Town Hall Notes: 25A planning firm defends its findings

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Traffic on Route 25A in Wading River.

So how could the same planning firm recommend way more retail development for the Route 25A corridor in Wading River in a study done for Riverhead Town than it did in a similar study for Brookhaven Town less than two years earlier?

That was one of the prime questions raised Thursday at a Riverhead Town Board work session discussion of the ongoing Route 25A corridor study.

The meeting brought together representatives of civic and environmental groups and some of the owners of lands slated for development along the Route 25A corridor in Wading River.

BFJ Planning, which is conducting a corridor study for Riverhead that applies just to Wading River, completed a Route 25A corridor study for Brookhaven Town last year that covered the same roadway from Mount Sinai to Wading River.

The Brookhaven study includes an economic analysis of the Wading River Zip code area by Urbanomics, an affiliate of BFJ Planning, that included the Riverhead Town portion of Wading River, according to Todd Okolichany of BFJ Planning.

“You estimated that an additional 140,000 square feet of retail or restaurant use was needed along the entire Route 25A corridor in the Brookhaven study, which includes Wading River,” Dominique Mendez, president of the Riverhead Neighborhood Preservation Coalition civic group, said at the meeting. With Wading River being 18 percent of the study area, the RNPC extrapolated that to mean that, according to the Brookhaven study, an additional 25,000 square feet of retail or restaurant use was needed specifically in Wading River.

BFJ Planning’s Riverhead study says Wading River can handle 88,000 square feet of additional retail or restaurant uses.

“That a pretty big change in just a year or two later,” Ms. Mendez said. “That’s a really big change.”

Mr. Okolichany responded that the Brookhaven study was done in 2010, during the throes of a recession, and that the economy is expected to improve.

In addition, he said, the Brookhaven study only looked at Wading River in a “snapshot” at that time, and didn’t project future population or employment growth in the area, as the more in-depth Riverhead study does.

The Brookhaven study also didn’t take into account the impact of tourist or drive-through traffic, such as traffic passing through Wading River to visit vineyards or farm stands, Mr. Okolichany added.

The Brookhaven study tried to determine how much of Wading River’s population was traveling elsewhere for retail or restaurants, or if people from outside Wading River were coming there for those services, Mr. Okolichany said. It found that Wading River residents were spending $86 million elsewhere on retail and restaurants.

Richard Amper of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society served as a moderator for Thursday’s meeting and did not voice any opinions then, though he did afterwards.

He was critical of the decision by the town and BFJ not to make any recommendation for the property involved in a proposed retail center called Knightland, which has already won Planning Board approvals, because it is involved in litigation. The RNPC sued the Planning Board after it approved Knightland developer Kenn Barra’s proposal for the land, at the corner of Route 25A and Sound Avenue

“How can we plan without talking about Knightland?” Mr. Amper said in an interview. “It’s in litigation because [the Planning Board] didn’t consider the cumulative impacts of the Knightland project.”

Mr. Amper was also critical of a comment by town planning director Rick Hanley, who suggested that instead of shifting properties from their current Business CR zoning to Multi-Family/ Professional Office use, the town leave everything as is and create an overlay district for these properties that would allow developers to choose Business CR, MRP or, possibly, senior citizen housing.

“That’s a complete abdication of planning,” Mr. Amper said. “That’s like saying, ‘Why don’t you just do what you all want to do?’ ”
Sid Bail of the Wading River Civic Association, who also participated in the work session discussion, called Mr. Hanley’s suggestion “absurd. That’s the kindest thing I can say about it.”

As for the overall meeting, Mr. Bail said, “I think there is still a lot of work to do in terms of coming to some sort of agreement or consensus. There still needs to be work done on reducing the intensity of development.”

But Mr. Amper said he thought the meeting went well overall.

“I think there was agreement that everyone can’t do retail,” he said afterward. “Not just because it would be bad for community, but it would put all of them out of business.”

Mr. Amper said he thinks there was agreement that the economic analysis was flawed and that the civics, environmentalists and developers all think the BFJ plan is flawed.

The owners of three of the properties slated for development also participated in the discussion, although they didn’t speak until the end of the meeting.

Mary Zoumas, whose husband, John, owns property slated for retail and restaurant development next to CVS on the south side of Route 25A, disagreed with BFJ’s earlier recommendation to rezone his property from business to MRP. The Town Board has since backed off that suggestion, but still plans to rezone some business properties on the north side of Route 25A from business to MRP.

Ms. Zoumas believes MRP zoning would be a detriment to the Shoreham-Wading River School District and that the district would oppose it on the grounds that it could increase school enrollment.

She also said she is “hesitant to accept that this is coming from the community.” She feels opposition to the development on Route 25A “is just coming from Dominique’s group.”

She said she’s talked to people who want more commercial development in Wading River.

Kenn Barra, whose Knightland project has met with opposition, as did a project he proposed for Park Road and Sound Avenue in the Reeves Park area, said the town “has not been nice to me at all.”

“You’ve got to understand where I’m coming from, I’m getting burned so many times,” he said.

Mr. Barra owns a vacant parcel across the street from the Zoumas property and said he’d eventually like to build retail and a restaurant there as well. It is one of the properties slated to be rezoned to MRP.

Supervisor Sean Walter said afterward that the town is “still struggling with what uses will work” on Route 25A.

He said he thinks the MRP zone will be valuable to the landowners and that there will be a demand for it.

He also said he found Mr. Hanley’s idea of an overlay zone “interesting” and feels that age-restricted senior citizen housing, which can qualify for additional density under town zoning, is an option that should be considered, but not as an only allowed use.

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