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Riverhead Town Board votes in favor of Calverton Aviation & Technology

After months of deliberating, the decision is in: The Riverhead Town Board has voted in favor of Calverton Aviation & Technology as being qualified and eligible to purchase approximately 1,640 acres of town-owned land at Enterprise Park at Calverton.

The 3-2 vote Wednesday night went along party lines, with Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith and Councilwoman Catherine Kent voting no. The Republican board members, Tim Hubbard, Jodi Giglio and Jim Wooten, all voted yes.

“This is the best thing for Riverhead,” said Councilman Jim Wooten, who cast the deciding vote to proceed with the $40 million sale.

Stuart Bienenstock and Justin Ghermezian were present from Triple Five.

Mr. Bienenstock, who was hugging people and receiving congratulations after the meeting, said the next step is the subdivision, which is a pre-requisite to transfer of the land to CAT.

“We have a critical path that we will follow that includes the due diligence and the subdivision,” he said.

Mr. Hubbard, who was seen as the swing vote on the issue, said the project began to get his interest when it was announced that Daniel Preston, the controversial founder of Luminati Aerospace, would be a non-voting partner in CAT. Luminati still owns 25 percent of CAT.

Mr. Hubbard and Ms. Giglio had voted against the original agreement in which Mr. Preston played a larger role, although the board majority approved the agreement by a 3-2 vote, with two board members who were leaving office voting with Mr. Wooten.

Mr. Hubbard said his interest was furthered when Triple Five bought the former Dowling School of Aviation property in Brookhaven Town to complement the aviation and technology site they sought to build at EPCAL.

“It’s a big hurdle and it’s been a long time coming and I am very excited to see what CAT is going to do with that property,” he said after the meeting. “I’m absolutely thrilled to get this back on the tax roles and the creation of jobs in aviation and technology are going to be a huge benefit.”

Ms. Giglio also cited the move to make Mr. Preston a non-voting member of CAT as a key in her change of opinion on the proposal. She also said the removal of housing from the plan and the preservation of the EPCAL bike path also were keys.

She said the CAT proposal would generate $4 million in annual property taxes and would create jobs in fields like coding, robotics and 3-D printing.

Ms. Jens-Smith and Ms. Kent, along with many of the speakers from the public at Wednesday’s meeting, cited the continued association with Luminati, and the vagueness of the development plan put forth by CAT along with the fact that Triple Five’s background is mostly in building large shopping malls in casting their votes against the Q&E designation, which is needed in order to sell town-owned land in an urban renewal zone like EPCAL.

They both also cited Triple Five’s reluctance to provide financial information the town asked for.

“I know after decades of starts and stops, it is very tempting to say yes,” Ms. Jens-Smith said in her remarks.

But ultimately, she said, she felt she could not verify CAT’s claims.

Shortly after the vote, CAT sent out a press release saying that “Over the next decade, CAT intends to leverage several billions of dollars of private investment to transform this significant asset into a world-class aerospace technology, innovation and high-tech manufacturing hub.”

The Calverton Aviation & Technology Hub, as they called it, “seeks to create a critical mass of companies in a new aerospace cluster.”

CAT will build a minimum of one million square feet within the first five years after the transfer of the property, the release says.

“The site is primed for development with Navy built infrastructure that includes sewer, freight rail access, and two non-intersecting runways, which at 10,000 feet and 8,000 feet are two of the longest runways in the country,” CAT said.

The process to ultimately determine whether Calverton Aviation & Technology, the joint venture between Triple Five and Luminati Aerospace, is qualified and eligible has been drawn out since the beginning of the year. The original hearing date in January was postponed due to weather. Residents packed the first portion of the hearing Feb. 27 and it was extended to a second date in March. The Town Board held written comments open until April 6.

But the process slowed to a halt shortly afterward as the Town Board sought additional financial information. And a question over whether Ms. Giglio should be allowed to vote held up the proceeding. The Town Board had put off deciding that issue until the Riverhead Ethics Board made a recommendation after The Coalition Against EPCAL Housing had brought a complaint against Ms. Giglio in April saying her decision to meet privately with CAT’s principals in Manhattan March 12 “tainted the qualified and eligible public hearing process.”

The ethics board ultimately recommended that Ms. Giglio should be allowed to vote. The Councilwoman said she was trying to do her “due diligence” by meeting with CAT in Manhattan.

CAT’s principal is Triple Five Group, which built the Mall of America in Minnesota and the West Edmonton Mall in Canada, among other projects.

The company said it plans to build industrial and aviation uses at EPCAL. In August, CAT provided documents to the town that it said shows it can secure the $40 million needed to complete the purchase.

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Photo caption: The packed Town Board meeting for Wednesday night’s vote. (Credit: Tim Gannon)