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Agriculture, tourism and preservation: Residents weigh in at latest comprehensive plan forum

Riverhead Town’s transfer of development rights program needs help.

That was one of the comments repeated throughout the latest comprehensive plan update last Wednesday at Town Hall. 

The theory behind the program is that development credits can be taken from land that the town wants to preserve and moved to property where the town feels additional development is warranted. 

Riverhead farmer Phil Schmitt, who said he sold 50 of his 56 development right acres on Roanoke Avenue, said a farmer he knew several years ago had his development rights in hand, but he had nothing to show for it.

“He gets his certificate, but the land isn’t preserved until he sells them,” Mr. Schmitt said. 

Jefferson Murphree, the town’s building and planning administrator, said a possible solution for that is the creation of TDR bank, which would be controlled by the town.

“This way, the farmer gets equity sooner [rather] than later,” Mr. Murphree said. “When the developer wants to buy some, they don’t have to go looking for them, they can come to the town.”

Farmland and open space preservation were the top issues in a survey undertaken as part of the comprehensive plan update, with 70% of respondents casting their vote that way. 

Reuse of vacant retail space on Route 58 was next (56%), followed by reduced traffic congestion (54%), downtown revitalization (50%) and natural resources and environmental protection (50%).

But the plan says that agriculture is still an important employment generator and farmland preservation is a priority.

It acknowledges the need to update the TDR program, and says that “agritainment is an important economic driver but there is a need to mitigate adverse effects like noise and traffic.”

The draft plan says there are approximately 15,000 acres of agricultural land in Riverhead and about 8,900 acres of farmland in the town’s agricultural protection zone. 

But only 313 acres have been preserved through 2021 by TDR, according to the town. 

Nearly 6,400 acres in Riverhead Town have been preserved through Suffolk County’s Purchase of Development Rights program through 2021, according to the county. 

Another suggestion of the draft plan was to make the RB80 zone in Laurel a sending district for development rights and to make the three other zones in Calverton into development rights receiving areas. 

The survey says that about “27% of the respondents felt that expanding agritourism and agriculture events and programs is not needed.”

Bob Skinner of Jamesport said that “70% of the people I know are not in favor of what agritourism will bring in.”

Jamesport residents have recently complained about noise coming from weddings and outdoor events on farmland in Jamesport. 

Allowing farmers to market their products directly to consumers is one of the draft plan’s suggestions. Supporting farm stands and expediting farm stand review is another.

Mr. Schmitt said he’s been farming in Riverhead for about 40 years and farming has changed a lot since then. 

“I never wanted to do retail, but we’re doing retail, and we’re looking at trying to expand it and trying basically to survive,” he said. 

“We’re in a very expensive area to try and grow food to feed people. It’s just not feasible here, but on the retail, maybe we can. So keep a real open mind to it.”

The draft plan also briefly discussed the recent legalization of recreational cannabis. 

“Cannabis growers are investing in Riverhead farms,” the proposal said. “But potential issues include lighting, security and traffic.”