Democrats calling for moratorium on downtown housing plans


Riverhead Town Democrats are calling for a moratorium on new downtown residential plans until a development study is completed.

During the public comment portion of Thursday’s Planning Board meeting, Laura Jens-Smith said she believes the town should finish the Brownfields Opportunities Areas study prior to allowing any housing construction to take place.

Commonly referred to as “BOA,” the comprehensive plan that’s nearly four years in the making is aimed at revitalizing Main Street.

Ms. Jens-Smith, a Laurel resident running for town council, said she believes new residents taking up parking spots from shoppers will place a burden on taxpayers, as opposed to developers, and asked the Planning Board to recommend to the Town Board place a moratorium on construction of downtown residential buildings.

“They could be up and there before anything even gets a chance to be reviewed,” she said about new apartment buildings, adding the town should first determine if new housing proposal are compliant with the study’s recommendations.

The area to be studied consists of 452 acres and stretches from West Main Street by Tanger Outlet Center to East Main Street near Hubbard Avenue including downtown Riverhead. This section of Riverhead qualifies for the grant because 18 potential “brownfield” sites have been identified within the study area, town officials said. These include former gas stations, auto repair sites, duck farms, dry cleaner properties and sites with fertilizer contamination.

Fellow Democrat and town supervisor challenger Anthony Coates also asked the Planning Board to convey a message to the Town Board.

“It does seem to me that we’re a little study crazy and then we rush to enact legislation that’s contrary to the study before the study has even had a chance to come in,” he said. “I don’t know if this is necessarily the right body to lecture about that, but if you can communicate back to the Town Board that before they put things in the hopper they should at least wait for the studies they said were so important.”

Realtor Larry Oxman then took a turn at the podium and disagreed with Mr. Coates and Ms. Jens-Smith’s claim.

“I agree there’s going to be issues with parking, but to suggest a moratorium? Might as well put up a sign downtown for developers that says ‘Go Away,’” he said. “This is just not the right message.”

The discussion came after town building and planning administrator Jefferson Murphree updated the board about the Long Island Workforce Housing Act, legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Fred Thiele that went into effect January 2009.

The law states all housing proposals of five or more units must include at least 10 percent of workforce housing.

Site plans approved prior to 2009 are excluded.

Mr. Murphree said he wanted the board to be aware of the legislation since new projects coming down the pipeline will be required to adhere to the legislation, which requires the affordable units to be either on site or, if the property owner has land elsewhere, transferred to another location. The third option is to charge the developer a fee, a calculation to be determined by the town.

Planning Board member Ed Densieski expressed displeasure over the requirement and described it as “another unfunded mandate.”

“Riverhead Town is getting more workforce housing because we have the property to subdivide,” he said. “I understand people need places to live, but we are the workforce housing of the East End, so we’re going to have the impact to the school district.”

The Planning Board also discussed Peconic Crossing, a 48-unit apartment building that aims to establish affordable housing for artists on the current site of the Long Island Science Center.

Planning Board member and firefighter Stanley Carey said Riverhead Town Fire Chief Joseph Raynor has been “pretty stern on wanting rear access to the building” through Peconic Avenue.

Peconic Crossing representatives said there is access all around the building and they went over the plans with the Riverhead Fire Marshal to determine that the proposal adheres to code requirements. They also said there’s enough room for emergency vehicles to pass under the building.

“I don’t know that a firetruck would go through an enclosed building if there was a fire,” Mr. Carey countered.

He said he’ll show Chief Raynor the latest plans and the Planning Board is expected to continue discussions about Peconic Crossing’s road access at its Aug. 30 meeting.

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Photo caption: From left, Democrats Anthony Coates and Laura Jens-Smith during their “No More Excuses” tour of blighted downtown properties last month. (Credit: Tim Gannon, file)