Staffing shortage in Riverhead planning department spurs proposal

Supervisor Sean Walter and councilman George Gabrielsen. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)
Supervisor Sean Walter and councilman George Gabrielsen. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

Since Riverhead Town’s planning department only has one full-time planner this year, officials have expressed concern that the department could become backed up in reviewing applications.

To counteract this, Town Board members are considering a proposal that would allow developers to hire a private planning or engineering firm to do much of the review work currently completed by the planning department, effectively speeding up the process. The planning department would then review the work submitted by the private engineering or planning firm to make sure it complies with town regulations. 

Supervisor Sean Walter, who suggested the idea, said similar systems exist in North Hempstead Town and Port Jefferson and Islandia villages.

“Basically, when you file a permit application, what happens is, if they want an expedited review of that application, they have three or four vendors they can go to and speak directly to them, and negotiate the price with them,” Mr. Walter said at last Thursday’s Town Board work session.

“By the time it comes to the town, the review is pretty limited,” Mr. Walter continued. “The town would receive the same amount of fees as usual. The only reason to do this is if someone says it’s taking a long time to get through the review process and they have the ability to spend money and work with a private engineering firm.”

He added, “They don’t have to do this if they don’t want to.”

The supervisor said he feels the town planning department often ends up doing work for applicants who have submitted poorly done plans, and that the department is essentially getting paid to do applicants’ work.

The town already does something similar with reviews of storm water pollution prevention plans, which are farmed out to private engineers for initial review.

Jeff Murphree, town planning and building administrator, had concerns about the proposal.

He said many of the consulting firms with plans before the town don’t know town code. Finding companies that don’t have clients before the town is also difficult, he said.

Mr. Walter said the town would pick three or four consulting firms and train them on town code.

Board members also discussed having the town pick which firm would review each application and then sending the bill to the applicant — as opposed to letting the applicant pick the firm and negotiate the price.

This would require the town to first establish set fees for application review, Mr. Walter said.

“I’m not sure I like it,” Councilman Jim Wooten said of the proposal. “I think the town should be sterile of the whole process. Why should the town be directing them to certain consultants?”

The board will need to hold a public hearing before the proposal can be enacted. Officials will also need to issue a request for proposals for planning and engineering firms wishing to participate.

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