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May 20, 2013
Guest Spot: 4 deadly sins of the Riverhead Town Board, Part II
This is part two of a two-part opinion piece. The first part ran last Saturday online and in the May 3 News-Review newspaper.
The reputation of a town is determined by its leaders’ behavior. Last week, we reviewed pretense and gall.
We now know that the “Village” applicant awarded special use permits a) doesn’t control the property in question, b) is being sued by his partners to dissolve the company that owns the land and c) has been in foreclosure proceedings for two years.
Town Board members not only think this is OK, but feel nothing should have been done differently. They see no need to check an applicant’s standing before granting permission to change the face of a hamlet. “It doesn’t matter who the owner is.”
One board member reportedly said initially that this news would “change the whole voting process. It’s something we should have known about.” Several days later, he was back to the party line: “Everything we voted on, they have the right to get.”
Even more troubling was this comment: “I just don’t want it sold to someone who will do sand mining.” Many had reminded the board that the sand — six truckloads every hour, for months on end — is valued at $750,000. The obvious concern is that, with permits in hand, an owner desperate for cash will sell the sand and build nothing.
Determination of whether it’s a sand mine doesn’t hinge on who’s driving the truck, but on the simple fact that 66,000 cubic yards will be removed. That board members don’t get this is disturbing.
Separately — without casting aspersions on Mr. Klein or discussing his background — the man is 83. To his age, add the fact banks are suing him on two loans totaling over $7 million. Rational observers will conclude he’s most likely to add value via permits and then flip the property rather than fund and build this mega-project himself.
Here’s the kicker: Professing concern about whether a developer in foreclosure can see this through, plus apprehension about all the sand being removed, one board member simply asked: “I talked to Mr. Klein and he said he has the money to do this project and that he’s not going to sand mine. I take him for his word.”
However you define fiduciary duty for elected officials, “taking him for his word” won’t pass muster on questions of this magnitude and importance.
At every turn, the only judgment we’ve seen exercised on this project is poor.
Gross errors in plans and studies for the “Village” — including tax revenues overstated by 97 percent — have been widely discussed and will not be analyzed here. It’s enough to know that board members neither corrected nor explained these flaws — and did not ask the developer to fix them.
They did address whether the project would allow fast food. The spectacle of the supervisor horse trading with the developer’s attorney in a hall crowded with constituents made great theater, enabling board members to point to the revised resolution and say, effectively, “We listened to your concerns; see what we achieved!”
But the developer killed this idea in 2008. His attorney said, “There will be no fast food establishments at the site” and offered a covenant to that effect. Board members erred in accepting an FEIS that lacked the promised covenant. They deserve no praise for restoring this condition after public outcry.
The same thing happened with parking for existing Main Road shops. Dedicated space was promised, then it was gone. The accepted FEIS says only this: “The proposed parking is to serve the retail, office and bistros within the development.”
Some board members claim their vote restored dedicated parking for existing shops, and believe 15 spaces will be provided. The resolutions didn’t do this.
A bigger failure occurred with bistro parking, based on the number of restaurant seats. That requirement didn’t change when board members reduced bistro size, leaving 4,000 square feet of development with no parking at all. To comply with the law, 1 of 10 buildings in this project must go; that didn’t happen.
The most astonishing error caused bistros to multiply like rabbits. There were originally to be two bistros, comprising 100 seats in 8,000 square feet. Board members finally conceded the bistros were not viable as planned, and “solved” this by cutting their size in half … reducing the area-to-customer ratio from four times to just twice the industry average. An improvement? Yes. Viable? Maybe.
All they needed to do was halve the allocated area: 4,000 square feet with 100 seats. Instead, board members — behind closed doors — drafted a resolution retaining the original 8,000 square feet of bistro space. The developer can now build four bistros, with 200 seats. Quite a gift.
(The parking problem remains, but the project must lose a building anyway, providing room for the extra spaces needed.)
Board members and planners will say these numbers aren’t meaningful, and that all this will be resolved in the site planning process. The response to that is simply, hogwash. Riverhead’s approach is completely backwards.
When you have something someone wants, it’s foolish to give it away, then try to negotiate. Yet that’s what our town leaders do.
In Southampton Town, the board never votes on a special permit until site planning is complete, for the simple reason that members want to know what they’re voting on. The logic is irrefutable.
Here, the developer enters site plan discussions with coveted permits already awarded. He has his bistros (x2) and he has his offices; there’s no incentive to provide concessions to the community.
Board members absolutely have the power to fix this; they just need the resolve. Remember that all the sins catalogued here presume no ill-motive, meaning they can be corrected.
Riverhead is the new Brookhaven. Let’s all resolve to build a better reputation.
Larry Simms owns a home in South Jamesport, is a principal in a firm that licenses commercial flooring technology and is active in savemainroad.org.