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Public forum scheduled to discuss height of downtown buildings

How tall should new buildings in downtown Riverhead be?

That’s been a hot topic recently since the Riverhead Town Board in November discussed a draft proposal to limit the height of downtown buildings.

In December, a group of downtown property owners complained that their input was not being included in these discussions, despite the fact that they affect their properties.

Last Thursday, Riverside Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said the board will hold a public forum on the issue on Thursday, Jan. 31 at 6 p.m. at Town Hall.

“We have been saying we’d like to have a community session to present parts of the rough draft we have,” she said.

The most controversial proposal called for reducing the maximum height of new buildings in the Downtown Center-1 zone from five stories (60 feet) to two stories (24 feet), but while allowing developers to increase the height to four stories if they used transfer of development rights.

TDR is a program where development rights are removed from agricultural land the town seeks to preserve, but in turn, those rights can be used to increase building development on properties where the town feels additional development is warranted.

The property owners group said the town’s 2003 master plan allowed five story buildings with apartments on the upper floors and retail on the ground floor, and that this is what’s leading to a revitalization of Main Street.

“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 on the back of the theater, at a recent meeting.

“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.”

Martin Sendlewski, an architect who represents several downtown landowners, said that the TDR proposal was akin to taking something away from property owners and then making them buy it back.

Ms. Jens-Smith said the proposal is just a “rough draft” and everyone will have a chance to get input.

The Jan. 31 meeting will be the first such opportunity, although officials say there will likely be several such forums.

At Thursday’s work session, town building and planning administrator Jeff Murphree presented a memo with eight issues that have been up for debate on the downtown zoning issue.

The TDR issue was number one, and building height was number two.

But officials decided to deal with building height separately, and didn’t discuss the TDR issue.

Ms. Jens-Smith said afterward that there seemed to be consensus on limiting the south side of downtown Main Street to four stories, but there wasn’t consensus on the height of new buildings on the north side of downtown Main Street.

She said there might not be consensus to requiring TDR at this point, which is why the height issue was discussed separately.

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