Guest Column: Wading River follies aren’t helping anyone

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | A heavy traffic day on Route 25A in Wading River.

Aeschylus said, “In war, the first casualty is truth.” In the battle about overdevelopment in Wading River, more than a thousand residents have turned out at community meetings; sent emails, postcards or letters; or come to the Riverhead Town Board in person. There are legions behind them.

So, before I express my opinion, let’s stop debating the facts and accept them.

• First, this conflict is not about developers’ private property rights. Nobody disputes them and they’re protected by law. The developers are going to build; there’s no dispute. But residents have rights, too. The right to peacefully enjoy their property and to be spared from nightmare traffic, zoning that won’t work and diminished property values.

• Second, zoning authority is conferred on towns by the state. It’s intended to protect the citizenry and not to guarantee developers’ investments. Government has no obligation to assure the success of real estate investments any more than they do stock market investments, bonds, precious metals or pork bellies. And there is no legal prohibition against towns’ changing zoning for the benefit of the many, even at the cost of a few. Towns may legally upzone or downzone for any legitimate purpose.

• Third, courts do not substitute their judgment for that of municipalities. When land-use decisions are overturned by the judiciary, it is always because local government failed to provide a rational basis for its decision or broke laws governing the project review process. It is a false claim that if government doesn’t give developers everything they want, the courts will.

• Fourth, Riverhead decided to exclude from the corridor study the development dubbed Knightland proposed for a parcel on Route 25A. The reason cited by BFJ Planning, which conducted the study, is that a lawsuit has been brought by citizens against their government. Ironically, the suit was brought because the town, in approving the Knightland shopping center plans, failed to consider the cumulative impacts of the Knightland property in combination with the other properties in the corridor. Go figure.

• Fifth, as part of the town’s planning consultants’ study of Route 25A on the Brookhaven side of the town line in Wading River, economic experts determined that Wading River could absorb only about 23,000 square feet of additional retail space. The current BFJ plan calls for 123,000.

• Sixth, the most recent version of the constantly changing plan calls for more commercial development — over 200,000 additional square feet — and a reduction in the amount of open space sought by local residents. Is the plan getting better or worse on the basis of community input?

• Seventh, at its March 1 work session, instead of discussing what development Wading River needs and what it doesn’t, the Town Board went parcel by parcel, discussing what zoning it would grant for development of each property. Then, it set the March 6 Town Board Meeting as the time to decide the date for a public hearing on the flawed plan. How’s that for proper planning?

• Eighth, developers’ attorney Peter Danowski says that absent changes to the Wading River plan, developers are likely to sue. So are citizens. While some say that the people of Wading River will accept anything they can get from town government, the fact is that if an adopted plan doesn’t protect the hamlet, the town will be sued again – this time not by developers who want to earn big bucks in a recession but by citizens who care about their community. Count on it.

Now, in my opinion. BFJ Planning failed to recommend a plan that reflected local input or one that would work for the citizens or the developers. If too much retail development is proposed, not only will existing businesses be hurt but the new developers will be cannibalizing each other. Wading River needs a mix of retail, housing, professional offices and community services. The Town Board should put every interested planner in a room and charge them not with accommodating a few developers but rather with producing a plan that works economically and in terms of quality of life for everyone. That must happen before a public hearing is held on a faulty plan that serves nobody.

Mr. Amper is the executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, an environmental nonprofit group based in Riverhead.