With a decision possible on the fate of more than 1,600 acres of land at the Enterprise Park at Calverton (EPCAL) as early as next week, environmental groups are urging the Town of Riverhead to not approve a deal to sell the property to a group of developers lead by the family that owns the Mall of America in Minnesota.
The land in question is the former Grumman Naval Weapons Industrial Reserve Plant in Calverton, given to Riverhead by the U.S. Navy in 1998 for the town to use for economic development to replace the thousands of jobs that Grumman had provided there.
Former Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter had negotiated a deal last year for Luminati Aerospace to purchase the property, but after months of controversy about Luminati CEO Daniel Preston’s past legal difficulties, Mr. Preston brought on the Ghermezian family’s Triple Five Real Estate One as partners in late 2017, creating a new company, Calverton Aviation and Technology. The Ghermezians have since told the town board that Mr. Preston is now a minority shareholder with no voting rights in their new corporation.
“We are prepared to take further action should this deal be approved,” said Rex Farr, a farmer and member of the Coalition Against EPCAL Housing (CAEH), a group that coalesced last year around preventing the industrial property from being used for housing, but has since expanded its concerns over the proposed CAT deal.
Mr. Farr was speaking at a press conference organized by CAEH in front of Riverhead Town Hall on the morning of May 8.
Leaders from the North Fork Environmental Council, the Group for the East End and the Pine Barrens Society also pledged to take action against the town, saying a vote on whether to sell the property to CAT could come as soon as next Wednesday, May 16.
The group urged members of the public to call Riverhead Town leaders and show up for the May 16 meeting at 7 p.m. at town hall.
When pressed about what “further action” would entail, representatives from the groups said they had not yet decided what course to follow.
“The town board has ample opportunity to not do that,” said Dick Amper of the Pine Barrens Society, referring to a potential vote in favor of the sale.
“There are several legal paths to follow,” said CAEH member John McAuliff.
Representatives of the environmental groups present didn’t mince words about their disdain for the proposed deal.
Mr. Farr called former Town Supervisor Sean Walter’s original deal with Mr. Preston “nothing less than a horror show.”
“From the beginning, this deal has been going sideways,” he said, adding that the deal is “against the will of the people of Riverhead.”
In the midst of controversy over his handling of the contract, Mr. Walter lost his re-election bid last November, but new Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith has been advised by the town’s counsel that the contract required the town to hear out the developer’s plans, in a series of Qualified and Eligible hearings earlier this year.
The contract calls for CAT to build at least one million square feet of commercial and industrial space at the site, and to spend no less than $1 million to improve the runways at the site.
The written comment period on those hearings was closed by the Riverhead Town Board last Friday, May 4, in a split vote, paving the way for the board to hold a vote on the sale. Ms. Jens-Smith and new board member Catherine Kent had lobbied for the public comment period to be extended to May 15.
Mr. Farr said once the airport is in private hands, the town will have far less control over what can be done there, increasing the possibility of housing or a commercial airport.
He also wondered aloud “how the sale went from 600 acres to 1,600 acres with the same price tag” of $40 million.
Mr. Walter had included 1,000 acres of protected grasslands in the sale in what he said was an attempt to save the town the maintenance costs associated with that property.
“Somewhere between January and March (of 2017), someone suggested ‘why limit it to 600 acres. Include 1,000 non-developable acres, with the great favor of saving the town $100,000 in mowing costs,” said Mr. McAuliff.
Mr. McAuliff added of Mr. Preston that “his ideas were nuts. His history was nuts,” and added that Mr. Walter had kept a lid on letting the public know of other companies that were interested in the property.
Mr. McAuliff added that the Ghermezians “play very hard ball when they decide they’re after something,” pointing out that they plan to apply for all tax incentives available from the town, as they have done in several other development projects, including the American Dream Mall in New Jersey.
“Given their past history, we need to be concerned about corruption,” he said.
Mr. McAuliff said the Ghermezians held been holding two-on-two and one-on-one meetings with town board members during a snowstorm earlier this year, which were not required to be public because a majority of the board was not present, “finally compromising the integrity of a member of the board,” Jodi Giglio, who met with them in New York City earlier this year.
Ms. Giglio has said the meeting was a part of her due diligence process in vetting the company, but Mr. McAuliff said her actions are currently under scrutiny by the town’s ethics board.
“We want Ms. Giglio to recuse herself” from the vote, said Mr. McAuliff.
Mark Haubner of the North Fork Environmental Council decried the town’s development history, pointing out Riverhead’s historic lack of attention to the environment.
“Riverhead has a glut of retail stores,” he said. “They add nothing to our overall happiness.”
“EPCAL is where bad ideas go to die,” said Mr. Amper, of the Pine Barrens Society, who pointed out the bevy of projects that have been proposed there over the 20 years Riverhead has owned the property, from an indoor ski mountain to a polo resort to a film production studio.
Mr. Amper said Triple Five has not given the town the financial documents requested to prove they have the wherewithal to buy and develop the property.
“The supervisor has been trying to get to the bottom of their finances, but she’s having a problem because they won’t give her the information,” he said. “In order to obtain approvals, they must demonstrate they have the ability to do this.”
“The town offered an outside accounting agency to review Triple Five and CAT and they declined the offer,” he said. “People are saying ‘we must move ahead with something, anything, it doesn’t matter.’ Well, it does (matter).”
Bob DeLuca, of Group for the East End, pointed out that the $40 million price tag for the property is “what someone pays for a house in Sagaponack,” and described the town’s philosophy as “someone wants to give us a pile of money for this property and we should take it.”
Mr. DeLuca added that, generations from now, no one will remember what the town got for this paycheck.
“You can’t give this property away,” he said. “You’ll never get it back.”