Pictured Above: Residents opposed to the proposed cargo airport and warehouses in Calverton at the Riverhead Democrats’ campaign kick-off earlier this fall.
Two hastily planned public hearings on moratoriums on industrial development in Calverton and Battery Energy Storage Systems had members of the public scratching their heads at the Riverhead Town Board’s Oct. 3 meeting, and a promise to hold the hearing open until the board’s next meeting Oct. 17 ( at 6 p.m.) did little to quell their concerns.
Councilman Tim Hubbard, who is running on the Republican ticket for Town Supervisor this November, floated the idea of the moratoriums at the board’s Sept. 14 work session, after months and months of public pressure due to a large number of impending warehouse developments in Calverton. Mr. Hubbard had sponsored a proposal for a moratorium last winter, when members of the public turned out in droves to town meetings to demand a moratorium, but he did not have support at the time from other members of the board. While the board seemed reluctant to support the moratoriums at the Sept. 14 work session, Mr. Hubbard issued a press release later that month saying he believed he had the votes to hold the public hearing.
But the board’s Sept. 19 meeting was cancelled due to the lack of a quorum, and few in the public learned about the hearings until a Sept. 28 legal notice was published in the Riverhead News-Review. The board didn’t take a vote to hold the hearings until the Oct. 3 meeting at which the hearings were held. Mr. Hubbard said the board had decided to hold the hearing open until Oct. 17 due to public concern over the short notice for the Oct. 3 hearing, which was held at a daytime meeting when many people who wished to speak were at work.
“I scarcely know where to start. I don’t believe a word that comes out of your mouths,” Northville resident Kathy McGraw told the town board, echoing the sentiment of many in the audience and laying out a timeline of all the times in the past year the board has declined to support a public hearing on the industrial development moratorium.
Saying the hearing was rolled out in the town board’s “typical stumbling, bumbling fashion,” she said she believes the scenario “is a perfect plan to make sure you don’t have to vote on these matters until after the election.”
“I think Kathy’s points are completely correct,” said community member John McAuliff. “The time frame at least leads to suspicion and distrust. I normally would not talk about this in terms of the election, but we really have to be honest about what is going on.”
Their statements came after board members opened the meeting with a series of comments admonishing community leaders concerned about a potential cargo airport at the Enterprise Park at Calverton for “leading everybody down the wrong path,” according to Mr Hubbard.
“They’re just misleading you,” he said of community members in Calverton who are raising money for a legal defense fund to hire an attorney to prevent the town’s deal to sell the bulk of the land at EPCAL to Calverton Aviation & Technology (CAT), a company whose consultants pitched a proposal for a cargo airport there to the Riverhead Industrial Development Agency last fall. EPCAL, a former Grumman test site, has two runways, and CAT had agreed to spend $1 million improving one of the runways as part of the deal with the town.
“No airport is coming to EPCAL. That we are assured. Quite honestly, you’re wasting everyone’s time,” said Mr. Hubbard.
Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar compared the controversy over the airport proposal to the opening scene of the television program “Fantasy Island,” in which actor Hervé Villechaize points skyward and shouts “the plane! the plane!”
“The planes are coming! The planes are coming!” she said. “It’s not happening…. I think it’s a form of fear mongering. What’s their attorney going to fight?.. Maybe CAT decided they wanted to try that, but it didn’t work.”
“I hear people that are unfortunately running [for town office]” talking about the cargo airport, said Councilman Bob Kern, a Republican on an all-Republican board who is not up for re-election this year. Democratic candidates have been promising to oppose the cargo airport on the campaign trail. “It’s not political, but to put fear into the public’s brain is really not a good thing to do. It’s like saying fire when there is no fire.”
Councilman Ken Rothwell said community members had come to his door asking for money to fund an attorney to fight the CAT deal.
“Board members do not support it. It’s not coming. It’s not happening,” he said of the cargo airport, adding that members of the public would be better off donating to a food pantry than sending $20 to the legal defense fund and receiving a yard sign opposing an airport.
“They came to my door and they asked for money,” said Mr. Rothwell. “When somebody’s going around the doors collecting money, that’s a problem.”
Greater Calverton Civic Association President Toqui Terchun said her phone was lighting up with text message throughout the board’s preamble, from people who were watching the hearing at work and couldn’t attend.
“I know you’ve seen more than 100 people in here over this topic,” she said. “The message you’re sending to folks at home is you’re telling the community to stop talking about it.”
“You’re dead wrong that there can’t be a cargo airport there,” said Ms. McGraw. “There is zoning in place that allows a cargo airport as an accessory use. If you’re building warehouses, you can fill them with planes,” she said.
Town Attorney Erik Howard said the town’s past environmental studies of the property “requires any aviation uses to be consistent with historic uses,” and added that a cargo airport “wouldn’t be something the town board would consider if a special permit were requested.”
Democratic Town Supervisor Candidate Angela DeVito asked for a list of those historic uses.
“It’s disingenuous for the four of you to tell the community this is something out of thin air and people are misleading us,” said community member Claudette Bianco. “The Greater Calverton Civic Association has asked for a moratorium for two years. Now you want us to believe you’re on our side?”
“I listened to you all today. I listened to the rhetoric you want to throw out there because it’s campaign season,” said Mr. Hubbard. “Months ago, I wanted to do a moratorium, and I did not have support on the town board to do that.”
Mr. Hubbard said that, now that the town’s Comprehensive Plan consultants have begun drafting new zoning code to address the potential 12 million square feet of warehouse development that can happen in Calverton, he believed the town was in a better position to justify a moratorium.
“This isn’t Election Day anything,” he said. “I started this many months ago, and I didn’t have the support of the board. You’ve been crying this whole time about this. This is the right thing to do.”
Both hearings are slated to continue at the board’s Oct. 17 meeting at 6 p.m.