Tarmacs in Calverton could get turned into grasslands

NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | An aerial view of Calverton Enterprise Park.
NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | An aerial view of Calverton Enterprise Park, looking south.

As consultants for Riverhead Town develop a subdivision map for the town to sell land at the Enterprise Park at Calverton, the state is asking that the plan incorporate turning one of two runways at the property into grassland habitats.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation at one point wanted the town to cover over both runways with grass. But now, the DEC is only calling for the western runway — which is no longer used for aviation — to be covered with soil and grass for birds and wildlife.

That’s according to Kevin Walsh of VHB, the firm the town is paying about $500,000 to develop a subdivision plan and environmental study at EPCAL.

Town officials say they are now hoping to develop about 600 acres at EPCAL, which is almost 200 less than originally planned.

Mr. Walsh updated the Town Board on the status of those plans at Thursday’s Town Board work session in Riverhead Town Hall.

But Mr. Walsh said he was concerned because a DEC staffer talked about having a “one-to-one” ratio of development to preservation acres, which would call for more than 640 acres of grassland to be preserved.

Supervisor Sean Walter said the town isn’t giving up any more acreage.

“This has to be it,” Mr. Walter said Thursday. “The town has done far more than the original statute conveying this property from the federal government ever envisioned.”

About nine months ago, VHB presented a “preferred alternative” subdivision for EPCAL that showed about 41 lots on 800 acres of the site. The lots ranged in size from five to 35 acres and the plan preserved about 270 acres of grasslands on the land, near the active, eastern runway, Mr. Walsh said.

This was the area that the town at one point planned to sell to Rechler Equity Partners, who planned to build an industrial park there until the deal fell apart in 2010.

But Mr. Walsh said that in subsequent meetings with DEC staff, “they were not happy with the loss of the existing grasslands” and they suggested an alternate subdivision proposals, which identified 750 acres suitable for development — scattered all over the property.

“It was not contiguous and it did not provide for efficient development where we could connect all the utilities and infrastructure needed for the lots,” he said.

“It also eliminated a lot of the lots on Route 25,” which the town considered to be the most valuable lots, he added. By scattering the lots, it creates additional cost for extending the infrastructure, Mr. Walsh said.

After that, DEC officials came back with a compromise plan calling for the entire eastern runway and the southwest portion of the westerm runway to be covered and seeded, Mr. Walsh told the Town Board.

“Basically, put top soil over the runways and throw some seed down,” he said.

This plan would preserve about 500 acres of grassland, he said.

The most recent plan, which town officials discussed with DEC staff on Dec. 14, called for 38 lots on 610 acres and the preservation of 495 acres of existing grasslands on the site, Mr. Walsh said.

It would keep the eastern runway for aviation use, but would require most of the western runway to be covered and seeded with grass.

Despite Mr. Walsh’s concerns, Mr. Walter said he got the impression DEC officials were happy with the compromise plan, and he believes the town is close to getting subdivision approval from DEC.

EPCAL was given to the town from the U.S. Navy in 1998 for economic development to replace the jobs lost when the Grumman fighter jet testing facility left in 1995.

“We’ve now gone from [developing] 800 acres to 600” as originally planned, he said. “The town has to say, enough is enough. You’re getting 500 acres of grassland.”

Mr. Walter said it’s also important that the town be the “lead agency” in the review of the subdivision and not the DEC.

He says the town will not file the subdivision application until the lead agency issue is resolved.

“If you file an application, the DEC will take lead agency and you will wind up getting nothing you want,” he said. “I’ve had several consultants say to me that if DEC gets lead agency and gets to do what they want, then it’s probably not worth pursuing anymore.”

He also said it’s important that the town present a unified front before the DEC, noting Riverhead council members Jodi Giglio and Jim Wooten met with DEC separately in December.

The town has hired former Congressman George Hochbrueckner as a lobbyist on EPCAL issues before the state and federal government. Mr. Hochbrueckner was the congressman who wrote the legislation to turn the land over to the town for economic development.

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