The Riverhead community filled the ballroom of the Hotel Indigo Wednesday evening to give pieces of their minds to the developers looking to build up to 10 million square feet of new buildings in a cargo logistics hub alongside the runways at the Enterprise Park at Calverton (EPCAL).
Their loud and boisterous message: Don’t dare build a cargo airport here.
Riverhead Town was given the 2,900-acre property where Grumman built F-14 Tomcats and E-2 Hawkeyes and the Apollo lunar landers when the federal government decided to get rid of it in 1998, on the condition the town would use the property to create new jobs to replace the ones lost when Grumman left town.
Riverhead has been mired since 2017 in a $40 million contract to sell 1,643 acres at EPCAL, first to a company called Luminati Aerospace whose founder has since died, and then to a company Luminati partnered with called Calverton Aviation & Technology, owned by a subsidiary of mall developers Triple Five World Wide, which planned to build a tech and aerospace research and development hub. The deal has stalled in part because the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has not approved the town’s subdivision of the site.
In March of 2022, the Riverhead Town Board voted to approve a proposal to have the town’s Community Development Agency transfer title to 2,100 acres at EPCAL, including 500 acres that are being used for public purposes, to the town’s Industrial Development Agency, and then lease the 1,643 acres to CAT and the 500 acres back to the CDA, with the idea that the IDA and CAT would present the subdivision plan to the DEC together.
In September of 2022 engineers and architects for CAT told the IDA they were planning to build an air cargo logistics hub at the site, flying in the face of widespread opposition to regular air traffic at the site, where scheduled passenger flights are prohibited. Voters turned down a public referendum proposing to use the site for a cargo and passenger airport in 2001.
The May 3 meeting was organized by the IDA for CAT to give the public an informal overview of its plans. A formal public hearing is expected to be held at a later date.
The crowd of more than 300 people, many carrying hand-lettered signs opposing an airport, listened patiently for nearly half an hour while CAT’s attorney, former Riverhead Town Councilman Chris Kent, read through a history of the property, noting that Grumman, during its heyday, had run as many as 19,000 flights per year from the site.
CAT principal Justin Ghermezian and Executive Vice President in charge of financing of capital projects Meg Blakey sat silently in the front row throughout the evening.
But when Mr. Kent began to list a series of failed proposals for the site over the past 25 years, a man in the back of the room shouted “finish up! This is not what we came here for!”
The heckler was greeted with loud applause. Mr. Kent asked him to be patient and respectful.
“You’re not respecting us because you’re giving us what we already know!” the man shouted, receiving more applause.
“We’ve all been patient for 28 years with this property,” said Mr. Kent.
“We’re out of patience!” shouted a woman in the audience.
Mr. Kent then began to read a list of potential uses of the property, including industrial uses, commercial retail and an energy park, when someone shouted “No airport!”
“I didn’t say airport in any of the uses!” said Mr. Kent, adding that a final environmental impact statement on the town’s subdivision, completed in 2016, does not permit a cargo jetport at the site.
“All the talk of a cargo jetport is just conversation,” he added. “We’ve lived up to all of our obligations. The town had one obligation, to subdivide the property, and they couldn’t get it done.”
Mr. Kent then began to go through CAT’s phased plan to build new industrial buildings alongside the existing runways. CAT is obligated by its contract with the town to build one million square feet of buildings on a portion of 600 acres of the area of the property they are purchasing, which includes the runways — the DEC has required a remaining 1,000 acres remain preserved grassland. The town plans to sell that land to CAT, which would manage the land according to the DEC’s guidelines.
“Why are you buying the runways?” asked someone in the crowd.
“The runways are for sale,” said Mr. Kent.
“Put the buildings on the runways,” echoed several people in the crowd.
Mr. Kent said CAT plans to revamp an existing rail spur on the property to move cargo in and out of the site by train, which he said would remove truck traffic from the road. He said CAT is planning to invest $250 million in the property in the first phase of development.
“Keep it,” someone shouted.
“Go back to the Mall of America,” shouted someone else.
“Don’t drink the water,” added another.
Mr. Kent stopped reading the presentation, threw up his hands and opened the floor to the public to ask questions.
Democratic Town Board candidate Andrew Leven, an attorney, was the first to speak.
He said CAT’s application to the IDA was “a lot of marketing and vague generalities.”
“These runways are going to be used for cargo. They’re going to be used for warehouses. There is no other way to use them,” he said. “When Grumman was running 19,000 flights a year, this community was completely different.”
He added that 10 million square feet of space is “thirteen and a half new Tanger Malls,” adding that even freight brought to the site by rail would “have to be moved by trucks or trains to its ultimate destination.” He estimated the site would generate 35,000 truck trips per day.
“Retail customers will drive to and from the site,” he said, “They’re not going to get off the rail spur to go shopping at EPCAL.”
“We’re not planning any retail,” said Mr. Kent. Mr. Leven said CAT’s application says that it would be using “less than 30 percent” of the site for retail. Mr. Kent said the full statement said the amount of retail was “unknown but less than 30 percent and only as reasonably determined to be accessory to the primary uses.”
“That is empty marketing pablum and you know it,” said Mr. Leven.
“I have to congratulate everyone who’s here,” said John McAuliff, a member of the community group EPCAL Watch. “The number of people who turned out should be understood. Riverhead does not want this project to go forward.”
He pointed out a parade of potential tenants involved in research and development brought before the town board by Luminati and CAT that are no longer affiliated with the project, and a number of design proposals that have gone by the wayside, including a building “with a lovely green roof… that was going to be a place where school kids would walk through and do a great environmental study.”
“That leads to a certain level of distrust,” he said. “Now we get to this convoluted process that leads the Town Board to duck its responsibility and pass it over to the IDA, and when you go to the IDA, a central part of their presentation is a jet cargo distribution port. You people said that explicitly.”
“That’s what people are so angry about,” he said. “Were your staff lying or somehow confused and thought they were in a different location?”
“We don’t trust your principals,” he said. “The Ghermezian family has a history of corruption…. Do we want these people, their politics and their money dominating Riverhead for the rest of our lives?”
He added that CAT had not met its deadlines to provide financial information to the IDA to be deemed qualified and eligible to purchase the property.
Mr. Kent said that information had been provided to the IDA just prior to the meeting.
“As of today, we’ve completed the deliverables,” he said.
Retired Suffolk County Community College Professor Barbara Rippel said she grew up in a Grumman family and worked there herself, where she remembered two airplane crashes over the course of three summers. She asked if CAT would consider a public referendum on the proposal,
Mr. Kent said it wasn’t his job to propose a referendum, but that the public has a sort referendum every two years when it votes for Town Board members.
“Is this a bait and switch, sir?” asked Krystle Weismiller, who lives in Timber Park, not far from the runways. “We have faith this is not going to go through.”
She added that many residents around the airport are concerned about a plume of contaminated groundwater from the site, and about emerging contaminants that may not have been identified yet.
“I don’t do bait and switch,” said Mr. Kent, who added that he used to live in Timber Park and his three kids went to Riverhead schools. He added that the project is not going to disturb the groundwater, and as the purchasers of a historically contaminated site, CAT is also concerned about their potential liability once they take ownership of the site.
“For us, the bottom line is we don’t believe you,” said Rex Farr of EPCAL Watch, a Calverton resident. “This is a project that is so far above Riverhead’s pay grade. I’m embarrassed to say, this should have been taken out of your hands five years ago. We’ve had three administrations that could have put an end to this criminal deal.”
“This is an indication of where our hearts lie. We want to save Riverhead. If you can come up with a damn plan, which you were supposed to do tonight, we’re listening.”
Phil Barbato of the Riverhead Neighborhood Preservation Coalition referenced Triple Five’s widely publicized recent financial troubles with their mall businesses.
“In light of all the documentation that your client has been having financial difficulty, can you prove that you have the financial capability to carry out whatever this project is?” he asked.
Mr. Kent said that information was provided to the IDA, and that all of Triple Five’s businesses are separate entitites.
“That’s a convenient system they’ve developed,” said Mr. Barbato.
“That’s the way companies work,” said Mr. Kent.
Mr. Barbato asked Mr. Kent if his clients would make their financial documentation public.
Mr. Kent said they were not required to make that information public.
“You’ll find out when the IDA makes the determination,” he said. “You’ll know. They’re going to make that determination publicly.”
Manorville resident Kelly McClinchy, a teacher who lives within a mile of EPCAL and serves on the Navy’s volunteer Restoration Advisory Board, which provides a public interface for issues related to the contamination there, told Mr. Kent that the emerging contaminant PFOS has been found “at over 100 times the maximum contamination levels in New York State” in areas of the property that CAT is planning to purchase.
“That information is beneficial to us,” said Mr. Kent. “The Navy is responsible to identify and remediate it. We’re thanking you. It’s good for us to know what we’re getting into.”
“This is not a good night,” said Long Island Pine Barrens Society Executive Director Dick Amper. “We’ve listened for the better part of several hours while you’re explaining what it is is that you don’t know what you’re doing. Maybe you have a chance to change that, but not without these people. We’ve had plenty of you.”
“You’ve been here all evening explaining why what you’re doing is right, and it’s wrong and they know it,” he said of the crowd.
Wading River Civic Association President Sid Bail said he served on a committee studying a potential jet cargoport at EPCAL in the 1990s. He remembered late one hot night toward the end of the discussions, planning consultant Lee Koppelman said “well, you people are worried about noise. You had noise already” when Grumman was there.
“One guy stood up and said yes, we had a lot of noise from the F-14, but that was the sound of freedom and we put up with it,” said Mr. Bail.
“We hear you, and we’re going to take into consideration all of your comments,” said Mr. Kent as people began to file out of the room after nearly two hours.
Mr. Ghermezian had no comment on the evening’s proceedings.