Pictured Above (L-R): Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar, Councilman Ken Rothwell, Town Attorney Erik Howard and Councilman Tim Hubbard at the Oct. 17 meeting.
After hearing nearly two hours of comment Tuesday evening that was mostly supportive of the actions but skeptical of the process on two proposed Riverhead moratoriums — on industrial development in Calverton and new utility-scale Battery Energy Storage Systems — the Riverhead Town Board voted to close both public hearings to in-person comment, holding them open for written comment until Oct. 27.
Board members said they will not vote on either moratorium until the Suffolk County Planning Commission weighs in on the proposals at their Nov. 1, meeting after numerous members of the public urged the board to either vote or make their intentions known that night, since the town board is not scheduled meet again until Nov. 9, after the local elections.
EPCAL Drives the Conversation
The moratorium hearings didn’t begin until more than an hour-and-a-half into a contentious meeting at which many members of the public expressed skepticism about the town’s assertion that a cargo jetport won’t be built at the Enterprise Park at Calverton (EPCAL), despite a Sept. 2022 presentation outlining a proposed cargo airport by consultants for Calverton Aviation & Technology (CAT), the company in contract to purchase the property.
Resident John McAuliff asked board members to weigh in on what they would do, as lame ducks, after the town’s Industrial Development Agency weighs in on the deal — the IDA is expected to decide shortly whether CAT is ‘qualified and eligible’ to buy the property.
“It seems to me you have two choices — you can go ahead and say it’s done, sign the contract, take their money and it will be passed on to the new board as a fait accompli,” or to leave it to the newly elected board, he said. “It would be helpful for voters to know what you will do if it is turned down, and if it is approved.”
Board members did not respond to his question. The IDA is next scheduled to meet next Monday, Oct. 23 at 5 p.m.
Resident Kevin Demato said he believes “there’s a huge disparity in information and belief from what we’re hearing as citizens, what you’re saying, and what the developer is saying” about the CAT project. “Even the Teamsters are on board. Everything in the Teamsters’ lives is drivable miles. They’re expecting it to be a cargo airport as well.”
“It cannot be a cargo airport without a special permit by this town board,” said Councilman Tim Hubbard, the Republican candidate for town supervisor. “If after the IDA is done with their process, if it says they are not qualified and eligible, the town board has the option of voting the contract down, which I would support.”
“I would support that as well,” said Councilman Ken Rothwell.
“We’ve requested them to do covenants that they will never use that as a commercial airport,” added Mr. Hubbard. “They’ve verbally confirmed that, but talk is cheap. I want to see it in writing.”
Where’s the Water for Manorville?
Others admonished the town for not acting more quickly to bring public water to 65 Manorville properties where wells are contaminated with perfluorinated compounds. Work began last month on bringing public water to Manorville residents on the Brookhaven side of the town line.
“Brookhaven is already breaking ground, and we’re still waiting,” said resident Toni Pawson. “I hear that paperwork is holding up clean water for me and 64 other residents. You guys should be ashamed of yourselves. Somebody needs to get the ball rolling.”
Riverhead CDA Director Dawn Thomas said the town is in the process of completing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency paperwork required to receive federal grant funding, but said the town has been “100 percent successful in getting all the funds” needed to do the project.
“Every day this goes on, we’re drinking the water,” said Kelly McClinchy, also of Manorville. “When is it going to end?”
“Why can’t this be done sooner?” said Claudette Bianco of Baiting Hollow. “Call and push to have this done. People are drinking poison water. This is a public health and safety matter. Call them five times a day and they’ll do it just to shut you up. I just think it’s unconscionable to let this continue.”
Warehouse Excluded from Moratorium?
On the moratorium on industrial warehouse development, proposed earlier this fall by Councilman Tim Hubbard, many were skeptical of the exclusion of one large warehouse proposed by HK Ventures, totaling 412,000 square feet, which was far enough along in the planning process to be exempt from the moratorium as drafted.
“There’s a potential of 100 million square feet (of warehouses) in the works,” said Cindy Clifford of Riverhead. “Imagine the size of hundreds and hundreds of Costcos in the Route 25 and Edwards Avenue area of Calverton. For the past year or more, residents have come to public meetings trying to get our message across. Not only did the town board ignore what we wanted, but most likely for the first time in history you voted against holding a public hearing. Did you have a change of heart? Grow a conscience? If that’s the case, close the window for public comments and vote tonight… Go on record right now to let the public hear your true intentions.”
The board responded to her request with silence, after which Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar told Ms. Clifford her comments were “out of sequence” and the public comment period wasn’t the place for the board to discuss how they were voting. Someone in the crowd shouted “don’t forget to vote in November!”
“I think the concern is people want to actually get you on the record now, with some concern that once the election happens, this moratorium proposal might actually disappear,” said John McAuliff. “There’s a history on this that goes back more than a year.”
“It doesn’t make any sense to find a technical reason to exempt the biggest project that’s going to affect the whole Route 25 corridor, and, coincidentally, has a joint border with EPCAL,” he added.
BESS and The Future
On the proposed three-month moratorium on utility scale Battery Energy Storage Systems, Adele Wallach of Riverhead said she would like to see the moratorium last “at least until such time as Riverhead’s updated comprehensive plan is in effect and everyone is in agreement on what we do and don’t want going forward.”
The town board adopted a code section regulating BESS systems earlier this year, and during that process residents raised concerns about the many unknown safety risks concerning this new technology. The newly proposed moratorium was also brought forward by Councilman Hubbard, who earlier this fall said he wanted it to remain in effect while a New York State task force finishes its investigation of three recent BESS fires throughout the state.
“You should have always wanted a moratorium,” said Ms. Wallach. “In spite of two public hearings this year, all of which expressed the public’s opposition, this town board ignored our concerns and unanimously voted in favor of this last April. What could explain your sudden interest in our opinions? Is it just a coincidence that this is causing some interference this election season, and helps you buy time so in the weeks before the upcoming election you could appear sympathetic?”
Jennifer Hartnagel of the Group for the East End spoke in favor of both moratoriums, and added that the town did not follow NYSERDA guidelines for adopting BESS codes, which call for appointing a task force to develop the local codes and providing training for town staff.
“I’ve seen the fire out in East Hampton, and that was just a little baby system out there,” said resident John Cullen, of Northville. “They’re proposing seven times the size of that in Riverhead.”
Mr. Cullen added that he believes battery technology will change dramatically in the upcoming years.
“By the time BESS comes into town one or two years later, there’s going to be something so much better,” he added. “Technology and climate change are real. I think time is on your side, and I hope you use it.”
Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar and Town Attorney Erik Howard told the crowd not to expect the town board to vote on either moratorium until after the Suffolk County Planning Commission weighs in on Nov. 1.