Riverhead Town’s attorneys in a case challenging the town master plan are saying the town must readopt the master plan and all the zoning that resulted from the master plan’s recommendations, Supervisor Sean Walter said at Tuesday’s Town Board meeting.
His comments came in response to calls from civic leaders to drop a proposed settlement in a case involving the master plan and instead defend the master plan and zoning.
But Mr. Walter said the town’s attorneys believe there are flaws in the master plan and its adoption that would likely lead to the entire plan being overturned if the town tried to fight the case.
The town hired a consulting firm for $300,000 in 1998 to begin the first update of Riverhead’s master plan since 1972. The Town Board adopted the new master plan in 2003 and then adopted new zoning that the plan recommended in the two years after that.
Calverton Manor LLC, headed by developers Vincent DiCanio and Charles Mancini, sued after the town rezoned 35 acres the group owns on the northwest corner of Route 25 and Manor Road in Calverton, across from Splish Splash.
Prior to the zone change, Calverton Manor had proposed a 120,000-square-foot “big box” retail development for the property, but the new zoning would not permit a project that large.
The town is contemplating a settlement that would allow the property to be developed according to Business CR (Country Rural) zoning criteria that existed in 2004, rather than what was adopted in the new zoning following the master plan.
The proposed settlement would allow for up to 100,000 square feet of commercial and residential development on 20 acres by the road, while leaving 14 acres in the back undeveloped, officials said.
A maximum of 40 apartments would be permitted.
Town attorney Bob Kozakiewicz said there has been no court ruling against the town in this case, though Mr. Walter says the town’s attorney are pushing the settlement.
On Tuesday, Dominique Mendez and Phil Barbato of the Riverhead Neighborhood Preservation Coalition and Rex Farr of the Greater Calverton Civic Association urged the town fight for the master plan.
Mr. Barbato suggested it was the developers who have a weak case.
“Otherwise, they would have pursued their advantage in court and won by now,” he said. “This case is seven years old.”
Ms. Mendez said that the environmental consultant working for Calverton Manor in this case also works for the town, designing new zoning for EPCAL, which she said is a conflict of interest. The town should move to have consultant Theresa Elkowitz’s affidavit removed from the court case due to this conflict of interest, Ms. Mendez said.
“She cannot fairly represent the town while at the same time representing a property owner in litigation against the town,” Ms. Mendez said.
Ms. Elkowitz’s affidavit said there were “egregious deficiencies” in the town’s adoption of the master plan.
“She’s working on amending the master plan for EPCAL, but at the same firm charging the whole master plan should be thrown out,” Ms. Mendez said.
Town attorney Bob Kozakiewicz said that when the town hired Vanasse Hangen Brustlin (VHB), Ms. Elkowitz’s firm, to do the EPCAL study, they were asked to appear before the town ethics board to disclose what development projects in town were in the “hopper” that they were working on, and they were told Ms. Elkowitz couldn’t have any involvement in those new projects.
“Kind of bending over backwards so she could pursue that case against you,” Ms, Mendez said.
Ms. Mendez also pointed out that Mr. Elkowitz is a frequent campaign contributor to Mr. Walter, and Mr. Barbato said Calverton Manor’s principals, its law firm and its environmental consultant all contributed a total of about $5,000 to Mr. Walter’s campaign.
Mr. Barbato suggested that Mr. Walter should recuse himself on issues pertaining to this application.
“Do you have any idea on how people get elected or are you clueless on that point?,” Mr. Walter asked Mr. Barbato. “Do you have any idea how campaigns are funded? From the president right on down to town board members? If you did, you wouldn’t make that point. People donate to campaigns.”
He then asked Mr. Barbato to “wrap it up.”
Mr. Barbato said it gives the appearance of conflict to accept contributions from developers with applications before you.
“From president Barack Obama on down, campaigns are funded by donations,” Mr. Walter said. “That’s the way the country is, I didn’t make it that way.
“It’s all governed and there’s full disclosure.”
Ms. Mendez and Mr. Farr also said that the settling the Calverton Manor case would only set a precedent other developers would take advantage of, which they believe would result in “Route 58″ spreading west to Wading River.
Ms. Mendez said another developer with the same law firm as Calverton Manor is also challenging the master plan.
“You’re living in another world if you think if you don’t stand up to these settlements they’re going to stop,” Mr. Farr said. “They’re not going to stop.”
Mr. Walter said he plans to meet with town planning and building administrator Jefferson Murphree to discuss what it would take to readopt the master plan and all the zoning that resulted from it.