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.
Residents of Calverton and Riverhead as a whole have taken to the streets and to the town hall meeting room over the past several months to plead with the Riverhead Town Board for a moratorium on industrial development in Calverton, but on Jan. 4 the board made clear they don’t want to formally hear from the public on this issue.
The public outrage comes at a time of unprecedented potential development, including a proposed 641,000-square-foot logistics warehouse on Middle Road, along with proposed battery energy storage systems and a large anaerobic digester.
After hearing nearly an hour of support for the resolution from residents, the board voted 3-2 to turn down a resolution scheduling a public hearing on a six month moratorium on development in three industrial zoning districts.
Many members of the public urged the board to consider a moratorium of at least 12 months, while the town’s new consultants work to finish its Comprehensive Plan, which will likely involve zoning changes.
Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar was quick to point fingers before the vote, accusing the town’s Planning Board of “punting planning issues to the Town Board” by unanimously recommending the moratorium in the fall of 2022. She added that a moratorium would also have to be approved by the Suffolk County Planning Commission.
“We should be punting it back to them because it’s their expertise,” she said of the Planning Board, adding that the town “can’t bypass the state and the Planning Commission on our laws.”
She also reiterated statements she made in a recent interview on the radio station WRIV that “you can’t violate people’s rights who own homes and property. Shame on that being thrown to us. They should be abiding by their own Planning Commission memos.”
The Town Board, not the Planning Board, has the authority to instate a moratorium, after which the proposal would have to be sent to the Planning Commission for review.
Former Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith was among the crowd outraged at Ms. Aguiar’s position.
“I’m shocked. I cannot believe you guys did not vote to hold a public hearing,” she said after the vote. “Week after week, month after month, the community and taxpayers of the town have been coming forward to ask for a moratorium. This was your opportunity to hear and you voted no. It’s unbelievable.”
“I don’t know what you’re saying the Planning Board did,” she added. “The Planning Board cannot enact code… It’s your job. The Planning Board has no ability to do that.”
“I’m going to have you removed,” Ms. Aguiar interrupted. “It’s the Planning Board’s job to look at the regulations and enforce them. If the Planning Board saw a problem, they should have consulted with us.”
“You could have invited the Planning Board to any one of those meetings,” countered Ms. Jens-Smith, adding that, if the Town Board thought the resolution for the public hearing was inadequate, they could have consulted with their legal team and rewritten it before placing it on the agenda. “You have a legal team here. I don’t know who the other consultants are you’re consulting with, but you’re the supervisor of the town. You should be putting forth a resolution you’re comfortable with. You could have corrected it, but instead you just said to the public ‘no and we don’t want to hear from you.”
“I’m very disappointed in today’s vote,” said John Cullen of Northville. “For the last eight weeks, people have been filling up this room. I’ve never seen a board treat people like I’ve seen in the last eight weeks. You come up and say ‘I’ve listened to the people and you don’t listen to the people.”
“We really feel like we’re beating our heads against a brick wall,” said Kathy McGraw of Northville, via Zoom. She added that she wasn’t necessarily opposed to uses like anaerobic digesters and battery energy systems, but “they are uniquely suited to study by the Comp Plan consultants. You’re wasting taxpayer dollars if you don’t ask consultants to study new uses.”
She added that she was disturbed to hear the supervisor describe former Coucilwoman and community advocate Barbara Blass as an out-of-touch “blast from the past” who was “just one voice” during her interview on WRIV.
“She is not just one voice. You’ve witnessed masses of people come before you all,” she said.
“To not even give people the opportunity to speak for themselves at a hearing is very disrespectful to the residents,” said Jacqueline O’Donnell of Calverton. “I’m so disappointed, as are our neighbors. We deserve a chance to be listened to.”
Two representatives of the Long Island Builders Institute and Ignite Long Island both said before the vote that they were opposed to the moratorium.
“Industrial development is the backbone of our economy,” said Kyle Strober of the Long Island Builders Institute. “They’re delivering flour to our pizzarias and hammers and nails to our hardware stores.”
He added a refrain often heard from pro-development advocates in Riverhead.
“The local municipality is effectively reducing the tax rate and placing the burden on residents,” he said.
“Everybody here has invested in their property for a long time,” said Linda Nemeth of Calverton. “I respect business. I respect building and all of these trades because they are a necessity and really serve us. But [the problem is] when you bulldoze a whole concept over one property without considering all the other property owners.”
She added that the roads surrounding the proposed logistics warehouses were not designed to handle the level of traffic they will likely generate.
“With all the development we’ve seen on Route 58, I was always promised that the tax base would go down,” she added. “58 is a head-on collision waiting to happen. I’ve never seen a cent of my taxes reduced. I am a homeowner and a property owner and I am being disregarded. Big business with a lot more money can come in and take over without the blink of an eye.”
Councilmen Tim Hubbard, who drafted the moratorium proposal, and Frank Beyrodt voted in favor of the public hearing, with Mr. Beyrodt saying he was voting on “scheduling a public hearing on a potential six months, ONLY,” while Ms. Aguiar and the two other board members voted against it.
“I want to be clear from the beginning, we’re looking at code with exemptions. I will not do a blanket, even six month, moratorium,” said Councilman Bob Kern.
“I think a lot of the problems with development involve variances being given and not in staying within the standards of the code in place,” said Councilman Ken Rothwell. “I don’t think it’s proper for us to take the property rights of owners away by imposing a moratorium.”
“Calverton is the industrial area,” he added. “A six-month moratorium is a setup asking developers to put off investments here.”
He added that he doesn’t believe any zoning changes will be ready within six months, and they will likely take at least 18 months to be enacted.
“We need to do our due diligence. We’d be putting ourselves in a poor legal position,” he said. “I know there is passion behind it [the moratorium] but this time I’m doing my own due diligence and research and I don’t think this is the way to proceed.”