02/22/15 10:00am
Riverhead Town Board members at a meeting last year. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

Riverhead Town Board members at a meeting last year. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

National debate about corporate campaign contributions is endless and abstract. The discussion becomes manageable and much more real if we look at a small, local example of how the practice damages government and hurts taxpayers.

I’m not suggesting, or even hinting, that anything illegal occurred; that does not make the activity any less noxious or offensive.  (more…)

07/25/14 8:00am
FILE PHOTO | The state capitol in Albany.

FILE PHOTO | The state capitol in Albany.

“Anywhere he wants to.” That’s the punch line of the ancient joke about where an 800 -pound gorilla sits.

In our neighborhood, the big bully is Agriculture & Markets, the state agency tasked with “foster[ing] a competitive food and agriculture industry.”  (more…)

01/30/14 7:00am
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The view from Route 105 bridge at Indian Island golf course as the Peconic River leads into the Bay.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The view from Route 105 bridge at Indian Island golf course as the Peconic River leads into the Bay.

To the editor:

I remember when platinum-based catalytic converters were first proposed. Comments were split between “it will bankrupt the automakers” and “no one will be able to afford new cars.” (more…)

01/01/14 5:00pm
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The Glass Greenhouse Farm Market on Main Road in Jamesport opened to the public in October.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The Glass Greenhouse Farm Market on Main Road in Jamesport opened to the public in October.

What is a farm stand? It’s such a simple question, yet one loaded with meaning and innuendo. After asking five people (including farmers) and getting five different answers, I thought it best to consult an authoritative source: Agriculture & Markets, the agency that regulates and protects the activities of farmers statewide. What I found was surprising.

A definition of “farm market” is easy to locate, and it’s just as easy to see it doesn’t apply to the business Save Main Road has been asked to comment on: The Glass Greenhouse Farm Market. A “farm market” in New York showcases and sells goods from two or more farmers. Such a market is also typically located on municipal land. When a dozen growers gather in the parking lot along the river downtown to sell their produce to the public, that’s a “farm market.” The Glass Greenhouse store, in our opinion, is not.

About “farm stands,” Ag & Markets has nothing to say. Literally. They have no rules and no policy that define or govern retail operations conducted by a single farm on its own land. When I spoke to an Ag & Markets official to confirm what their law seemed to indicate, she confirmed they defer to town code on this issue.

Riverhead code says little. A paragraph tucked into zoning law restricts farm retailing by what’s called merchandising area: at least 60 percent of the space must be devoted to selling goods grown on the farm where the stand is located. Save Main Road thinks neighboring Southold’s code, which goes into far greater detail on this point, has much to offer; we plan to work with Riverhead officials to improve our code.

Still, the letter and spirit of existing Riverhead farm stand code can be applied in this situation.

Two things concern us: what the law says and the intent of the owner.


Letters in our possession from Ag and Markets suggest Glass Greenhouse owners asked the agency to intercede with the town so they could bypass the site planning and permitting process. (We think that’s how the market got built.) While FOIL research is underway, it’s already clear Ag & Markets argued strongly that routine application of town rules and procedures would “unreasonably restrict the farm operation.” We take issue with this interpretation.

One reason we’re concerned is that Ag & Markets alternates between calling the new Glass Greenhouse operation a “farm stand” and a “farm market” in ways we think facile and inappropriate. The agency shouldn’t say it’s a “proposed farm market” when, by their own definition, it’s not. The requirement that produce from multiple New York farms be presented appears absolute. (Packaged Arizona tomatoes we saw on display don’t count, nor does other imported produce.) We haven’t heard Glass Greenhouse mention the involvement of any other farms.

Additionally, state law heavily emphasizes the public, not private, nature of these markets. An example is that Ag & Markets may provide technical assistance for developing and improving farmers’ markets only to public and private “agencies,” not to individual farmers.

Ag & Markets relied on the only definition of “farm market” in Riverhead town code 108-56, which deals with signs, despite the fact that the definition is “as used in this section,” meaning it applies only to signs.

We think Ag & Markets’ reasoning is similarly weak throughout the documents.

We’re much more disturbed that Ag & Markets failed even to mention the “60 percent rule.” That rule is the clearest statement of purpose in current Riverhead code as to what farm stands may sell, and it appears to have been wholly disregarded.

To apply the rule, look at the store’s “merchandising area” only. For discussion, disregard the entire bakery (which we think is inappropriate and not allowed in a farm stand, and which appears to comprise 20 percent or more of the structure). We believe even a casual observer would conclude the total amount of farm produce offered in the new Glass Greenhouse retail space falls far short of the 60 percent threshold.


According to Ag & Markets, the Glass Greenhouse says they need the new facility to provide cooler space to market produce and additionally to sell fresh honey, eggs and free-range chickens. If that were all the new facility sold, there would be no issues.

Walking through as a consumer, I saw a gelato counter 12 feet long (all estimates by my eye), a cheese counter almost as big, 10 feet of candles, 20 feet of displayed bakery goods and rack after rack of manufactured foods and household items from a dozen or more states. My guess is that all actual produce displayed totaled well under 20 percent of the floor area (excluding bakery production).

The new “stand” is 4,500 square feet. We know a local farmer who raises 1,000 laying chickens and sells their eggs — together with other farm produce — in a farm stand of 150 square feet. We’d be surprised if there are enough chickens, eggs and honey in all of Riverhead to make a dent in a 4,500-square-foot farm stand.

Save Main Road doubts that a farm stand of this size, however attractive and well-built, can be profitable if 60 percent of its retail area displays the off-season greenhouse products, chickens, eggs and honey that Ag & Markets claims are the intended items for sale. That said, if and when the owner achieves that critical measure of content, it should be allowed to operate.

Today, it seems to us an ersatz market, a “farm stand” in name only. We don’t think an upscale deli belongs in the Rural Corridor, and we support the town in its opposition.

My favorite North Fork slogan is: “We have the right to remain rural.” Save Main Road is committed to helping farms and farmers, and we enthusiastically support “real” farm stands. This one doesn’t qualify.

Larry Simms owns a home in South Jamesport and is a director of savemainroad.org, an advocacy group dedicated to preserving the character of the Main Road corridor and surrounding areas.

He also serves on the town’s Code Revision committee.

10/16/13 3:49pm


Election season always brings a flurry of legislative activity, demonstrating that our incumbent lawmakers are hard at work safeguarding our interests.  (Witness new buffer zones, even while damage done to the Costco site is unremediated.)

One such measure, about to sail through a Town Board vote, will reduce parking requirements at most new developments in Riverhead.  In many respects, it’s a great idea.  Resulting projects would be more attractive, builders would have considerably more flexibility in site plan design, lot coverage maximums would be easier to meet, & site prep & paving would cost less.  This change could save trees, improve drainage, & enhance aesthetics, all without inconveniencing users of these facilities, & at no cost to developers.

The group I represent, Save Main Road, believes that—done right—this change could benefit both taxpayers & developers.

It’s not being done right.

The best case scenario is that the Town Board is being casual, arbitrary, & thoughtless in its approach to this legislation.  The worst case is that this is a calculated move designed to let developers increase density on future projects, even as Councilmembers pretend it’s “green” legislation which is good for Riverhead.

I won’t speculate on motives, & will focus here on the law itself.

Unable to attend the mid-day Town Board session, Save Main Road expressed three principal concerns in a letter delivered to Councilmembers before the hearing:

A)   The level of parking reduction must be appropriate & safe.  Any change to existing law should be based on sound evidence & expert opinion, not arbitrary or seat-of-the-pants figures.

B)    The space freed up by this change must be used as envisioned.  If the purpose of the code is to make sure new development disturbs as little land as possible, this must be explicitly stated.

C)    The relaxed code must not be used to increase density.  Above all, we insist that this code change must not facilitate more building than would otherwise be permitted.

We included specific suggestions for addressing the deficiencies, & offered to work with Town Board members & staff to improve the language.  We’ve had no response to our concerns & questions, no one has called to discuss, & we believe the language remains unchanged.

The hearing confirmed our fears.  Town Planning Director Rick Hanley said simply that the current code is 40 years old, & “the thought is to change it.”  He cited the proposed requirements—which reduce office parking by 33% & retail parking by 25%—but offered absolutely no evidence or reasons to support those numbers…or to support any change at all.

Town Attorney Bob Kozakiewicz then characterized the town’s parking code as “anecdotal.”  He said “The parking that we require for both retail & office space is a great deal more than what is generally & usually necessary in order to achieve parking.”  Supervisor Walter concurred.  Yet—no support was offered for this statement, & nothing beyond this subjective & circular opinion was shared.

Mr. Kozakiewicz did mention that the consultant on the recent Wading River study observed that the parking schedule might benefit from some reductions…but apparently no one on the Town Board thought to ask that expert what the numbers should be.

[see the hearing video here, starting @ 12:25  http://bit.ly/GWStNd]

So—town hall staff & Councilmembers want to change the parking law because it’s old.  They’ve conducted no research as to what it should be, have not consulted experts, & have not drawn comparisons with other towns.  As with so many other decisions, they ignore facts & “go with their gut.”  It’s no wonder Riverhead so often gets the details wrong; that’s likely how the old buffer law was written.

Make no mistake—we think lowering the requirements is the right thing to do, & the proposed numbers don’t seem unreasonable.  If the proposed code were merely arbitrary & vague on how much less asphalt & how much more green we’d see, it wouldn’t be a big deal.

Read on to learn why this is a very big deal, indeed.


What can go wrong.

We’ve talked about how none of the things you’d normally do to set specific levels for a zoning code change were apparently done in this instance…but the problem is much larger than that.

Let’s look at what could happen.

The amount of building a developer can place on any site is principally determined by the FAR [Floor Area Ratio], which is set by the site’s zoning.  Let’s say you have a 5 acre site, & code allows FAR of 20% (some zones allow only half that); this means you can have 40,000 square feet of built space…not counting parking.  It’s pretty straightforward.

It gets complicated when you consider additional factors which can impact your site plan.  Setbacks determine how far from each property line your buildings must be, & they don’t vary with the shape of the lot; that means a long, narrow property will have a much lower yield than a square property of the same acreage.  Contours, nearby wetlands or tidal waters, & other factors can also reduce yield.  (And if you have commercial property adjacent to residential, you’ll now need bigger buffers.)

In short, lots of constraints can keep you from building maximum allowed FAR.  That 40,000 square feet calculated above is a theoretical number; in practice, other factors could reduce it to 35,000, or 30,000, or even less.  FAR alone doesn’t determine the square feet of buildings you can actually construct.

At this point, it stops being an academic discussion.  We’ve seen large commercial projects, submitted to the Riverhead Planning Dept., that can fit the FAR allowed building footprint onto the site but lack the room to provide required parking.

If your 5 acre site will be offices, you’ll need—under current code—267 parking spaces to serve your 40,000 square feet of building.  If you can’t fit 267 spaces onto your site while conforming to setbacks & other codified requirements, you basically have 2 choices:  a) seek a zoning area variance, or b) make your building smaller, which requires less parking (& frees up site space).

Variances aren’t granted automatically, & it’s not uncommon for developers to make this compromise.  If constraints on your site allow a maximum of 227 parking spaces, that 40-space shortage means your building will max out at 34,000 square feet—a 15% loss of rentable space.

That’s how it works today.  Under the law the Town Board has indicated it will pass, parking requirements are sharply reduced.  As offices will need 1/3 less parking, your 40,000 square foot maximum FAR building needs just 200 parking spaces, meaning the building fits, as originally planned & without variances.

Thanks to this gift from the Town Board, your commercial development just grew 18% (6,000 square feet) larger.  The code change which we’re told was intended to eliminate excess parking will actually increase density for many future projects.

Fortunately, if this is not what our Councilmembers intend, there’s an easy solution.


A simple way to fix the code.

This bears repeating: The new parking code must not allow more building than would otherwise be permitted.

While we believe many sites could benefit from less parking, we’ve seen that the new code proposed might, in some cases, allow builders to increase density.  Development is sometimes limited not by FAR, but by the inability to supply requisite parking to suit the occupancy of the developed space.

Instead of the proposed code revision, we suggest—after establishing appropriate new parking levels—proceeding in this simple fashion for planning:

Step 1:  Leave current parking requirements in place.

Step 2:  Calculate maximum built size for each project, without variances.

Step 3:  Once the built footprint is set, apply the new requirements [though not as minimums].

Step 4:  The area representing the difference between old & new parking figures shall be left as open space, or prepared as landscaped space with native plantings, but in no case may be impermeable, & may not be used for occupied space.

Harking back to our hypothetical 5 acre site, this means you’ll be able to build the same 34,000 square feet of offices you can build under the current parking code.  However, you’ll only need to provide 170 spaces, not 227, & the roughly 15,000 square feet which would have been paved will now be natural or landscaped open space.

Isn’t that the outcome we want from parking code reductions?

As here described, this code revision will benefit the community without cost to, or downside for, developers.  Resulting projects will be more attractive, builders will have considerably more flexibility in site plan design, lot coverage maximums will be easier to meet, & site prep & paving will cost less.  Save Main Road  strongly endorses this change.

Just one more point: suppose we’re wrong.  Let’s say (as some surely will) that our numbers don’t add up, or that scenarios such as described here—where FAR can’t be maximized—will never happen.  Where’s the downside?

Where’s the downside in clarifying the intent of a change to town law?  Other towns do it routinely.  In addition to promoting better understanding, it precludes problems (& often, lawsuits).

Where’s the downside in stipulating that space freed up by eliminating excess parking can’t be used to make more or larger buildings?  If we don’t say this explicitly, it’s the same as saying “if you can find the loophole here & make more money, you win.”

And where’s the downside in making crystal clear that builders cannot use this code change to increase built density on their parcels?

Please, Councilmembers—remember that we think reducing parking requirements is a good idea, just as you do…but let’s take the time to get it right.  We’ll be happy to help.

Larry Simms owns a home in South Jamesport and is a principal in a firm that licenses commercial flooring technology. He is active in savemainroad.org, an advocacy group dedicated to preserving the character of the Main Road corridor and surrounding areas.

09/30/13 8:00am
FILE PHOTO | Town officials have said the digital sign at the Valero station in Jamesport violates historic district codes.

FILE PHOTO | Town officials have said the digital sign at the Valero station in Jamesport violates historic district codes.

When the new bowling alley in Riverhead proposed erecting an animated billboard, it caused many people to wonder about the lit-up Valero price sign in downtown Jamesport, which similarly violates town code.

“What happened?” they asked. “I thought the town was going to make them take that down!”

Setting out to learn about town actions with regard to the Valero sign, I encountered a familiar roadblock: a FOIL request denial. I realized the town’s routine and cavalier obstruction of taxpayer requests for information is a far more important story than failure to enforce sign codes.

The opening statement of New York’s FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) statute says: “a free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public, and when the public is aware of governmental actions.” It couldn’t be more plain.

Why, then, does our town government so often fail to deliver requested information?

I haven’t kept track, but probably have had more FOIL requests rejected than filled. I’ve seen massive files withheld because they’re deemed “intra-agency material,” though exempt external correspondence was included. Another typical reason/rejection response: “It’s all being discussed with counsel, and is therefore privileged.”


My Valero request was sent to town code enforcement and the town attorney. Code enforcement rejected it, saying deputy town attorney Bill Duffy directed them to do so because the information, “if disclosed, would interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings.”

That’s a particularly lame excuse in this case. I contacted Mr. Duffy, but he didn’t return my calls. Because this rejection was so blatantly wrong, I thought about appealing it. I then remembered Mr. Duffy is also the town’s designated FOIL appeals officer; that battle was already lost.

Though an issue of minor consequence, this matter was so simple and straightforward that it made a great example; I contacted the Committee on Open Government (COOG), the state agency that oversees FOIL implementation. In response, the COOG assistant director made many useful observations.

Specifically on the denial of Valero information, she said: “If the agency has issued a notice of violation or a summons for violation of a zoning code, such notice would be required to be made public upon request for various reasons — one, it is likely that it is part of the public record at the courthouse; two, it would represent a final agency determination, which is required to be made public pursuant to section 87(2)(g); three, it would be difficult, if not impossible, in my opinion, for an agency to show that a record such as this if disclosed, would interfere with an investigation or judicial proceeding.”

(About the common “discussed with counsel” excuse, COOG said: “Merely because records are discussed with an attorney does not make them attorney-client privileged.”)

These are strong words, and it appears that Mr. Duffy is unequivocally wrong. If he returned my phone calls, I’d tell him so.

The point is not that secrets are being kept about the Valero sign (though they are); the point is that every day, residents are routinely and illegally blocked in their efforts to get information about the workings of this town.

It’s not always by denial. A taxpayer sought landfill records and was prepared to pay the 25¢ per page copying fee. The FOIL officer said the taxpayer must first pay $125 to have the 600-page file redacted … after which he could look at the pages, decide which he needed, and then pay copying costs. Outrageous. (Did the town charge this “redacting fee” multiple times for the same file?)

To be clear, plenty of folks working at Town Hall understand their job is to serve the public, and seem to enjoy doing so. Prompt and courteous assistance on some FOIL requests is not uncommon. The town clerk’s office, for example, is unfailingly helpful and incredibly efficient.

Yet, in some areas information is given grudgingly, and every request is treated as a nuisance. The town attorney’s office seems consistently prone to naysaying, foot-dragging, and abusive decisions. This must change.

Last year, Supervisor Walter and three council members joined town attorney Bob Kozakiewicz at a COOG forum on FOIL implementation. Was that just for show?

Back to Valero. The sign went up in 2008. In January 2009, Riverhead filed suit in state Supreme Court against the owner. Since that filing, there have been four motions, two conferences, 91 adjournments, and 0 decisions, with no activity since August 2010. (This info is from the court system website.)

Taxpayers deserve to know: 1) what actions code enforcement officers took before the lawsuit was filed; 2) whether the town sought injunctive relief to — at the very least — turn the sign off; 3) whether fines are being imposed and collected for this small-but-flagrant violation; 4) why there’s been literally no progress on this case in over three years.

The town’s position is that we’re not entitled to know any of these things, even though the state FOIL committee says that’s wrong.

Town attorneys are hired by, and take direction from, the Town Board. Voters who find this behavior troubling should remember that the incumbent supervisor and council members are extremely unlikely to fix this pervasive problem. We need representatives who will treat residents with greater respect, and who will obey the law.

Larry Simms owns a home in South Jamesport and is a principal in a firm that licenses commercial flooring technology. He is active in savemainroad.org, an advocacy group dedicated to preserving the character of the Main Road corridor and surrounding areas.

08/03/13 8:00am
Riverhead ZBA

TIM GANNON FILE PHOTO | Riverhead ZBA members at a Jan. 24 meeting in Town Hall.

Larry Simms

Larry Simms

Attorney Pete Danowski didn’t ask for my help. We’re not friends; we’re not enemies. I write neither to criticize, nor to praise, his behavior.

Discussion of Danowski’s role in Riverhead development is a huge distraction from the real problems. People often view him as the bad guy when things go wrong; I couldn’t disagree more. To me, he’s both predictable and irrelevant.

Every town has its Danowskis. If Pete left Riverhead tomorrow, others would rush to fill the void, cultivating relationships with people on planning and zoning boards and with staff in building and planning departments. (Yes, this makes for choppy ethical waters.)

Danowski’s job is to advocate for his clients’ interests, and he’s clearly good at it. Sadly, Riverhead taxpayers lack advocates of their own. Developers have deep pockets for hired guns to get permits and variances; concerned citizens typically can’t afford attorneys.

That would be OK if town staff and appointed board members were appropriately skeptical, recognizing that most things Danowski’s clients want are inherently not in the town’s best interest. But our representatives are far too deferential; they rarely mount a challenge.

At a recent ZBA hearing on Costco lighting, Danowski claimed fewer, taller poles would deliver improved aesthetics and fewer cars bumping into lights. The discussion was anecdotal and subjective, lacking any data on lighting performance. He didn’t offer, and no ZBA member asked about, lumen output, footcandle distribution, cutoff angles, glare, color temperature or efficiency — all things you’d want to know to make an educated decision on a lighting code variance (or, if you live next door).

Why didn’t these facts matter? Is anyone gullible enough to believe the developer’s goal is improved aesthetics, or that light pole accidents are a real problem? And why did no one ask the obvious: How much money would the builder save by eliminating two-thirds of the poles?

Danowski said gas pump lights need to be brighter “for security;” ZBA members didn’t ask how other stations manage with lights that comply with code and “dark skies” rules. He also said, “LED lights are brighter,” which is simply false; LED fixtures can deliver any desired lighting level.

The same process played out with far greater consequences when Danowski argued that his client would be doing the town a favor by clearing the entire Costco site. No one objectively reviewed the pros and cons of this proposal or did any sort of cost-benefit analysis. The Planning Board was quick to accept the developer’s assertions that less truck traffic during construction was worth losing 11 acres of forest, forever. Planning Board chairman Richard O’Dea apparently believed the developer’s stated reason: “We don’t want to disturb the neighbors twice.” Really?

Separately, in addition to saving the developer millions, this decision cost the town $374,000 in fees on imported fill.  Why is that OK?  Why did Planning Board members and staff fail to mention it?

Still worse is the brazen way in which Town Board members are laying blame elsewhere. Sean Walter said: “I am very unhappy that these shopping centers clear-cut these sites, and I’m a little surprised that the Planning Board let them do it.” That remark alone should cost him the election.

It’s a “fail” on two levels. First, the Town Board handpicks Planning Board members; by their appointments, they bear major responsibility for clear-cutting. Further, as Walter once said: “In my world, we’re the elected officials, but when we ask the Planning Board to do something, we sort of expect them to do it, because we’re the ones people vote in.”

There have been warnings about the dangers of packing boards with cronies who are unqualified and/or have political agendas. (See here and here.)

With the Costco actions and many more, we now reap what Town Board members have sown.

Second, no Town Board member has apologized for issuing a land clearing permit, without which the developer couldn’t take the “wood” out of Foxwood. That vote was 4-0, and one council member was quite enthused: “We waited a long time and I vote yes.”

That the permit was issued two weeks before the Planning Board “findings” vote makes it even more disturbing that Town Board members blame others for the excess clear-cutting.

Their recently proposed new tree-saving law is as ludicrous as it is transparent. In trying to divert attention from the Costco debacle they caused, Town Board members ignore the fact that zoning and planning boards could neuter any such law, one project at a time.

A hero in this mess deserves to be recognized. Planning Board member Joe Baier voted “no,” and for the right reasons: He saw clear-cutting 11 acres with no plan to build anything as a raw deal. We desperately need more planning and zoning board members inclined to objective analysis and independent thought.

No incumbent Town Board member is likely to make such appointments. Voters should remember that these zoning and planning choices have a more profound impact on Riverhead’s future than anything else our elected officials do. This November, the odds are high that any candidate not presently serving on the Town Board will improve it.

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, an advocacy group dedicated to preserving the character of the Main Road corridor and surrounding areas.