Costco developers look to clear trees to save money

TIM GANNON PHOTO | The Costco store in Holbrook.

The developers of a proposed shopping center on Route 58 that would include a Costco anchor store have shrunk the project by 77 percent of what was originally proposed three years ago, but they still want to clear the woods where the added development was originally slated.

The plans leave only about 30 feet of natural vegetation along the boundary of the Foxwood senior citizen housing complex to the north.

Now, the Riverhead Planning Board is asking them to take a closer look at their plan.

Shops at Riverhead, planned for the 41-acre former Hazeltine property between Riverhead Auto Mall and Out East Family Fun on Route 58, was originally slated to encompass almost 500,0000 square feet of construction, which would have made it the second largest shopping center in Riverhead Town behind Tanger Outlets.

In order to build a shopping center that big, the applicants, who call themselves Heritage Riverhead Retail Developers, LLC, had proposed purchasing 139.7 units of development rights from farmland slated for preservation in the town. The town’s transfer of development rights program allows developers to increase the amount of construction they can build in certain areas of town if they purchase a specified amount of development rights from farms in agricultural zones, thereby preserving the farms.

But the applicants have since decided to build a shopping center that doesn’t rely on the use of transferred development rights, at least for the time being, and they are proposing about 270,000 square feet of development, which is what the zoning permits as of right.

Foxwood residents had raised a number of concerns about the proximity of the proposed shopping center to their homes when it was first proposed about three years ago.

The layout presented to the town now shows the northerly quarter of the site  — closer to the senior complex — unoccupied by buildings or other infrastructure, but it also shows this area as being entirely cleared of the trees currently there, then re-vegetated with landscaping, according to town environmental planner Joe Hall.

The applicants claimed in their final environmental impact study that they wanted to clear the woods in order to do a “balanced cut and fill,” wherein they would avoid having to import sand to, or export sand from, the site by using the sand already there. Using the on-site sand would save the group money. Clearing the woods also would make it easier to develop this portion of the site further if the applicants decide to buy development rights in the future, Mr. Hall said.

“At some point, there could be future expansion,” planning director Rick Hanley said.

Because of this, the town Planning Board on Thursday voted to accept the project’s final environmental impact study, a document begun three years ago, but that acceptance was contingents on several conditions.

One of the conditions was that the applicant would also study the impacts of not clearing the trees in the northern quarter of the property, Mr. Hall said.

“We must also consider the current long-term value of this expanse of forest as a visual and noise buffer, as well as its natural history benefits,” Mr. Hall said in a letter to the applicants. He said the town’s site plan ordinance “stipulates that extensive clearing and grading are to be avoided if possible.”

The Planning Board wants the applicant to provide information comparing the clearing option to the option of importing sand for the job, before the final environmental impact study is formally accepted.

The board wants the applicant to detail the number of acres proposed to be cleared, the total number of cubic yards of sand they could get from clearing the site, and the number of truck trips that would be required to import that same amount of sand.

“We’ll wait for receipt of the resolution and we’ll address the comments,” said Peter Danowski, the attorney for the applicant.

The Planning Board must first formally accept the environmental study before it can begin considering the project’s site plan application.

Aside from Costco, the applicant hasn’t announced any other prospective tenants for the project, and last month received Zoning Board of Appeals approval to erect a large sign saying Costco is coming and seeking other tenants.

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