Attorney Annemarie Prudenti said in separate interviews Thursday at Town Hall that Weissman representatives did not dictate what became the final draft of the code, on which the Town Board will hear public comment during its Feb. 21 meeting.

“This happens all the time. They know what they need, just like Tanger knew what they needed,” Thomas said. “If you look at the Business F zoning or the hospital zoning, these businesses know what they need and what they want to succeed. If we put something in there that’s going to make them fail, then what’s the point of any of it?”

“And we are short staffed,” Thomas said. “So if they say, ‘Look, we’ll help you. If you need this, you need a map, you want us to research’ — I have no problem asking them to provide that. It benefits everybody if it works.”

“They provided information, but it doesn’t mean we just accepted it rogue… and put it in the code. That’s not how it happens,” she said. The discussion was over years, she said.

Prudenti and Thomas argue that the agri-tourism resort use is consistent with the 2003 comprehensive plan. They point to several sections of the plan that emphasize the necessity to promote the agriculture industry, the increasing role of agri-tourism in that industry, and “farm vacations” as an agri-tourism activity. 

According to Thomas, the developers approached the town about the resort in 2021. “But with the planning [department] at that point in time, they would tell people, you have to wait until the comp plan is done,” she said, referring to the town’s comprehensive plan update. 

“I don’t agree with that sentiment,” Thomas said, ”because good ideas might not wait for the comp plan.” 

The town’s zoning, Thomas said, “has got to change. It has to adjust to what’s best for us. And if we don’t do that, we’re not doing ourselves any good.”

The planning department at that time was headed by Jefferson Murphree, who was suspended and brought up on disciplinary action seeking to terminate his employment in March 2023. The charges accuse him, among other things, of mishandling the long-delayed comprehensive plan update, which got underway in 2020. Murphree denies the charges. He returned to planning work for the town in November while his disciplinary proceedings continue. 

“If the town is undergoing revisions to their comprehensive plan, and if they are intending to maybe go in a different direction,” Salkin said, ”the law says zoning has to be in accordance with the comprehensive plan. So most municipalities, standard practice is, when they start the comprehensive plan revisions, they usually don’t make major modifications to the zoning code until the new comprehensive plan is done,” she said. 

“I will say if it’s taking four years to do a new comprehensive plan, I don’t know how committed the community is to a new comprehensive plan. Four years is a long time,” Salkin said.

Thomas, a former Riverheat town attorney who heads the town’s community development department, was appointed as interim head of the planning department after Murphree’s suspension and in November was permanently appointed to a newly created position overseeing the planning, building and community development departments in November.

The  documents provided in response to RiverheadLOCAL’s Freedom of Information Law request date back to October 2022 — an email among the developer’s representatives on which Thomas was copied. No documents provided by the town bore any indication that Murphree was involved in the discussions. 

Ideas for development received by the town are discussed during pre-submission conferences, which occur before a formal application is made to gauge whether the town is receptive to a development. 

Thomas said town officials don’t make meetings with developers requesting zoning changes for their project public because developers may have a “proprietary idea” that they may not want to discuss publicly. “It would be a waste of time to have a public discussion and get the public all riled up about something that may never happen,” Thomas added.

“This is a collaborative discussion. It’s not a secret discussion,” Thomas said. “Is it open to the public? No. Is it something we want to even talk about to the public? No — unless we’re saying we feel good that this is a good thing for town. There’s plenty of people who come to planning pre-submission meetings that have ideas that we’re like ‘that’s not going to work.’”

Section 301-305 (A) of the  Riverhead Town Code actually requires pre-submission conferences on site plans be open to the public. 

Weissman’s proposal and the developer’s involvement in drafting the code was not brought up to board members when the first draft of the zoning code amendment was discussed during the Nov. 30 work session. 

“The proposal isn’t a proposal. It’s a concept,” Thomas said, echoing comments she made last July when first asked about the Weissman project. “It’s an idea that they have for a particular piece of property. Whether or not that [proposal] moves forward is irrelevant to the zoning,” she said. “The zoning is applicable to multiple properties. And so we’re not really even thinking about that.” 

Board members are seldom directly involved in writing town zoning code amendments, according to both Thomas and Prudenti. 

Prudenti said she was not sending drafts of the code to Town Board members, although she “might have been looped in” Rothwell once or twice for the agri-tourism code. 

Thomas said Town Board members likely had “no idea” of the day-to-day details of the code’s development.

“And he didn’t need to know that. Why would he need to know that?” Thomas said.

“It’s a staff function. He agrees that the concept is good and then it’s our job to grind through and figure out if there’s a way to make it work,” Thomas added.

“I don’t think it was a secret that they were talking to us. I mean, that wasn’t a secret; we don’t have any secrets,” Thomas said. “It was just not the day-to-day technical discussion that they were involved in.” 

“I did not go around to board members and update them. I just do the work,” Prudenti said. 

Thomas directed her to start the process of writing the code, and that process was continued with planning staff, Prudenti said.

The Town Board — four council members and the town supervisor — are the legislative body of the town. They have the responsibility of setting town policy and law, under New York State Law.

“We don’t write zoning for applicants,” Prudenti said. “Applicants may come in and have great ideas. We may work with them. We may sit down, we may exchange ideas. But we have a responsibility to write the code our way.”

Prudenti said the town amended the code with provisions that the developer “clearly didn’t want.” She said the town also made changes to the code proposal after the Nov. 30 work session to reflect the concerns of residents and the town’s agricultural advisory committee. The revised proposal limits the number of guest rooms to 100, with an additional one room per acre for each acre over the 100-acre minimum required under the code. The revised draft also restricts catering at resort restaurants to guests at the resort ; limits festivals, shows and exhibitions on the site’s preserved agricultural land; and increases the required setback from Sound Avenue to 250 feet, among other things.

Prudenti said she has not corresponded with Weissman representatives about the current draft of the code. The most recent correspondence provided in response to the  FOIL request was in July.

“I don’t know if Weissman will build under this. I have no idea,” Prudenti said. “But we took the concept and we liked it.”

Prudenti said the public will see more zoning changes soon that developers have had input on. She named specifically the Community Benefit zoning district, which was established in 2016 for the development of the family community life center and affordable housing project championed by the First Baptist Church of Riverhead. The developer of that project last June at a public work session asked the Town Board to amend the zoning to allow low-income housing, instead of only workforce housing. No proposed changes have yet been brought forward.

 A change to the manufacturer’s outlet center zoning, is on the Town Board’s agenda for adoption next week. The proposed changes were written in collaboration with Tanger Outlet executives.

“We’re not letting anybody get anything over us,” Thomas said of the town’s conversations with developers. “That’s how it seems like people think about it — and that’s not true.

Denise Civiletti contributed reporting.

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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