More than 100 residents of Riverside and its environs showed up at a Southampton Town Board hearing Thursday night to tell and hear tales of the long history of violence, drugs and prostitution that had laid waste to their community over the past several decades.
But they also came with something new: hope for the future.
Southampton Town entered into a partnership two years ago with the firm Renaissance Downtowns to create an action plan for what can be done to revitalize the blighted hamlet just south of Riverhead across the Peconic River.
Renaissance Downtowns formed a community group called Riverside Rediscovered, which has spent the past year-and-a-half developing its vision for the future of Riverside, which includes voluntary overlay zoning districts that would allow for more development while providing for better environmental oversight, access to the river, jobs and workforce and senior housing.
The Thursday night hearing, held at the Phillips Avenue Elementary School in Riverside at the community’s request, was on a draft environmental impact statement for the plan. The town board expects to adopt the plan by its last 2015 meeting on Dec. 22.
At the hearing, many in Riverside shared their hopes that the plan will help put an end to the crime and violence in their community, while some in neighboring Flanders worried that it could have a negative effect on their neighborhood, and some Riverhead School District officials worried that the development would bring more students to the district.
Rev. Jesus Marte, the pastor of Marcos 16:15 Church on Flanders Road in Riverside, said he’s very proud of the Riverside Rediscovered project.
“I’ve been running the church for 35 years. I remember 20 years ago nobody was able to walk on Flanders Road,” he said. “People were breaking windows, throwing church instruments. I know there are going to be great improvements, even for me.”
Dawn Gilliam, who raised her children in the area around Flanders, lost her daughter to a stray bullet during a fight in a bar on Flanders Road in Riverside. The bar recently re-opened, despite her work to organize community opposition to allowing another liquor license to be issued there.
“We need this here. We’re going to run into obstacles, but we can make it work,” she said. “We can’t do nothing. That’s what we’ve been doing. Nothing. No more drug dealings. No more prostitutes.”
Kathy Kruel, who started the Flanders Neighborhod Watch, said her nephew got involved with drug dealers and was murdered a block from her house.
“This needs to be cleaned up. Now. Today,” she said. “No more waiting. I’ve been waiting 25 years.”
She said she believed even more people would have been at the hearing, but “three-quarters of this community has given up.”
“We all live here. We’re a community. And together we’re going to clean it up,” she said. “We’re not going to take it anymore.”
Kevin McAllister of the non-profit Defend H2O, said he was very impressed by the environmental considerations in the plan, including advanced wastewater treatment, innovative stormwater runoff plans and the reuse of water in new buildings.
“The wetlands system [proposed], that is cutting edge,” he said. “All the key elements relative to water management are here. This really sets a high bar.”
Mr. McAllister said he strongly encourages the community to restore wetlands that have been filled along the river.
Rose Nigro, who lives in Flanders, said she used to direct people down Pleasure Drive, through the woods, to her house so they wouldn’t see the blight in Riverside on their way there.
“I’m hoping this will not only have a positive impact on Riverside, but on Northampton and Flanders as well,” she said.
Detractors, however, said they’re not sure if the plan will be a boon for neighboring communities.
Christine Prete, who lives in Bay View Pines in Flanders, said she’s not sure if the area can handle the 2,267 residential apartments that could be built if the new zoning was used by builders to its full potential.
“It sounds really nice, but I’m not too sure about the impact it’s going to have on this area,” she said. “The development and density is very high… We’ve been trying to get upzoned for a number of years. This is a tremendous amount of development that is starting to look like Queens. I don’t think you’d allow anything like this to happen in any other part of Southampton.”
She asked where people are going to park, if the plan includes sewage treatment and what will be done to help taxpayers.
“This area is inundated with taxes. We don’t have an equalization rate that is correct,” she said. Students in Riverside, Northampton and Flanders go to Riverhead schools, even though they live in Southampton Town, and are charged school taxes that are calculated separately from Riverhead students.
Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said the project will create tax writeables that will help lower residents’ school taxes, and that information on sewage treatment and parking requirements is in the plan.
Nikki Sacco, who sits on the board of the Bay View Pines Civic Association, said she would like the board to hold another community meeting before adopting the DEIS.
“I don’t think it’s the citizens’ responsibility to attend every meeting. It’s your responsibility to make sure every citizen is aware of it,” she said. “I live here for a reason. It’s not to see five-story buildings.”
“I understand that progress happens,” said Neil Young, who also lives in Bay View Pines in Flanders. “My biggest concern is, when Riverside becomes new and improved, what happens when all the problems move down to Flanders, where I live.”
“In areas that go from blight to light, those elements actually go away. They don’t move down the road,” said Ms. Throne-Holst.
Riverhead School Board President Susan Koukounas said she supports the revitalization of Riverside, but she wants to be proactive about the number of students it could bring to the school district, which are estimated at about 28 more students each year.
“I hope you understand the board of education’s concern – when, what and where will the fair share go to Riverhead’s future students and taxpayers,” she said.
Ms. Throne-Holst said that information “has been very much a part of the conversation and will be very much a part of the FEIS [Final Environmental Impact Statement].
Mr. McLean said Renaissance Downtowns has the right to buy 10 acres of Southampton Town property in Riverside, “through an appraisal process” and will be developing that property in accordance with the new zoning in an attempt to attract other developers to build there.
“There’s a tremendous amount of investment looking at Riverside,” he said. “A lot don’t think the town will go forward with the zoning.”
Ms. Throne-Holst, who helped spearhead the project when she took office six years ago, said she’d like to see the new zoning overlay district put in place by the end of the year. She is leaving office in 2016 to pursue a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“It’s emotional for all of us who have been involved since the beginning,” she said. “It’s a little bit of a dream come true for me.”