After hearing more than two hours of testimony Monday evening on a final draft of its Comprehensive Plan Update, mostly from residents opposed to a recommendation that would allow private schools in industrial zones, the Riverhead Town Board will accept written comments on the plan through June 10.

Town Supervisor Tim Hubbard told the crowd that filled the room that a separate public hearing on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the plan, initially slated to be held Monday night, will instead be held next Wednesday, May 29 at 6 p.m. at Town Hall. Written comments on that document will also be accepted through June 10.

“We thought it was too much for one night,” Mr. Hubbard said of the second hearing.

The final Comprehensive Plan Update includes a host of recommendations ranging from changes to industrial zoning districts in Calverton, to an expanded transfer of development rights program to allow more development downtown, lifting the cap of 500 apartments that can be built downtown, loosening regulations governing accessory apartments, allowing for short-term rentals and vertical farming.

But most who came to speak, rallied by the Riverhead Central Faculty Association, were opposed to a provision in the Comprehensive Plan that would allow private schools, including the Riverhead Charter School, in industrial zoning districts.

The Riverhead Charter School’s high school on Sound Avenue had been planning a school expansion on farmland on Sound Avenue, a proposal that was opposed by the Faculty Association and neighbors concerned about the preservation of farmland.

Riverhead’s public school has been unable to garner public support for expansion efforts in recent years, despite climbing enrollment, and has eliminated more than four dozen teaching positions for the coming school year for budgetary reasons.

Most opposed to allowing private schools in industrial zones said allowing schools, which do not pay property taxes, in industrial zones, would further burden residential taxpayers in Riverhead, who are currently paying some of the highest taxes on the East End.

The proposal would be “diametrically opposed to the stated goals of the town board to bring more business to Riverhead and increase the tax base,” said Claudette Bianco of Baiting Hollow at the start of the public hearing. “It would be a double whammy fo the taxpayers and would undermine an already overburdened school district.”

“The problem is theirs, and the parents who chose to send their children to it,” she added of the charter school.

Like many who spoke, Ms. Bianco urged the board to hold the public hearing open longer to allow the community to fully vett the plan.

“This is no benefit to Riverhead public schools. It will drain more money from the district,” said Riverhead Central School District (RCSD) teacher Kasey Mandery.

Kimberly Wilder, who lives in the Riverhead School District but sends her daughter to another school, said her daughter is a person of color, and she appreciates the charter school environment, where the leadership includes many people of color.

“In our community, where we’ve had so many issues about bias and hate, there is a place for the charter school,” she said, adding that she thinks the tax implications of allowing the charter school on industrial land aren’t as drastic as others believe.

“You know the Industrial Development Agency would probably give the industrial businesses a tax abatement. That’s fuzzy math,” she said.

Colin Palmer

Colin Palmer, President of the Riverhead Central School District Board of Education, said that, as a private resident, he feels the ‘artificial competition’ between the public school and the charter school wastes money, and urged people to vote in the following day’s school budget and school board election — a democratic exercise that he said they are unable to participate in with the charter school’s budget.

“At the end of the day, what will we have left? A shiny town hall on Second Street, and not much else,” he said. “I implore this board to remove this clause from the plan.”

Mr. Hubbard, at the close of the meeting said he believed the faculty association’s efforts and the money they spent on flyers and advertisements would have been better spent on petitioning Albany for changes to state laws regarding charter schools.

Tim Hubbard

“We sat here all night tonight listening to many, many people basically blaming us for ‘defunding the school district,'” he said. “In my opinion, you wasted a lot of money and a lot of time tonight barking up the wrong tree. Your efforts should be put toward the state to change its funding to the charter schools.”

“We’re not talking about the funding, Tim,” said Mr. Palmer from the audience, shaking his head.

Many other issues in the comprehensive plan received a smattering of comment.

Leaders of the Jamesport and Heart of Riverhead civic associations said they are not in support of shortening allowed short-term rentals to 14 days from the current 28 day minimum, while farmers and environmentalists were skeptical of the idea of allowing vertical farming on prime agricultural lands. Many were opposed to lifting the cap on the number of downtown apartments, though building permits have been issued for numbers of apartments that already pierce the cap.

Housing advocates praised the final draft’s provisions loosening accessory apartment provisions, including changes to the maximum size of units, requiring less off-street parking and giving amnesty to property owners who have existing illegal accessory dwelling units.

Michael Daly, who spoke representing Housing Help, a housing counseling agency, said that foreclosures are rising on Long Island, and making it easier to have accessory apartments would be a boon for seniors looking to downsize, young people starting out in life, and people with disabilities.

“I think you’re moving in a really terrific direction, and we stand ready to support you however we can,” he said.

Southampton Town Planning and Development Administrator Janice Scherer, who lives in Riverhead Town, raised concerns about several areas where the plan proposes increased density of development, including along West Main Street, which is protected on the Peconic River side by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

She added that proposed expansions to the town’s Commercial/Residential Campus district, which currently allows 49 units, would allow 326 units under the plan, and 489 units with the use of TDR credits.

“That’s not exactly modest,” she said of the increase, which was described as modest in the plan.

She added that there would also be a financial impact on the town’s tax base if the farmland is preserved, and Riverhead, which receives very little Community Preservation Fund money for land preservation, would need to plan for payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTS) on that land.

“Or we could just ask to borrow some from Southampton,” joked Mr. Hubbard. Southampton’s high land values and frequent land transfers have filled that town’s CPF coffers.

“I live here, and I would like that as well,” said Ms. Scherer of Riverhead. “That would be nice.”

Southampton Town Board Member Tommy John Schiavoni reminded the Riverhead Board that a big portion of the Riverhead Central School District is in Southampton Town.

He added that Southampton, which Riverhead is currently considering suing over its approval of a sewer district in Riverside, did not receive a copy of the Comprehensive Plan Update or the DGEIS, as is required by the State Environmental Quality Review Act, asked the board to hold the hearing open longer so it could solicit feedback from Southampton Town.

Jennifer Hartnagel, the director of Conservation Advocacy at Group for the East End, pointed out that the proposed changes to the code regarding industrial warehouses would reduce the potentially 12 million square feet of industrial development in Calverton by just 136,000 square feet — less than half the square footage of the controversial HK Ventures warehouse that has already received preliminary approval from Riverhead’s Planning Board.

She added that a town moratorium currently in place on industrial development in Calverton stipulated that the town would study traffic, density and quality of life issues in the hamlet, which is an environmental justice area.

Greater Calverton Civic Association President Toqui Terchun agreed.

“Quite a few traffic studies I’ve seen are cursory. More attention and detail for the neighborhood would be helpful,” she said, adding that the civic association would also like the town to more clearly define and regulate the many types of modern warehouses.

“We want to see more attention paid to the language of warehousing,” she said.

Many speakers urged the town to remove a recommendation for an “agritourism resort” floating zone from the plan.”

“The core value of farmland preservation is farming,” said Ms. Hartnagel.

Jamesport farmer Phil Barbato said he believes a comprehensive study of the Enterprise Park at Calverton, recommended in the plan, “could be done simultaneously with what you’re doing now…. That’s our biggest gemstone in our town, and we need to do it right.”

He said he’s opposed to vertical farming on agricultural land, but not on industrial land.

“Vertical farming is not farming,” he said. “The soil is what’s important. You want to build on top of it? Put them in industrial areas or commercial areas, but don’t put them on top of good clean soil.”

“I haven’t talked to a farmer here yet who would want to do it,” concurred Mr. Hubbard.

“It’s really impressive that so many citizens have taken it upon themselves to read the plan and come here themselves,” added Mr. Barbato. “I’m proud of Riverhead. This plan is going to stay with us for 10 to 20 years. I think it’s important.”


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Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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