Riverhead Town Board considers new aviation restrictions at EPCAL

In the wake of vocal and sustained opposition to a deal to sell portions of Enterprise Park to Calverton Aviation Technology, Riverhead officials are considering their next step in efforts to restrict virtually any aviation uses on the property.

The Riverhead Town Board is considering a zoning amendment to the prohibited land uses at EPCAL that would include specifically banning commercial passenger air traffic, cargo airports, flight instruction and training, aeronautic services and aircraft rentals.

The proposed amendment would not impact “emergency” aviation uses, such as air tankers to battle wildfires and would continue to allow for what Town Attorney Erik Howard described as “more minor activities such as fueling, hangaring, tie down and parking, which uses would be ancillary to some other, permitted principal use in that zoning use district.”

Mr. Howard said the amendment would also prohibit future property owners from “having the runways listed with federal and state agencies, and enter into covenants that … solidify the permitted uses” on the property.

The proposed zoning amendment is part of the Town Board’s effort to keep all but emergency flights  off of the two runways — one 10,000 feet long and the other 7,000 feet — at EPCAL.

In October, the Town Board voted unanimously to cancel a 2018 contract to sell more than 1,600 acres at EPCAL to Calverton Aviation and Technology. The vote came  one day after the town’s Industrial Development Agency denied the developer’s application for financial assistance in the form of tax breaks.

At the time, the developer issued a statement suggesting the company would sue the town.

“Given CAT’s obvious qualifications to develop this project and its enormous investment of time, money and energy to comply with all of the town’s requirements, CAT will … take all steps that are necessary and appropriate to protect and preserve its right to acquire and develop the project,” the statement read.

On Monday evening, a spokesperson for CAT declined to comment on the public hearing.

When some residents argued that the language in the proposed amendment was not comprehensive enough to fully protect the property from aviation uses by future owners, Deputy Town Attorney Annemarie Prudenti suggested that the board add a phrase clarifying that the property is “not open to the general public.” The board also seemed willing to add the word “freight” to the prohibited uses.

Ms. Prudenti said both clarifications could be added to the amendment’s existing language without the board having to rewrite and reissue a notice for the amendment.

Residents at the meeting were generally pleased with the proposed amendment, once it was clarified what the prohibitions would cover, but were concerned about the lack of a specific prohibition against “general aviation.”

Ms. Prudenti said that the amendment “does not open up EPCAL and its runways to general aviation.

“It simply does not … the language is intended to be as restrictive as it is, and be consistent with the environmental record going back to the date [1998] the town acquired the property from the United States Navy.”

Teresa McCaskie, a former Riverhead resident and current member of the Southold Aircraft Noise Steering Committee, objected to allowing even aircraft fueling at the site.

“There is no reason whatsoever to have any type of aircraft at EPCAL,” she told the Town Board. “To bring in fuel means huge oil tankers. Take a ride out to East Hampton in the summertime and take a look at all the tankers going up and down those streets. You want to talk about traffic, you want to talk about congestion, you want to talk about pollution?”

Outgoing Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said that in 2021, the Suffolk County Planning Commission asked the town to keep one runway active for emergencies.

“We know that one of the runways, the smaller one, is inactive. Nothing can really happen there … the second thing is that … Suffolk County asked that one of the runways, to keep it active — and that was for emergency purposes only. If something happens [like] a disaster, and they want to bring in supplies … they don’t need permission.”

Resident Kathy McGraw wondered whether commercial drone deliveries could be legally considered “ancillary” to a permitted use in the future.

“If you have a permitted use, which is warehousing, and you were to build 8 million square feet of warehousing, could there be a very good argument that delivery of those goods by drone would be ancillary to a permitted use?” she asked.

Ms. Prudenti said she would need to research the issue before answering it.

Not everyone at the hearing was opposed to the use of the runways for aviation. Roanoke Avenue resident Martin Sendlewski told the board via Zoom that “a lot of people see [the runways] as the biggest asset to the property, a property that was deeded to the Town of Riverhead for economic development.”

He said that the board “might be surprised to find there are also a lot of people who think that these runways are a good asset and should be considered in the future planning of this development … this is going to basically cut out a bunch of proposals.”

The hearing will remain open for written comment through Dec. 15.