Pictured Above: Dave Carew of the Teamsters pledged the union’s support to the opposition to the EPCAL sale.
Since the buyers of more than 1,600 acres of land at the Enterprise Park at Calverton (EPCAL) first pitched the idea of building an air cargo distribution hub there in September of 2022, members of the public have come to town meetings in droves asking the town to cancel the sale.
This week, the group EPCAL Watch told a crowd of more than 120 people who packed into the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall for an EPCAL update organized by the Heart of Riverhead Civic Association Aug. 17 that they’re now collecting donations to a legal fund to fight the sale of the property, a former Grumman aircraft manufacturing plant that was given to Riverhead Town by the U.S. Navy in 1998 to be used for economic development.
A representative from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 804, which represents UPS drivers on Long Island, also pledged the union’s support to the cause, while local civic leaders urged those in attendance to rally their neighbors and show up to hold candidates for town office accountable on their positions in this November’s election.
“Here is what it boils down to. We are not red or blue. We are Riverhead,” Rex Farr, a Calverton farmer and a founder of EPCAL Watch. “Let me give you this image. LaGuardia Airport. Potato fields. LaGuardia Airport. Potato fields. It doesn’t get any more basic than that. It looks like we’re gonna end up down the legal road, and I’m going to beg you to reach into your pocket… I promise you, we’re gonna need a lawyer.”
Riverhead Town has been mired in a contract to sell the 1,600 acres, about 600 of which are developable, for $40 million since a 2018 deal was signed by former Town Supervisor Sean Walter with Luminati Aerospace, a company that initially planned to make components for high altitude drones. Luminati then brought on Triple Five Ventures, part of a global company owned by the Ghermezian family that builds large shopping centers, including the Mall of America and the American Dream mall in New Jersey, forming a new partnership known as Calverton Aviation & Technology, LLC (CAT). Luminati CEO Daniel Preston has since died and CAT, which had originally pitched an aerospace and transportation research and development park at the site, is now controlled by Triple Five. In September of 2022, CAT representatives floated the proposal for the air cargo hub to the Riverhead Industrial Development Agency, leading to massive community outrage. The company has since tried to walk back that plan in public information sessions that have left the public incredulous and more convinced than ever that the deal is rotten.
CAT representatives apologized to the public at an Aug. 7 public information session before the town IDA, saying their consultants had just been demonstrating a hypothetical total buildout of the property when they pitched the air cargo hub last year. The company is before the IDA seeking tax breaks for an initial one million square feet of mixed use development that would include warehouse distribution, industrial, manufacturing, research and development and office uses in the first five years. CAT is required by the contract to build the one million square feet of space, but, if market conditions allow, says it plans to build a total of 10 million square feet of mixed use and industrial buildings there.
“We don’t know today what we’re going to build two years from now,” CAT’s attorney, former Riverhead Town Councilman Chris Kent told the IDA at the Aug. 7 meeting. “We believe the most impactful use would be warehouses and logistics.”
The fragmented nature of the application could be a basis for civic groups’ legal action, former Riverhead Town Councilwoman and community activist Barbara Blass told the crowd at the Vail-Leavitt Aug. 17. Large projects must be reviewed as a whole according to the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), avoiding what’s known as ‘segmentation’ under SEQRA law.
“A Wild and Scenic Rivers Permit from the DEC will not be needed until Phase Two of the project,” said Ms. Blass. “An IDA decision to fund Phase One without considering the whole action leaves them vulnerable to SEQRA action. We need to pay attention and be prepared to take the next step.”
Mr. Farr said he believes EPCAL Watch will need between $75,000 and $100,000 to mount a legal challenge against the deal.
“A legal fund is our last stand,” said John McAuliff, also of EPCAL Watch. “We have to start collecting money now. When the IDA issues a decision, it’s a little late in the game for us to start spending. We never found a pro bono attorney to take this on.”
“We need to mobilize the community. It obviously comes to a head at the election in November. We have to make sure there’s a debate leading into that election so people know what they’re voting for,” Mr. McAuliff added.
EPCAL watchers had also asked numerous questions of the Riverhead Town Board at its Aug. 15 meeting about why the runways were included in the initial deal. Councilman Tim Hubbard, who was the only current member of the board who was on the board at the time of the initial contract, said the town had included the runways in the deal in the hopes that someone other than the town would be responsible for maintaining the runways. Mr. Hubbard, who has publicly said he does not support an air cargo hub there, and who was in the audience at the Vail-Leavitt meeting, is running for Town Supervisor this fall.
Former Supervisor Sean Walter had also said at the time of the contract that the town was including the unbuildable grasslands in the deal because the town didn’t want the responsibility of maintaining the grasslands.
This project “has become a chimera. What is it?” asked Pat Aitken of the New York State Ornithological Association. “These grasslands should be celebrated and protected as the unique and special place they are… There’s no active management or long term management plan in place, and it’s leading to degradation of the habitat.”
Current Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar “has promised it will be protected, and we need to see the promises kept,” added Ms. Aitken. Ms. Aguiar is not running for re-election.
After being unable to obtain DEC permits necessary to close the deal, the most recent town administration transferred title to the property at EPCAL in spring of 2022 from the town’s Community Development Agency to the town’s Industrial Development Agency, which will lease the acreage to CAT and require they build the initial one million square feet and spend $1 million to renovate the runways as a condition of the deal. That change to the deal had EPCAL Watchers’ heads spinning even before the air cargo hub was proposed.
“We’ve had three administrations that could have put the kibosh on this. The last board has taken the cowardly action of putting this over to the IDA,” said Mr. Farr.
Civic groups throughout Riverhead are organizing candidate forums in September, said Heart of Riverhead Civic Association Co-Founder Cindy Clifford, including one on Sept. 21 at 6:30 p.m. at the Riley Avenue School in Calverton organized by the Calverton and Wading River civic associations, Heart of Riverhead Civic’s forum at the Riverhead Free Library on Sept. 23 at 2 p.m. and the Jamesport Civic Association’s forum at the Jamesport Meeting House on Sept. 27.
“If you want to know what’s going on, and what your choices are, it’s a really good opportunity,” she said, urging residents to turn out for the candidate forums.
Several members of the public who have been closely watching the difficulty East Hampton Town has had with wresting back local control over its municipally-owned airport, 22 years after the town stopped taking funding from the Federal Aviation Administration to maintain its runways, said that if the runways at EPCAL are put back into active use, it could set in motion a process that would take the property totally out of local control.
Dave Carew, a UPS driver, shop steward and organizer for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, pledged the union’s support to the community.
“Why would the Teamsters be opposed to warehouses and trucking? It’s quality of life we’re talking about,” he said. “There are thousands of Teamster families in the 20 mile area surrounding EPCAL. They’re affected by noise and congestion. We’re gonna stand up and we’re gonna help fight.”
Mr. Carew said that, while Amazon has denied interest in EPCAL as an air cargo hub site, “all the signs point to them.”
“They had planned to build an air cargo hub at Newark Liberty Airport, and they backed out in 2022 after the Port Authority started pushing them for fair labor practices,” said Mr. Carew. “CAT’s spokesmen used Amazon as an example of the type of company that would use this facility…. When Amazon comes into a community, the average compensation for workers in the county declines more than six percent, the turnover rates skyrocket for warehousing storage employees by 30 percent.”
He added that injury rates at Amazon warehouses are far higher than the national average.
“Can we afford to get hurt?” he asked the crowd, drawing out a boisterous “no!”
He added that Amazon had last year attempted to buy 17 acres of ballfields owned by the Village of Freeport for $40 million, and after community opposition shut down the deal, the Panattoni Group, a frequent developer of Amazon warehouses, entered into a $49 million deal to purchase the property and lease it to Amazon. Mr. Carew said that deal “got kicked all the way up to Kathy Hochul’s desk, because the broke a few laws.” He added that the Teamsters are hoping the governor vetoes the deal.
He reiterated the $40 million figure, which happens to be the same sale price for 17 acres in Freeport as the entire amount Riverhead can expect from this 1,600 acre deal at EPCAL.
“We’re here to help you, and with this team, we can do it again,” he said.
“Many hands make light work. That’s the approach conceptually,” said Greater Calverton Civic Association President Tocqui Terchun. “What motivates our members? Calverton cares. In this room, people care. That’s the one component you need. We’re important for local government to work well. When we do not participate, we unduly burden them to come up with all the answers. Coffee table conversations are very important work. Talk with your neighbors who don’t know about this stuff.”
Mr. McAuliff said that, while EPCAL Watch is often accused of being anti-development, “the problem is we do not know what is on the table. We know Sean Walter had other proposals on the table when he entered into the god-awful deal with Daniel Preston. They have gotten proposals in the past five to six years, and they cannot even open the envelope because they’re in contract with CAT and it would violate the contract. That’s why we want this deal to be gone, gone, gone and the town to start over and take other proposals.”
Mr. McAuliff added that he was “very appreciative” that CAT’s attorney, Christopher Kent, was in the audience. Mr. Kent did not speak publicly at the meeting, though he could be heard refuting speakers, saying ‘that’s not true,’ several times throughout the evening.
Mr. Kent flashed an ear-to-ear grin when asked by a reporter what he thought as he was standing up to leave at the end of the meeting.
“It’s good! It’s good!” he said.