Column: How to do something while doing nothing

TIM GANNON PHOTO | Frank Fish of BFJ Planning speaks to the audience at last week’s meeting on the effects of rezoning in Wading River.

One of my first assignments as a cub reporter was to cover a presentation on a feasibility study aimed at controlling flooding in Elkton, Md. The study cost the county $300,000, at a time when I was making $22,000. I couldn’t comprehend it. I worked day and night. What was so hard about a study? And what does feasibility mean anyway?

I figured out what it all meant, eventually. Locally elected leaders wanted to make it look as if they were doing something about flooding in Elkton. If you want to know how that effort is going, just Google “Elkton flooding” and watch the YouTube video that pops up.

Spoiler alert: It’s not going so well.

So when the Riverhead Town Board voted last year to spend $42,000 for a planning study in Wading River, I wasn’t too optimistic this was the answer to the concerns of so many people in the hamlet. What it was, really, was a chance for Town Board members to point to something come election time, when that little old lady at the debate asks, “What are you doing about overdevelopment in Wading River?”

“Well, you see, ma’am, we’ve commissioned this study …”

In reality, the study isn’t worth more than the paper it’s written on. Any zoning changes the study calls for likely won’t affect a single one of the five big development projects that have so many people in Wading River so concerned — concerned enough to pack St. John the Baptist Church and Town Hall for two presentations in recent weeks.

The Great Rock clubhouse expansion isn’t on Route 25A, to which the study is confined. The study doesn’t make recommendations for any Route 25A property west of the Wading River-Manor Road intersection, although a large commercial project called Venezia Square is planned for land there.

Developer Kenn Barra’s Knightland property at the Sound Avenue intersection wasn’t included in the study because a civic group has sued over the project’s Planning Board approvals. (Yes, for some reason the firm can’t give an opinion on what would be best suited for this land because a civic group has sued. Sounds like a cop-out to me, like someone somewhere finding a reason not to get too involved with potentially derailing this project.)

So what’s left to study, after the arbitrary reasons to not study too much? There’s the Zoumas property next to CVS, also slated for development, but the town already tried to rezone that land through its master plan. Mr. Zoumas sued to have the original zoning restored. He won. The town isn’t likely to try again to change his zoning.

Across from the Zoumas land are three contiguous pieces of farmland totaling 22 acres. A project called North Shore Country Plaza is planned for one of them and is probably heading to the town Planning Board before the Route 25A study is completed. What happens then if the town tries to change the zoning? Litigation like the kind Mr. Zoumas won.

That leaves just three properties on Route 25A truly subject to the study, maybe 15 acres in all, and on which no development is currently planned. And one of the three parcels is a 1.8-acre triangle of land just west of the Sound Avenue streetlight. I’m not sure there’s much to worry about with that piece.

So, when all is said and done, two developable chunks of farmland in Wading River may be rezoned (and there are likely to be protests over that rezoning as well, as civic leaders have expressed concern that proposed zoning would still permit too much development). And this is going to be done using expert suggestions that are costing Riverhead taxpayers $42,000. The town planners could have re-examined those parcels and proposed those changes in an afternoon.

But then, what to tell that little old lady?

Michael White is the editor of the Rivehead News-Review. He can be reached at [email protected] or (631) 298-3200, ext. 152.