The public remains skeptical of Calverton Aviation & Technology’s development plan for the Enterprise Park at Calverton (EPCAL) after CAT representatives repeatedly asserted they are not planning to build a cargo jetport on land adjacent to the runways at the former Grumman naval aircraft testing site at a Riverhead Industrial Development Agency meeting Aug. 7.
CAT’s consultants presented plans to the IDA for a logistics hub for packages brought to the site by air last September, but CAT CEO Justin Ghermezian, reading from a prepared statement, told the IDA before an overflowing town board meeting room that “what is not being designed, considered or proposed is a cargo jetport or commercial aviation jetport. I personally apologize for our consultant’s description of a possible full buildout” of the site.
Mr. Ghermezian said CAT, which has for the past five years been in a $40 million contract to purchase 1,600 acres of land given by the Navy to Riverhead Town for economic development purposes in 1998, plans to attract tenants who pursue aerospace research and development, transportation innovation, technological advances and ‘complimentary uses,’ including distribution logistics to the site. CAT can develop up to 600 acres of the site, and is obligated by the terms of the contract to build one million square feet of mixed use buildings within five years, and has said they hope to build up to 10 million square feet of buildings there.
The proposal last September has caused an uproar among Riverhead residents, who have long been opposed to a commercial airport at the site. Scheduled passenger flights are prohibited at EPCAL, and voters turned down a public referendum to use the property for a passenger and cargo airport in 2001. An overflow crowd filled the Hotel Indigo ballroom to make their opposition clear at an IDA information session with CAT representatives this May, and crowds filled the town board meeting room and spilled out into the hallway for the Aug. 7 session as well.
“CAT’s project plan does not include a commercial airport or a cargo jetport,” CAT’s attorney, former Riverhead Councilman Christopher Kent, told the crowd, adding that several documents, including the deed from the federal government and the town’s Environmental Impact Statement for the property prohibit the use and he’s “certain that our transactional documents, approvals from the IDA and the board for site plan use” would specifically exclude commercial aviation use of the site.
Mr. Kent said CAT plans to build five buildings within the first five years, beginning with an area on the northeast side of the eastern runway because of that location’s “proximity to existing road, water and sewer infrastructure.”
Two of the buildings would be used for “warehouse distribution,”he said, while the rest would be a mix of industrial, manufacturing and research and development uses.
But Mr. Kent did say that the mix of uses at the site would be driven by the market.
When asked by IDA Treasurer Lee Mendelson why the warehouse buildings would be closer to the runway than the office buildings, Mr. Kent said that “most people who work in offices would not like their offices right next to an active runway,” drawing incredulous cries of ‘active runway?’ from the crowd.
“We have tenant uses in mind, but it’s been difficult. There have been many starts and stops (to the deal) over the last five years,” said Mr. Kent. “The market has shifted in the time we’ve been in contract to buy the property.”
“We don’t know today what we’re going to build two years from now,” he added. “We believe the most impactful use would be warehouses and logistics.”
The meeting was not a public hearing, although a public comment session was allowed, with strict rules laid out by IDA Executive Director Tracy Stark-James at the opening of the meeting.
“This will not be a debate or a question and answer session,” she said.
The session turned instead into a rebuke of the process.
“Which Ghermezian do you believe?” said John McAuliff of EPCAL Watch, a community group that has been closely scrutinizing this process. “Do you believe the Ghermezians of last September, when this what is now characterized as a hypothetical concept was here on the table?… I think you need to be skeptical about this new presentation.
“The long-term development is based on “market needs,”” he added. “That’s the key word that justified the air cargo stuff.”
Southampton Town Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni pointed out that the East Hampton Airport is a cautionary tale for how municipalities’ home rule can be superseded by the Federal Aviation Administration once federal money is used to upgrade an airport.
Mr. Schiavoni urged Riverhead to include neighboring towns as involved agencies in the environmental review of the project.
“This is a regional proposal,” he said. “This is going to affect all of us for a long time.”
“I’m happy to hear it’s not going to be a cargo jetport. The problem is, I don’t believe it,” said Ken Rubino of Baiting Hollow, pointing out the potential for fuel spills and noise levels that will be harmful to both humans and animals. “If a cargo jetport is built, it will destroy the five East End towns.”
“I don’t fault CAT for trying to cash out. That’s what developers do,” said Andrew Leven, an attorney who recently moved to Riverhead and is running on the Democratic party line for the town board this November, adding that he believes the town avoided the planning board and meaningful environmental review by “subcontracting” the process to the IDA.
“This IDA does not take questions from the public. It does not deliberate with the public present,” he said. “It promises one hearing after the decision has already been made. Public disapproval is a factor the IDA is required to take into consideration.”
“The notion that CAT hired a consultant who sat down with drawings and plans and asked for comments on this jetport and then billed them for it and presented it to this body — and that somehow this was a mistake?” said Mr. Leven of last September’s presentation. “Okay, fine. If that’s the level of scrutiny that CAT is going to be put under, if that’s how they want their veracity to be judged, so be it…. Not a single tenant has signed up. No site plan has been submitted. This is a bad deal.”
Mr. Leven’s comments got under the skin of IDA Chairman Jim Farley, who responded vociferously, “since you got here from New Jersey, this board has not made any decisions. I can assure you there will be public hearings on each and every facet of this decision.”
He added that the IDA will present the public with the information upon which it is making its determinations at those hearings.
“Mr. Farley, apparently we’ve pushed your buttons,” said Claudette Bianco of Baiting Hollow. “You have public listening sessions, sir, but you do not have public meetings and you do not allow the public to participate. This company is spending millions renovating the runway for nobody and adding flex buildings. If they request tax abatements, shame on you for doing this. If they can do all of this all on speculation, they can build it for themselves.
“There’s no way Calverton can handle all this traffic,” said Kerry Figurniak of Calverton.”We’re too small a town for this…. I want it written, somewhere, that they can never have a jetport or a cargo airport.”
“If we are to take CAT on their word that their 2022 presentation was just wrong info, oops, that’s really difficult to accept,” said Emily Urban of Baiting Hollow. “To me their credibility is shot. CAT said they welcomed our questions, and we were told prior to the meeting we were not allowed to ask questions. This just really underscores their poor planning and lackadaisical approach to our town. It’s disappointing they can’t even care enough to present accurate information.”
“The five of us here are really trying to do our very best to go through all this material,” said Mr. Farley. “We’re trying to do it fairly and make sure everybody gets a say. You will be heard. Your comments will be incorporated into our final analysis. We understand people don’t like this project. We’re simply looking at whether it’s a viable project.”
Mr. Farley added that the town’s business plan depends on the sale of EPCAL.
“It’s been in the town’s plan as a source of revenue going forward,” he said. “It’s important to run some numbers. Whatever alternatives you might have for EPCAL, think ahead to what effect that is going to have on taxpayers.”
Mr. McAuliff, of EPCAL Watch, invited CAT representatives and IDA members to attend a presentation to be held by EPCAL Watch at a Heart of Riverhead Civic Association meeting at the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall on Thursday, Aug. 17 at 6:30 p.m. All are welcome to attend. Here’s more info.