Guest Spot: It’s time to start fresh with EPCAL

As a child you probably have memories of turning over your Etch-a-Sketch and shaking it to get a blank screen so you could draw new pictures. That is, in essence, what the Riverhead Town Board is about to do at the Enterprise Park at Calverton, or EPCAL. The former Grumman property has been at the core of many bad plans and dreams. We had the failed Wilpon housing proposal and talk of a movie studio and a full-time carnival. Most recently, two transactions fell by the wayside as the Rechler deal became a housing proposal and the ski mountain folks could not meet their contractual deadlines.

So now the slate is clean and we begin anew. With EPCAL unencumbered let’s craft a real plan that will tap the site’s true potential as a high technology economic generator for our region — one that is tied to the institutions we know, such as Stony Brook University, Brookhaven National Laboratory and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. The wonderful part about this is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel to get such a vision accomplished.

Recently, the Town Board and I visited Devens, Mass. Devens is a stretch of land cut across four towns and is the site of the former army base, Fort Devens. Upon the fort’s closing, the land was sold to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for reuse. What we saw in Devens were attractive, well-maintained buildings housing companies like Bristol Myers and a host of other clean employers. Unlike Riverhead, Devens got it right, and local and state officials have turned their land into a productive parcel that creates clean jobs and tax base.

Why did Devens do it right and we are floundering? I think for two major reasons.

One, we tend to politicize EPCAL. Each campaign season brings with it new gimmicks and schemes for projects that “might be coming soon” to the former Grumman site, all of which have no real backing, plan or prayer of ever coming to fruition. For all too long, EPCAL has been the place you go if you have a dollar and a dream. That might make for good headlines but it doesn’t make for sound development and tax base.

Two, our approach to EPCAL has not been all that comprehensive. Right now if a potential developer has a project they’d like to bring to Riverhead they have to visit our planning department, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, New York State Department of Transportation, Suffolk County Department of Health and Human Services and myriad other agencies before the developer can receive approval to stick a shovel in the ground. This is a two-year process loaded with red tape. There are too many competing agencies and too many voices in the mix, and the approval process is too cumbersome.

So how do we put EPCAL on a path that will yield results and create clean, well-paying jobs that will create tax base for

Riverhead? I think we need the following simple action plan:

One, we need to update our reuse plan for EPCAL that will once and for all make certain what uses shall and shall not be permitted, along with a defined set of development criteria . Once we have put the use debate to an end we can begin to recruit businesses that match our vision for the land, a vision I believe should be tied to hi-tech innovation clusters.

Two, we need to create a clearinghouse agency that will unite all the voices in the permitting process under one roof. At Fort Devens, a potential business owner can go from the concept stage to obtaining building permits within 75 days. It is a sad day when New York State cannot even compete with Massachusetts.

I am not advocating that the town lose control over development at EPCAL, but, look, we have been at this for 12 years and we have not even come close to recreating what the town lost when Grumman left. The streamlined approval process will allow developers certainty as they look to invest in these tough economic times. If a CEO knows he or she can receive approval for a project by a definite date, that will go a long way toward the selection of Riverhead as a future home.

There is nothing unique in Massachusetts that means the people there can develop Devens and we in Riverhead and in New York cannot develop EPCAL. It simply takes a vision and follow-through. Recently, I met with Senator Charles Schumer to discuss his plan to unite the strength of Brookhaven National Lab, Stony Brook University and Cold Spring Harbor Lab under one roof to create a “Silicon Valley East.” Given our resources and people, there is no reason such a plan cannot become a reality. These are the kinds of projects we should be angling for at EPCAL so that our valuable land brings us wealth, tax base and prosperity — and is not just a field of dreams.

Mr.Walter is the Riverhead Town supervisor and an attorney. He lives in Wading River.