Pictured Above: A crowd turned out to demand a moratorium on industrial development at the Riverhead Town Board’s Dec. 21, 2022 meeting. The board declined Jan. 4 to hold a public hearing on a moratorium.
The Riverhead Town Board seemed unlikely to consider proposals for two six-month moratoriums, on industrial development in Calverton and on Battery Energy Storage Systems, after Councilman Tim Hubbard asked them to consider both measures at their Sept. 14 work session.
Mr. Hubbard, who is the Republican candidate for Town Supervisor, had first pitched the proposal to the all-Republican board last winter, but was unable to garner enough votes to bring the matter to a public hearing, despite throngs of residents who attended town board meetings demanding a moratorium on development in Calverton while the town completes its comprehensive plan update.
Riverhead Democratic Town Board and Supervisor candidates, who unveiled their platform Sept. 6, favor a development moratorium while the comprehensive plan update is underway.
Mr. Hubbard said as he introduced the moratorium proposal that 12 million square feet of industrial space could be built under the town’s current zoning.
“We’ve been listening to the community… I for one do not want to see 12 million square feet of development in that area,” he said. “The comp plan is moving along nicely, and this will just pump the brakes for us.”
Mr. Hubbard’s proposals came on the heels of a presentation by Noah Levine of BFJ Planning, which was hired to finish the comprehensive plan in December of 2022 after the town’s prior consultants missed deadlines for their preparation of the comprehensive plan.
Mr. Levine suggested increasing the setback from the street in Industrial A zoning districts, to reduce visual impact from the street, and allowing an increase in height of industrial buildings from 30 to 40 feet, while converting some industrial districts to “light industrial districts” to allow “more transitional uses that are more compatible with the commercial and residential context they are in.”
He also suggested the town broaden its transfer of development rights (TDR) program, in which development rights on farmland and open space are purchased by developers, allowing them more density in appropriate areas for development, to encourage more multi-family and senior housing to “adapt to a changing market.”
Such a move, said the town’s Community Development Agency director, Dawn Thomas, would make it easier for the town to preserve as much as possible of 7,000 acres of farmland and open space the town is looking to preserve, which would cost $425 million on the open market.
“We want to make the TDR market hot,” she said.
Ms. Thomas said a moratorium would allow the town time to put the comprehensive plan zoning recommendations in place early next year — Mr. Levine said his firm hopes to have a final document and industrial zone change recommendations prepared by late March or early April.
“The idea would be to reduce the floor area ratio and to bring TDRs in,” said Ms. Thomas. “If we allow development to proceed while this is underway, we would lose the opportunity. I feel the need to allow us to use TDRS to our advantage to take the burden off of residential taxpayers is really important.”
“You’re taking your foot off the accelerator,” said Town Planner Matt Charters. “We know we have a goal. We can see the finish line. We know what we can achieve. The current zoning allows very intense development in this area.”
Mr. Charters said projects that are not considered Type II actions under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), cell towers, projects that have already received site plan approval, lot line modifications and projects that had already gone through the SEQRA process far enough to have gotten a positive findings statement would be exempt from the moratorium.
Projects in the pipeline that would be affected by the moratorium included a 641,000 square foot logistics warehouse, an industrial subdivision of 130 acres to produce 1.5 million square feet of industrial space, a 152,000 square foot self storage facility and a 75,000 square foot expansion of industrial property, said Mr. Charters.
Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar, who is not running for re-election, was not swayed.
“A moratorium is the most invasive form of limiting peoples’ property rights,” she said, adding that the Suffolk County Planning Commission does not look favorably on moratoriums.
“You have to be careful because there’s an Article 78 out there,” she said, referring to a type of lawsuit filed against municipalities. “We’re becoming very ripe to lose a lawsuit.”
“I respectfully disagree with everything you just said,” said Mr. Hubbard. “Our planning board recommended this. One single reason alone — that we have a comprehensive plan ongoing — is a great reason to instill this moratorium… We need to take a halt until we can get all our ducks in a row.”
Councilman Ken Rothwell said he believed it was important to preserve farmland and that he was “in favor of the TDR approach,” but he would want a moratorium to be as brief as possible — three to four months. He added that developers could easily go to the zoning board to ask for a variance for taller buildings.
“TDRs to me have nothing to do with the moratorium,” said Councilman Bob Kern, adding that he thinks the board could make some code changes before the comprehensive plan is complete to avoid having a moratorium.
Ms. Thomas said the TDR proposal couldn’t be enacted until the SEQRA process was completed on the comprehensive plan.
Ms. Aguiar said it would be important to let all the property owners affected by the moratorium know about it.
“I guarantee, there’s not one of them that doesn’t know it already,” said Councilman Frank Beyrodt, who is an executive vice president of DeLea Sod Farms. “As a farmer, I was on an industrial piece right next to Splish Splash. They had hoped for some development there and when they found out the moratorium was coming up, they approached us to rent it again from them. There’s a lot of implication here. I am all about preserving farmland. I’ve devoted my life to it. I would like to know the details before I pull the trigger on this.”
BESS in the Spotlight
Mr. Hubbard’s request for a moratorium on large Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS) was also met with skepticism form the board.
He urged the board to put a pause on BESS while New York State finishes an investigation into the cause of three fires at BESS facilities throughout the state earlier this year.
“We thought these were safer than they are,” said Mr. Hubbard of the town, which enacted code earlier this year regulating where BESS facilities can be located.
“Subsequent to our adoption of this code, there were some issues,” said Councilman Rothwell. “This stop allows us to say, ‘hey, we have concerns. It’s a public safety issue.'”
But, he said, development of such projects could take as much as three years, far longer than the when the state task force is expected to issue its findings later this fall.
“We have a moratorium now on solar, now we’re going to industrial and then right after that we’re going to have battery energy,” said Ms. Aguiar. “We do not need to be known as the land of moratoriums.”
“We need to be known as a land that cares for its people and their properties,” said Mr Hubbard. “My fellow board members, are you afraid battery energy storage systems are going to pack up and never come back again? I’ve got news for you. That’s not what’s going to happen. Six months isn’t going to scare them. We need to look out for the best interests of what we want.”
“This is guiding us for the next 20 years,” he said of the comprehensive plan. “If we don’t take care of it now, we have a road of mistakes for 20 years into the future.”
BFJ Planning suggested the town hold a public forum on the comprehensive plan update in mid-November.