Community Life Center supporters pack Town Hall for hearing — but questions remain

TIM GANNON PHOTO | The Town Hall meeting room during Wednesday's public hearing.
TIM GANNON PHOTO | The Town Hall meeting room during Wednesday’s public hearing.

First Baptist Church’s proposed Family Community Life Center received overwhelming support from speakers at a public hearing before the Riverhead Town Board on Wednesday, with backers of the project including representatives from heavyweights Riverhead Building Supply, Suffolk County National Bank, Peconic Bay Medical Center, Long Island Housing Partnership and NYSERDA.

A petition with more than 1,700 signatures in support of the project was also submitted.

But the president of the Riverhead school board, Ann Cotten DeGrasse, voiced opposition to the mixed-used project being tax exempt, though she said she supporting the overall concept of the plan.

Other speakers raised concerns that the language of the proposed overlay district — a crucial legislative compwould allow the plans to move forward and which was actually the topic of the public hearing — doesn’t include any requirements that a community center be built in conjunction with affordable housing.

If built as currently envisioned, the Family Community Life Center would include an Olympic-size indoor swimming pool, a 25-seat theater and media center, 24-hour adult and child day care services, an indoor walking track, gymnasium, fitness center, classroom space and 132 affordable apartment units intended as “workforce housing” for the area.

It would be located on the church’s 12-acre property on Northville Turnpike. First Baptist has been planning the project for more than 25 years.

Project planners added the housing component as a means of generating revenue to subsidize the rest of the on-site facilities.

Since no one existing zoning category in the town code permits all of the proposed uses on the same property, the town was asked to create a new zone for projects like this, and, with the help of First Baptist leaders, came up with a proposed overlay zone called the “community benefit” district.

The zone would allow a community center and workforce housing on land that meets certain criteria, including having 10 or more acres of land with at least 800 feet of frontage on a county or state highway as well as public water and sewer connections.

Wednesday’s public hearing was on the creation of such a district. In order for First Baptist’s property to have this district applied to it, another public hearing would be needed.

Speakers such as Edgar Goodale of Riverhead Building Supply, Demetrios Kadenas of Peconic Bay Medical Center, Larry Williams of the town’s recreation advisory committee, Roger Clayman of the Long Island Federation of Labor, and Jennifer Appel of the Long Island Housing Partnership said the area desperately needs the day care, elder care, recreation programs and affordable housing that the Family Community Life Center proposes to bring.

“Long Island is going through a revolution, in terms of whether we can keep up with the rest of the world,” said Theresa Sanders, the president and CEO of the Urban League of Long Island. “We are losing our young professionals. ”

She said many go to schools on Long Island and then leave the area because they can’t afford to live here. Ms. Sanders said the lack of elder care is another problem in the area.

“My mother has to go to work with me sometimes,” because there is no one to stay with her during the day, Ms. Sanders.

Jennifer Appel of the Long Island Housing Partnership, an affordable housing advocacy group, said there is a lack of multi-family and affordable housing in the area.

“A diversity of housing is necessary to allow this area of the community to thrive,” she said.

Ms. DeGrasse, the school board president, said the  board “is not opposed to the zoning change, the school board is not opposed to the Family Life Center, the school board is not opposed to workforce housing, the school board is opposed to it being tax exempt.”

She said that the district is constrained by the state-imposed two-percent budget cap and has lost about 50 teachers in the last three years. The district also was “surprised” by the enrollment of 200 more students this fall, she said, and added that it costs between $15,000 and $16,000 per child per year to educate a student in the Riverhead district.

“If you open workforce housing on tax exempt land, we don’t receive any taxes,” Ms. Cotten DeGrasse said.

Rev. Charles Coverdale, First Baptist’s pastor, has said the church land is already off the tax rolls, so the town won’t lose tax revenue. He said the church has offered to provide payments in lieu of taxes for police, fire and ambulance service at the First Community Life Center. He also has pointed out that Riverhead School Superintendent Nancy Carney spoke in support of the project on a video that was made about it, and which was shown at Wednesday’s Town Board meeting.

Dominique Mendez of the Riverhead Neighborhood Preservation Coalition, a civic group, pointed out that the wording of the proposed overlay zone defines and permits a community center, but doesn’t require that one be built in conjunction with affordable housing.

She expressed concern that a developer could build the housing without the community center under the working of zoning.

Ms. Mendez and realtor Larry Oxman also said the town has to be careful that the zoning is not being written specifically for this project, which would be illegal, and that it apply to other areas in town.

Ms. Mendez said she has asked to see a list of other properties in town where the Community Benefit district could apply, and has not been provided with it yet.

Mr. Oxman said he supports the overall concept of the zone, but thinks the town needs to “tweak” it.

Board members closed the public hearing, but left it open for written comment through Nov. 14.

In addition to the zone change, the project also will need more than 100 development rights credits to be able to built 132 units of housing, since the current zoning on the property would only allow 12 units.

The proposed zoning would allow the density increase if the applicant uses transfer of development rights from farms or county affordable housing credits, which come from land purchased as open space.

The farmland credits for that many units would have to be purchased, at a price of more than $7 million, something Rev. Coverdale says is too expansion.

But the county open space credits, if awarded by the county, would come at no cost to the church, so long as the credits are used for affordable housing.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone recently pledged the county’s support for the project, although he did not specifically mention the open space credits.

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