Suffolk program, town zoning key for Community Life Center

TIM GANNON PHOTO | Community Life Center supporters showed up at Town Hall Thursday.
TIM GANNON PHOTO | Community Life Center supporters showed up at Town Hall Thursday.

A little-known Suffolk County program could serve as a life-line for the First Baptist Church’s long-proposed Family Community Life Center on Northville Turnpike.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | First Baptist Church on Northville Turnpike in Riverhead.
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | First Baptist Church on Northville Turnpike in Riverhead.

That program, called the Suffolk County Workforce Housing Transfer of Development Rights program, would allow development rights taken off land that the county has purchased for open space preservation to be used, at no charge, to allow additional development on affordable or workforce housing programs that meet county guidelines for such housing.

Those guidelines include a requirement that 100 percent of proposed units be affordable, and that the units remain affordable. The program was created as part of a countywide voter-approved “Save Open Space” bond act in 2004.

The only other way the project could be approved as planned — under a draft zone change for the church property that the Town Board also discussed  at its work session on Thursday — would be for First Baptist to purchase millions of dollars in transferred development rights from farmland within town, something church leaders say they can’t afford.

The Family Community Life Center, which would be built on the church’s 12-acre Northville Turnpike campus, would include, among other things, a gym, indoor pool, fitness center, community center and 132 “workforce housing,” or affordable, apartment units.

The Town Board in the past has balked at creating new zoning that would allow the number of apartment units the church is seeking, which would amount to more than 10 per acre.

And the Long Island Farm Bureau had argued earlier this year that to allow that kind of building density increase without requiring the applicant to use transferred development rights purchased off farmland would circumvent the purpose of the TDR program, which was to preserve farms while higher density would be allowed in more suitable areas.

The TDR program allows developers to buy development rights from farms to increase the amount of commercial development they can build in areas like Route 58. The farms from which the credits came could only be used for farming once the development rights are purchased.

The farm bureau has maintained that the as-of-right density, in this case one unit per acre, should remain in place and any additional density should require the use of TDR.

In this case, in order to get 132 units, the Family Community Life Center developers would need to purchase 121 TDR credits, which at an average of $65,000 per credit, said to be an average for TDR rights, would come out to about $7.8 million.

“That will almost surely kill the project,” Cleveland Johnson Jr. of StrategicFundraising Inc., which is working with the church on the project, told the Riverhead Town Board earlier this year.

The Rev. Charles Coverdale, the pastor of the church, who has been planning the Family Community Life Center project on and off for almost 30 years, said this week that there’s no way the church can afford to buy that many TDR credits.

He said the church is hoping the county program can help.

The income from the apartments is meant to subsidize the other uses in the complex, Mr. Coverdale has said.

Meanwhile, the town is drafting a proposed Community Benefit Zoning Use District that would permit the project, but would also allow similar projects in other areas of the town that have 10 acres of land, at least 800 feet of frontage on a county or state highway, and public water and sewer connections.

The Town Board has tentatively planned a Nov. 6 hearing on the measure.

“The [Town Board’s] biggest issue from my perspective is concerning the density of the dwelling units,” deputy town attorney Bill Duffy said in discussing a draft of the proposed zoning code at Thursday’s Town Board work session, where officials and representatives from the church discussed the issue and the room was filled with supporters of the project, none of whom spoke.

The draft zoning code maintains the property’s one unit per acre as-of-right zoning, but states that additional units could be built if the developer uses development credits from the town’s TDR program or the county’s Workforce Housing TDR program.

The county’s Workforce Housing TDR program would allow the project to use TDR credits from the county for free, according to both Guy Germano, the attorney for the church, and Rick Hanley, the town’s planning director.

Mr. Hanley acknowledged afterwards that he was not familiar with the county program before this week.

Councilman George Gabrielsen questioned how many credits the program had.

“Is that reality?” Mr. Gabrielsen asked of the plan to use the county program.

He also said afterward that he was not familiar with the program before this week.

Mr. Hanley said the county had an inventory of development rights taken from land within Riverhead Town which were purchased for open space, adding that the program has a land bank for development rights credits.

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio expressed concern about the possibility of using development rights taken from open space purchases outside of Riverhead Town.

“It doesn’t make sense to take rights from property in another town,” she said.

Mr. Duffy said he was unsure if the county program identifies where the rights came from.

It was unclear how many credits from the county program would be needed  for one project as its envisioned.

Town Board members also said they planned to include buffering requirements in the proposed new zoning district, and informally agreed that a 25-foot minimum buffer should be required between any project and its neighboring properties.

“We’ve had the occasion to tick off some neighbors recently and we don’t want to do that anymore,” Supervisor Sean Walter said, alluding to the clear cutting of trees the town allowed at the Costco development on Route 58, which abuts two large residential communities.

The draft of the proposed Community Benefit Zoning Use District discussed Thursday also includes a requirement that at least 40 percent of the site be reserved for vegetated open space.

Permitted uses in the proposed zone would include residential uses, owner-occupied single-family dwelling units with attached professional offices; a Community Center, day or nursery school; recreational uses including parks and playgrounds, swimming pools and outdoor sports facilities; and houses of worship. The proposed zone requires a combination of the permitted residential and non-residential uses.

In addition, the proposed zone requires all facilities within the community center to be available to the general public and limits fees charged for use of those facilities to be limited to those necessary to defray expenses.

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