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Downtown Riverhead building owners oppose height reductions

Several owners of property in downtown Riverhead told the Town Board Tuesday that reducing the maximum allowable height of buildings from five stories to two — and requiring property owners to buy farmland development rights in order to increase their heights — will kill any progress that has been made downtown.

These owners have formed a new group called Riverhead Downtown Property Owners Coalition and say they plan to monitor the Town Board’s dealings with downtown zoning.

“The revitalization of Riverhead has started, and it started because of five floors,” said Suffolk Theater owner Bob Castaldi, who has plans to build a five-story apartment building on the back of the theater. “There’s a definite interest and it’s going to continue. But if you even contemplate cutting down that zoning to two stories, or three stories, you will stop this revitalization as sure as it has started.”

“So far, from what we’ve seen, I promise you, you will kill the downtown,” said Richard Israel, who also owns property in downtown Riverhead.

The Town Board has been having weekly discussions on proposed changes to downtown zoning at its work sessions and building height has been a major part of those discussions.

The 2003 master plan and the zoning changes recommended by it allowed the maximum height in downtown Riverhead to go from three stories to five, as long as the upper floors were apartments. Since that zoning was enacted, a number of five-story apartment complexes have been built downtown, with more in the proposal stages.

But concerns have also been raised about having too many five-story buildings, and the fear that it would create a “canyon effect.”

On Nov. 2, the town planning department released a draft proposal that was discussed at a work session which would reduce the maximum height downtown from five stories (60 feet) to two stories (24 feet) on an “as of right” basis, while allowing developers to buy transferred development rights to buy additional floors, up to four stories (48 feet).

Martin Sendlewski, an architect representing downtown property owners, said this proposal would take away 60 percent of their property rights, while allowing them to buy those rights back using the transfer of development rights from preserved farmland.

“You seem to think this legislation is in some adoptable form,” Councilman Jim Wooten replied to Mr. Sendlewski. “It’s not. It’s still a working document.”

He said there is still a long way to go, and that there will be a final document that everybody will have input on at some point.

“This is just the beginning of a work in progress,” said Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith.

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio urged the downtown group to pay attention to Town Board work sessions. She said the board majority had informally agreed to go to a public hearing with some of the proposed changes, something Ms. Jens-Smith said is not true.

Ms. Giglio and Councilwoman Catherine Kent said they welcome the input of downtown property owners. The group had said the town has been planning the downtown zoning changes without input from property owners.

Mr. Sendlewski said the downtown property owners would like to be able to appear before the Town Board at a work session to give their input.

Ms. Jens-Smith agreed to schedule such a meeting.

“This is a big deal that we take seriously,” Ms. Kent said. “It’s not something that we’re rushing. It’s something that we’re taking our time with and we definitely want to hear from the community and hear what the property owners have to say.”

Ms. Kent said revitalizing downtown is a lot more involved than simply working on the height issue. She said the board has discussed other issues like walkways, bringing art into downtown, public spaces and different design elements.

“I do think there’s room in Riverhead for taller buildings, but I don’t think that slapping a bunch of five-story buildings on the north and the south sides of Main Street will be the only thing that will revitalize our downtown,” Ms. Kent said. “I disagree that some changes in the code will kill the revitalization.”

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Photo caption: Martin Sendlewski spoke at the meeting. (Tim Gannon photo)