Column: Let’s get some YMCA issues out on the table

03/24/2012 10:00 AM |

For those just catching up on the latest YMCA proposal and subsequent debate, here’s a crash course: the Peconic YMCA group is trying to purchase nine acres across from Vineyard Caterers on Main Road in Aquebogue, where it wants to build its long-dreamed-of Y facility. No official plans have been filed with the town as of yet. In fact, the YMCA does not yet even own the property. But some in Aquebogue and neighboring Jamesport are in an uproar and have launched a “Save Main Road” campaign similar to the “Save Wading River” movement on the other side of Riverhead Town. Both campaigns are designed to block what some locals and environmentalists consider inappropriate development projects proposed for their respective hamlets.

In the last few weeks I’ve noticed a lot of misinformation flying about from those for a YMCA and those against such a facility at this location. To help readers see through some of the smoke, I wanted to give each side a chance to answer some key questions that have arisen during the last few weeks, in a manner that doesn’t have to go through a reporter’s or editor’s filter on what to keep and what to cut.

I used this newspaper’s editorial coverage, reader comments posted on riverheadnewsreview.com and Facebook, and my own dealings with Peconic YMCA over the years to come up with the questions. I hope this helps in understanding the issues at hand.

Georgette Keller, Jamesport-South Jamesport Civic Association, president

Q: What do you think is the chief concern among those against this location for a Y?

A: Although we are all in support of a YMCA, the people of Save Main Road oppose this particular location. Ten years ago, the master plan severely restricted development on this stretch of the rural corridor to avoid the issues this project brings with it of traffic and the character of this area. Yes, there is a catering hall across the street but that’s why it’s even more important that this largely residential area doesn’t get further compromised by commercial-type development and huge structures. The Town Board recognized it then and planned for limited development because of it. We can’t just keep making exceptions left and right when anyone proposes a project and expect Riverhead to preserve its North Fork character and culture.

Q: Many at the ‘Save Main Road’ meeting spoke of keeping the land as ‘virgin forest.’ Is this really plausible?

A: Of course. That’s what we have the Peconic Bay Transfer Tax for, as well as many other nonprofit and community organizations on the East End, such as Peconic Land Trust, North Fork Environmental Council, and even the movement of Save What’s Left. The purpose of the RB-80 zoning is to preserve agricultural soils and to allow limited residential development. A virgin forest is certainly more in line with the goals of the zone than a 40,000 square-foot building would be, and if the Y doesn’t get built here then there’s still a chance that can happen.

Q: Where do you think a Y should be built?

A: I personally feel that the location adjacent to Stotzky Park is ideal. It provides an opportunity for future growth of the YMCA and the greatest access to all people, especially those that need the support of the YMCA’s services. The social issues in Riverhead will never be addressed if we do not build a better system of engaging our children as they grow. And teens need to be able to access the Y on their own. Can you really imagine teens on bikes on Main Road trying to get there independently? Besides, a downtown YMCA could help transform downtown Riverhead and revitalize the retail there, just as it did in Bay Shore. The YMCA’s Fritz Trinklein made a statement to that effect in the News-Review in 2009 and I definitely agree with him on that.

Q: Why do you think there’s more uproar over this Y than the Village at Jamesport, a proposed Main Road shopping center that will also need special permits from the Town Board?

A: There isn’t. There is significant opposition to both projects but the hearings and most of the activity on the Village at Jamesport project happened years ago and so it’s not fresh in everyone’s minds like this is. This proposed location for a YMCA is clearly inappropriate and does not conform to what’s allowed in RB-80 and so it is receiving quick opposition.

This is clearly another one of attorney Pete Danowski’s many attempts to subvert our Master Plan and zoning on behalf of one of his clients by playing semantics. He recently successfully petitioned the town to defy logic and say that wine tasting was a customary accessory to a craft store so that a new business on Main Road in Aquebogue can serve wine, and I think people are getting tired of it.

On the other hand, though the opposition to the Village at Jamesport has been going on for at least eight years, it’s not as clear-cut an issue. Village at Jamesport is looking for a special permit for uses that are actually allowed in the Rural Corridor Zoning, and opposition is based on the fact that this parcel has a different building allowance than what rural corridor allows for.

Q: Is there anything the Y can do to work with local residents who oppose this location for the project to get a facility built there?

A: No. The zoning does not support the use. Period. A special permit cannot be based on accessory uses. YMCAs are primarily recreational sports facilities, and this one may have educational pre-K classes as an accessory use but that doesn’t actually qualify it for a special permit. In fact, the Y offers many programs that are not allowable in RB-80 zoning, which would disqualify it for a special permit. Additionally, the zoning on the parcel does not support any possible future expansion for outdoor sports/an aquatic center as the Y claims it wants to do. The initial building phase (the indoor pool and facility) would use up all the lot coverage the Y allowed. This location makes no sense for the community or the YMCA, long term.

Fritz Trinklein, YMCA of Long Island, Inc., director of strategic planning

Q: One of the biggest criticisms of the YMCA is that it has never considered the heart of downtown as a possible location. Why the need for open space and camp facilities when we live in one of the most rural, open regions of Long Island? You can’t say kids around here don’t have room to run.

A: A YMCA needs outdoor space for its full compliment of programming. Summer day camp programs are key. The popular “Silver Sneakers” program for seniors (often funded by health insurance) and the “couch potato to 5K” program are examples of outside activities in a pleasant environment.

Introductory outdoor classes for youth, including soccer, golf, T-ball, volleyball and field hockey, are simplest when administered “on-site.” Personal training classes also use outdoor space for sprinting or longer distance running.

Eight acres is required to establish an optimal YMCA location. This makes a downtown location all but impossible, particularly within the Y’s $500,000 acquisition budget.

Traffic, proximity, and accessibility to the membership are other key factors for a successful YMCA. Ninety-nine percent of all participants need to be transported to the Y, regardless of where it is located. Of the approximate 40,000-person local population pool, a small segment drives through downtown on a regular basis (unlike Main Road). If a Y is located downtown, it would add new traffic to an already difficult-to-navigate area. Y members generally tend to travel up to 15-20 minutes to participate in programs. By the time a driver squirrels through downtown, many minutes are consumed driving a very short distance.

Furthermore, Y studies show less than 5 percent of YMCA members of a branch located in Riverhead would come from the downtown area, regardless of where it is located. The Y needs to be accessible to as many people as possible.

The number one expressed need by 80 percent of the entire population is an indoor swimming pool. And the remaining 20 percent virtually all agree a Y is needed. One population does not need a Y more than another.

Everyone will improve their sense of wellness by participating. Young, old; rich, poor; white, black; those in good health and those who have health struggles. Everyone.

Q: Do you have any idea about the potential traffic impacts on Main Road if the facility were to be built in Aquebogue?

A: Town Hall has recent hourly traffic studies for Main Road. The YMCA knows branch traffic. Most participants coming to a branch on Main Road would combine it with other errands, thereby not adding to traffic. Once full membership has been reached in 3 to 5 years, the Y’s preliminary analysis shows an average traffic effect of 2 to 3 percent.

Q: Opponents of the proposed location have floated other sites the Y might want to consider, namely the former North Fork/Capital One headquarters in Mattituck. Has the Y considered that property? What did it find?

A: Many sites have been suggested over the past decade. Each location introduces specific elements that have to be evaluated. Demographics play a large roll. A branch located east of Laurel would not have sufficient membership to achieve a balanced budget, which is the goal of all YMCAs on Long Island. Additionally, the priorities of those who have provided volunteer leadership and donor support need to be incorporated into the decision-making process.

The Peconic YMCA committee, which has been working tirelessly for over 15 years, has specified that the branch be located in the Town of Riverhead, accessible to all residents in the town.

Q: If this doesn’t happen in Aquebogue, does Peconic YMCA keep trying? Or does it pack its bags. I can’t imagine it has much left in its tank, frankly.

A: The Peconic YMCA committee, led by Joe Van de Wetering, has shown an incredible commitment to benefit town residents. Over these many years, each proposed location has created a reaction by a small group of local people who, although they universally agree with the benefits a YMCA would provide the community, have unfounded fears of the impact a YMCA would have on their specific neighborhood. The YMCA of Long Island has built a reputation of being good and friendly neighbors at all of its branch locations. For example, property values adjacent to a Y normally increase due to the existence of a Y.

Instead of giving up, Joe and the Peconic YMCA committee have taken extra measures to ensure the suitability of a potential location, by initially garnering the unanimous endorsement of the Town Board, the town planning department and the town attorney before pursuing it. Although some Town Board members vacillate and change their minds, the town supervisor and other consistent board members have shown strong leadership in standing by their word and endorsement.

Joe is supported by very publicly-minded, philanthropic individuals, who want to help the town become a healthier, happier place to live. In addition to the Van de Wetering family, the Entenmanns, Millers, and Goodales have committed leadership pledges of six figures or more to see this project succeed. We are motivated by the steadfastness of their support.

How long will this benevolence last? Even the most gracious people have their limits.

Michael White is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at (631) 298-3200, ext. 152 or mwhite@timesreview.com.

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