Some different takes on proposal for more public input

A proposal to require Riverhead Town’s planning board to hold public hearings on commercial site plan applications was praised by some speakers in Town Hall Wednesday as an attempt to give the public necessary input into planning the future of their communities.

But it was also criticized by other speakers at the same Town Board hearing as potentially slowing down the review process and hurting businesses.

“Most towns do have public hearings on site plans,” deputy town attorney Bill Duffy said at a hearing on the proposal Wednesday.

Riverhead Town is one of the few towns that do not hold public hearings on site plans.

Most site plans, which are applications for commercial development, are reviewed by the town planning board, except those in downtown Riverhead and the former Grumman property in Calverton, which are reviewed by the Town Board.

The planning board also reviews residential subdivision applications, for which public hearings are required.

Unless a zoning change, special permit or variance is required, site plans do not currently require public hearings.

Mr. Duffy said the proposed change would establish a two-stage application process for site plans, in which a preliminary site plan would be submitted, a hearing would be held on that plan, and then a final site plan would be submitted incorporating whatever changes were suggested at the hearing and through other methods.

“The question is how long will it take to go through a process in this town,” said attorney Peter Danowski, who frequently represents developers on applications before town agencies. “When you have site plan that requires no special use permit or variance from the town, you should anticipate that you have a right to build.”

Mr. Danowski expressed concerns about the proposed two-stage process, which he feels will “chase businesses out of this town.”

He added, “When I look at this proposed legislation, I see nothing but prolonging the time periods” for applications before the town.

Riverhead architect Marty Sendlewski also opposed the measure.

“There should be no public comment, it’s as of right,” he said of site plans that comply with zoning and don’t require variances or special use permits.

He said if a proposal is deemed to be a so-called “type one” action, which requires a environmental impact study, then public input is already required through that process.

Several representatives of environmental or civic groups supported the proposed change, including Sid Bail of the Wading River Civic Association, Dominique Mendez of the Riverhead Neighborhood Preservation Coalition, Jen Hartnagel of the Group for the East End, and Bill Toedter of the North Fork Environmental Council, who sent a letter.

“Providing the opportunity for public comment is one of the most vital components of community planning,” Ms. Hartnagel said. “There is nothing more valuable and constructive.”

However, those groups objected to a sector of the proposed law that would make the change applicable only to new applications. They felt that applications currently before the board should be required to undergo public hearings too.

The groups also urged the Town Board to require that all planning board meetings be held at night, when more people can attend, they said.

The planning board currently has a formal meeting at night on the first Thursday of each month, and a work session in the afternoon on the third Thursday of each month.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said he likes the idea of having one meeting at night and one in the day because it brings in different audiences.

The planning department also holds informal meetings with developers on Tuesday mornings to go over applications. The planning department consists of the planning professionals who review plans, while the planning board consists of civilians appointed by the Town Board.

The Town Board took no formal action on the proposed change and held the hearing open for written comments until Sept. 16.

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