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Parishioners fear for safety at Methodist Church

Members of the Riverhead United Methodist Church on East Main Street are appealing for help from Riverhead Town to stop damage they say is being done to the church from the pile-driving work underway at the Riverview Lofts apartment project across the street.

“The possibility that the steeple will come down with the two-ton bell on top of it is red-hot high,” said Larry Scudder of Riverhead, a former trustee at the church, at Wednesday’s Town Board meeting.

The town also received four letters regarding the issue with the church, including one that urges people to write to Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), since the Riverview Lofts project received some federal money.

“As a lifelong member of the Riverhead United Methodist Church, I am writing to you to express my grave concerns about the current safety, security and soundness of our church building,” Shirley Simon wrote in a letter asking the town’s help.

She said “plastic is falling, cracked walls in the balcony are worsening and the windows are bulging.”

“It is so disheartening to witness this physical damage which is getting worse every day that the pile driving continues,” wrote Robert and Donna Gregory in another letter to the town.

John Reeve, in a letter to Mr. Zeldin, wrote that the church sanctuary walls have developed cracks, the pews are being jarred from their place, the bride groom’s room has ceiling plaster on the floor, the inside doors won’t close, the 1917 stained glass windows are bowing and panes are developing cracks, and the Parish House has broken window panes.

“How will the federal government explain the desecration of this historic church?” he wrote.

Pile-driving work on Riverview Lofts, a planned 116-unit, five story “mixed use” development that features affordable apartments and ground level retail and restaurants, began around early March and representatives from the 150-year-old church, as well as the 116-year home next door to it say they soon began noticing cracks.

The piles are required in order to build in a floor zone, according to Riverhead Town senior building inspector Brad Hammond.

The church recently hired H2M Architects + Engineers to inspect the potential damage, and they reported:

“Vibrations from the pile operations are causing the leveling support sands of the foundation wall to migrate and shift out of the wall … Continued vibrations can cause the shifting and dislodging of the foundations stones, jeopardizing the structural integrity of the building foundation.

“Additionally, many areas throughout the church and parsonage building are showing signs of movement as observed by numerous cracks in the walls and ceiling.”

David Gallo, the president of Georgica Green Ventures, the developer of Riverside Lofts, told the News-Review last month that he requested an independent review of the vibrations, and that report, done by J.R. Holzmacher PE, LLC, stated:

“The cracks identified in the photographs are not indicative of recent settlement. Many of the cracks are smooth and some even containing multiple patched attempts. This indicates that settlement in the existing structure has been occurring over a long period of time, prior to the construction activities taking place.”

But Mr. Scudder said the damage is clearly getting worse since the pile driving began.

“The amount of damage that we are incurring at the moment on a daily basis is unbelievable,” he said Wednesday night. “We have a half-million dollar organ which is being destroyed, we have stained-glass windows that have been in place for over hundred years are now bowing.”

Mr. Scudder says the damage has gotten worse since the work began.

“If you stand in the sanctuary, you can feel it,” he said.

The church organ was serviced at the beginning of the year and has been damaged since then, he said.

“If we had known they were going to start this pounding the way they are, we would have had an engineering company come in to document everything that was there previously so people couldn’t say the building has settled over 170 years,” he said.

“We have expressed the same concern that you have and we have been in contact with the church and the attorneys from the church, as well as the developer,” Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith responded at Wednesday’s meeting.

There are vibration monitors that have been placed in the basement of the church and the home next to it, as well as the church parsonage building.

Mr. Hammond told The News-Review last month that monitors are set to go off at 0.3 inches per second, which is considered a level when vibrations are unsafe, but thus far, they haven’t had a reading higher than 0.1 inches per second.

Ms. Jens-Smith reiterated those readings Wednesday, and said thus far, there is no structural damage.

Both the developer and the town will be notified immediately if the vibration monitor goes above that threshold, and the work will be stopped, officials said.

But Mr. Scudder said those monitors measure vibrations at the base of the buildings, which is not where the damage is happening. He said he’s concerned about stain glass windows falling into the church, as well as the steeple possibly collapsing.

“If that steeple comes down, sports fans, we’ve got a big problem,” Mr. Scudder said.

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said the job could have been done with a method that involved screwing the piles into the ground rather than pounding them, but that method was not used.

Both Mr. Hammond and Mr. Gallo said there have been no changes to the method that was approved in the site plan approval for the project.

Ms. Jens-Smith and Ms. Giglio said the town will continue to monitor the situation.

“It’s of grave concern to us,” Ms. Jens-Smith said.

Mr. Gallo told the News-Review last month that if the construction work causes damage to a neighboring building, “I would make it right.”

Approximately 550 steel piles are expected to be driven into the ground over an eight-month period, according to environmental impact study for the project that the developer voluntarily submitted to the town.

“The installation of piles should not be problematic to the neighborhood with respect to noise or vibration,” the environmental impact study stated.

The vibration monitoring is being done in the Methodist Church, which was built around 1869, in the church parsonage just east of that, which was built around 1870, and in neighbor Arlene Doroszka’s home, which was build in 1902.

All three structures are located within a historic district, as recognized by the National Register of Historic Places.

Photo caption: Residents asked the town’s help regarding damage at the Riverhead United Methodist Church Wednesday. (Credit: Tim Gannon)

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