13 years after master plan called for action, downtown flooding persists

03/03/2016 6:00 AM |

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A few times a year, the riverfront parking lot in downtown Riverhead floods during high tide. Sometimes it happens during hurricane season. Other times, it occurs in the middle of winter.

The impact of that flooding can range from the closure of part of Heidi Behr Way, which runs alongside the riverwalk, to the forced evacuation of the entire parking lot.

“It’s part of living on a riverfront,” said Supervisor Sean Walter.

But 13 years after the town’s comprehensive plan called for finding solutions to the flooding, no major effort has been made to address the issue.

“Recognizing that portions of downtown Riverhead have historically suffered from flooding of the Peconic River, it is essential that steps be taken to limit the potential for flooding events,” the comprehensive plan states.

A few years back, Councilwoman Jodi Giglio sought out a company to provide a temporary barrier the town could roll out when needed to hold back the tide. But that approach ended up being far too costly — upwards of a couple of hundred thousand dollars, she recalled.

When asked recently if downtown flooding was still of concern to her, Ms. Giglio said she would ask town engineer Ken Testa to explore what Federal Emergency Management Agency funds might be available to help contain flooding in the area. The town could be eligible for funds, Mr. Testa said, though justifying those costs could be a challenge.

Mr. Testa, who’s been with the town for 26 years, said the effort would require the cooperation of private businesses. Public funding would need to justify the government’s investment, meaning businesses would have to show if or how they’ve lost money due to flooding in recent years.

“We would need to work in conjunction with business owners, pull out their paperwork and show how much they’ve spent and the loss of revenue moving forward,” he said.

That would likely be a welcome challenge for business owners, however, particularly those on the south side of Main Street.

Ray Pickersgill, owner of Robert James Salon, said he recently moved his business to the north side of the road in part because he got sick of pumping out the basement. Providing paperwork based on dates of particular floods wouldn’t be much of a problem, he said, since his receipts are computerized.

“I would support whatever they want to do,” he said.

Dee Muma, owner of Dark horse Tavern, said she’s been flooded out twice in the past five years — and that’s in a building with a 100-year flood certificate — and would be happy to help explore options. She suggested that preserving land to spread the flood plain might help, but conceded that would be a temporary solution as sea levels continue to rise.

New York State legislators voted in 2014 to ensure that projected sea-level rises were taken into account when issuing state permits in the future. Both local legislators, state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) voted in favor of the bill.

Mr. Walter said he would be open to considering how to handle increased levels of stormwater during storm surges — namely, trying to figure out a way to divert stormwater to the town’s sewage treatment plant on Riverside Drive.

“[But] holding back Mother Nature — that’s just fraught with problems,” he said.

Former supervisor Phil Cardinale, who took office just after the master plan was adopted, noted in an interview that under his administration, the town never even considered undertaking such a project.

“There is obviously a problem because the area is too low,” Mr. Cardinale said. “But I can tell you that I never remember actually considering solving the problem during my six years [in office]. In other words, it never came up that we were going to do a major project or seek a major grant — because it would take a federal grant.”

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