Editorial: The answer can’t always be ‘no’

Across the North Fork, as development projects are proposed and debated, the nearly universal response from most residents is an immediate, “No, that is not a good use of our open space and, if built, it will destroy our community character.”

Riverhead and Southold share the North Fork and the beauty and natural splendor that comes with it. Both towns have rich farming histories and, thanks to preservation efforts that began decades ago, thousands of acres of farmland have been spared from suburban sprawl. 

Preservation has made the North Fork what it is today. And regardless of the outcomes in particular cases, spirited public debate on preservation versus development is in our best interests. 

A very good recent example of this is the widespread community opposition to The Enclaves hotel proposal in the Southold hamlet business district. Even members of the Southold Town planning board and the town supervisor condemned the plan. 

Adding insult to injury, the Suffolk County Industrial Development Agency voted 7-0 to approve tax breaks for the project. In the end, the opposition of town officials, scores of speakers at public forums and many letter writers made no difference at all. That’s not how representative government should work, but so it goes.

In many ways, each town views land use issues differently. For example, a proposal currently under review in Riverhead that would allow “agritourism inns and resorts” to be built on unpreserved land north of Sound Avenue would be DOA in Southold. 

When that proposal was floated, Southold officials said it could lead to 200-room hotel resorts on bucolic Sound Avenue, where summer and fall traffic issues already require extra police presence. Southold Town Councilman Greg Doroski called the proposal an “absolute nightmare.” He is right.

This brings us to the recent expansion proposal from the Riverhead Charter School, also on Sound Avenue. The school’s enrollment is made up predominantly of Hispanic students as well as members of underserved communities, and school officials want to secure adequate space for those students and others who will attend in the future. 

To that end, the charter school is seeking to acquire land for future expansion of its Sound Avenue campus. One parcel is 12.3 acres and has its development rights intact; a second parcel of 59.3 acres, which stretches south toward Church Lane, is preserved farmland.

The school’s proposal immediately set off alarm bells. Opposition groups quickly formed — likely even before they knew exactly what was being proposed. A pamphlet opposing the school’s plan states: “We’re rallying for the community to stand against the construction of a 50,000- to 60,000-square-foot high school with athletic fields in an Agricultural Protection Zone.”

Raymond Ankrum, the charter school’s superintendent, has rightly criticized some of the rhetoric used by opposition groups as “scare tactics” meant to further inflame opposition. He points out that only the 12.3-acre site could be developed; the rest can be used only for agriculture — which would allow the school to offer a farming program for interested students. That strikes us as a clearly positive — and potentially productive — use of open space.

So far, opposition to the school’s proposal seems more knee jerk than well reasoned thought out. The pamphlet’s statement quoted above is plainly not accurate. The charter school is not a private institution. It’s goals — to serve historically marginalized students and families who deserve the same access to quality education as students in the other public school across the region — are worthy of support.

At last Wednesday’s Riverhead Town Board meeting, enrolled charter school students said the existing building needs to be expanded to allow for a cafeteria, a gym, sports fields and a library — essential facilities in any public school.

The charter school’s proposal — like any other developer’s — should be thoroughly vetted, of course, and preserved farmland should remain just that. But opposition groups would be better served by picking their battles more thoughtfully and understanding precisely what is being proposed before they come out against a project. The charter school has earned the right to be taken seriously as it plans for the future.