Update: Walter set to meet Senate and Congressional staffers Friday for EPCAL help

NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | The section of rails hat ends at Metro Terminals of Long Island.

Hoping to rally federal support for the town’s effort to subdivide and sell some 800 acres of town-owned land in Calverton for private development, Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter has scheduled a meeting for Friday with representatives of U.S. senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and Congressman Tim Bishop, officials said.

Frustrated with stalled state legislation to create a commission to oversee and fast-track development proposals at the Enterprise Park at Calverton — and fearing that the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s vision for EPCAL would adversely affect development efforts there — Mr. Walter wrote to the federal leaders last week asking for help.

The supervisor has also reached out to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office for a face-to-face about the town’s plan.

“I get the sense in speaking to people [in state government] that some don’t believe this project is real,” said Mr. Walter, who believes the skepticism stems in part from the town’s past failed efforts to sell and develop the land, most notably a proposed project involving an indoor ski mountain.

“Over and over, I hear from state staff members that we’re paying for the sins of the father,” he said, “by not doing what the DEC wants, and projects that just about everyone in New York State was laughing about when we were talking about Dubai-type ski mountains.”

Some 2,900 acres were conveyed to the town by the U.S. Navy in 1998 with the provision that the property be used for economic development to replace jobs lost when the Grumman contractor ceased operations. Another 3,000 acres were given to the state DEC for conservation at that time, Mr. Walter said. Having already sold some land in the developed “industrial core” at the former F-14 fighter test facility, the town hopes to sell and develop about 800 of the 2,100 acres it still owns, with the rest being preserved. (Other parts of the property are still owned by the Navy as it works to remediate soil and groundwater pollution.)

“The federal statute requires this property be used as economic development,” Mr. Walter said, adding that he believes elected leaders — not staffers at the DEC or elsewhere — should ultimately determine how the property is developed.

That’s the case he hopes to make to federal officials at 11 a.m. Friday in Town Hall.

Mr. Bishop’s office acknowledged Friday the congressman had received Mr. Walter’s letter and that an aide would attend.

“We hope to lay the groundwork before then for a productive session that will clarify the issues affecting development at EPCAL and forge a path forward,” said Oliver Longwell, the Bishop aide who will meet with the supervisor. Mr. Bishop is a supporter of EPCAL as a regional jobs hub.

Mr. Longwell noted that Mr. Bishop helped secure $4.8 million in stimulus funding in 2010 to extend a freight rail spur to the property to help with commerce there.

Spokespeople with Mr. Schumer and Ms. Gillibrand also confirmed office staffers would be attending the meeting.

Mr. Walter said he had hoped Gov. Cuomo would also be represented at the meeting but no one from his office could attend.

The town’s proposed EPCAL commission legislation, introduced by state Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), passed in the state Senate but failed to get out of committee in the Assembly at the last legislative session in Albany.

“Senator LaValle, he’s been a huge supporter and he’s trying,” Mr. Walter said, “and Assemblyman Dan Losquadro is energized about our EPCAL efforts. But really we need the governor to get energized about this. And I think the combination of his support and trying to get a meeting with our federal senators and congressman, I think we can get there.”

Mr. Walter said an Oct. 4 News-Review editorial suggesting federal help may be needed at EPCAL inspired him to contact the federal representatives.

Town and DEC officials have been meeting since the town commissioned an almost $500,000 planning, marketing and environmental study in January 2011, with the first major step being to help hammer out the subdivision map. The subdivision is needed before the town can legally sell individual lots at EPCAL. Whereas the previous Town Board sought to sell large sections of the land — one proposed deal involved 755 acres and another 300 acres — this plan would chop the owned land into some 50 smaller lots.

But the DEC is demanding a bird study, which could take years, Mr. Walter said, adding the state agency is also demanding that all grasslands at the property’s northern end, near existing runways, be preserved for birds like the protected short-eared owl.

He said such a plan would preclude the sale and development of 60 to 70 percent of “prime real estate” along Route 25, where the town envisions placing a parallel service road and then selling parcels on both sides of the new road.

Mr. Walter says the DEC‘s subdivision plan, which would include 750 acres, not the town’s proposed 800, isn’t conducive to development.

“So we’re supposed to be close [in acreage], but in reality, the DEC’s plan would only see about 560 acres developed because the plan is so disjointed and doesn’t involve building anything on or near the existing runways, not a single blade of grass,” he said.

DEC and town officials have fought for years, often loudly and publicly, over differing views on development at EPCAL. The DEC has said it’s critical to protect sensitive species such as the tiger salamander and the short-eared owl.

“No application has been submitted yet,” DEC spokesman Bill Fonda said in an email about the DEC’s thoughts on the subdivision issue. “DEC staff is working with the town and its consultant in a cooperative effort to identify/clarify habitat areas to be protected as part of the subdivision map.”

The DEC also worked with the town when it subdivided the industrial core, Mr. Fonda said.

He also called Mr. Walter’s assertions that the DEC was demanding a bird study “puzzling,” because recent talks between DEC staff and town consultants have focused on advancing a subdivision plan without waiting for a bird survey which might otherwise be required.

“DEC staff continue to collaborate with the town and its consultant in a cooperative effort to agree upon a subdivision plan that will meet the town’s objectives and satisfy regulatory requirements,” Mr. Fonda said. “To say that DEC staff have  ‘demanded’ anything is simply inaccurate.”

The town and DEC officials last met on Sept. 2 and are expected to meet again soon, officials said.

In the meantime, Mr. Walter said “some on the Town Board” are starting to lose faith in the subdivision efforts, which would also require the town to undertake some $45 million in infrastructure upgrades, including $30 million in necessary sewer plant upgrades. The town had applied for a $6 million grant to help get started with the sewer work, but that money went elsewhere, Mr. Walter said. The supervisor hoped more state economic development grants would help fund more work at the park.

On Saturday, Councilwoman Jodi Giglio told the News-Review an Argentina-based group that last year offered to build a polo complex at EPCAL was preparing to make a new proposal this week to purchase a smaller portion of the land for polo grounds.

The new plan, she said, would develop 450 acres at EPCAL and does not include up to 400 residential units, which were included when the group first pitched its plan and drew criticism from some town officials.

“From what I’ve been told verbally, they can live without the housing,” Ms. Giglio said, adding that any transient housing on the property would be for the jockeys, owners and horses.

Ms. Giglio said polo group representatives “reached out to me on numerous occasions” and said they would be ready to close on a deal within six months.

“I want to see it on paper before I can actually take it to the board, but I think it fits in with the character of Riverhead,” she said. “I think it would be great for our wineries, it would be great for our catering facilities, it would be great for our hotels.”

Ms. Giglio said she’s not losing faith in the town’s current plans, but at the same time she doesn’t want to “turn a blind eye to other offers.
“The polo was an alternate plan in the study,” she said. “It seems now the DEC is spot preserving on the property which limits the ability to develop the property in an orderly and systematic fashion. The grass is growing; time is precious with this site.”

Mr. Walter said that if the town’s subdivision plans were to be scrapped, it would be up to the polo group — or whoever else wanted to buy property — to undertake creating its own subdivision, then figuring out where the company could build, as per the DEC.
He said he does not have faith that the polo group could build a complex, considering the DEC’s requirements.

“The reality is, in the areas that the DEC has laid out for us, polo would not be available,” he said, “because it’s not contiguous. And really I don’t even know what land we have to sell. If we went and tried to sell [the polo group] one block and the DEC wouldn’t let the project go forward, and then we went and tried to sell to someone else and the DEC wouldn’t let you sell that block of land, it really becomes unmanageable.

“It makes no sense to do anything but continue down this path [with a town subdivision], in my humble opinion.”

Mr. Walter has said the grasslands will eventually turn to forest anyway, thereby no longer being conducive feeding grounds for the owls.

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with Paul Squire