Editorial: Behind-the-scenes work on EPCAL smacks of political cowardice

EPCAl in Riverhead, FAA
NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | A view of the EPCAL site from the sky.

After years of fighting, it appears Riverhead Town and the state Department of Environmental Conservation are close to reaching a consensus on what land is developable at the town-owned Enterprise Park at Calverton, and what needs to be preserved as open space.

And by consensus, we mean the town has given up fighting over whether the grasslands by the EPCAL runways, which were once used for testing fighter jets, should be preserved for migratory birds.

It looks like Riverhead will get to develop about 600 acres on the land that was given to the town for economic development to compensate for the jobs lost when the Grumman Corporation left.

This, after the EPCAL reuse plan approved by the federal government in 1998 identified more than 2,000 acres that could be developed at EPCAL. And just a few years ago, the town planned to sell two EPCAL parcels comprising 1,055 acres, though the deals fell through.

How did the town lose all this land without a penny of compensation?

It appears the state is requiring the town to protect EPCAL grasslands for endangered birds. But birds can fly, and preserved grasslands exist at the 385-acre Otis Pike Preserve across Route 25. Supposedly, the only reason the birds started feeding by the runways is because the town didn’t cut the grass there during all the years the land sat unused.

If you believe the town got stiffed, you can blame bureaucrats, the system, politics and small-minded and short-sighted town officials. But it’s hard for the public to tell. The process by which we learn of decisions on EPCAL matters is shadowy and often secondhand, based on town officials’ descriptions of closed-door meetings between town representatives and staff at the DEC, or just DEC officials themselves.

The regional director of the DEC isn’t allowed to speak directly to the media, so questions must be addressed to public relations people, sometimes based in Albany, who never seem to answer them fully.

The people making the decisions on the state end are not elected, it seems.

So where were our elected state leaders through all of this, when town taxpayers and the region as a whole needed real leadership?

They never seem to say much of anything. State Senator Ken LaValle and outgoing Assemblyman Dan Losquadro — and before him, Assemblyman Marc Alessi — should have been out there, taking a stand on this issue.

Do they support preserving hundreds of acres for birds at the expense of development or not?

They should let the people know, one way or the other. But it seems they prefer to work (read: hide) behind the scenes and collect the endorsements of environmental organizations while never taking any responsibility for the decisions being made by state agencies.