Officials urge caution on Riverside housing plan 

Riverhead officials are imploring their counterparts in Southampton Town to reconsider and possibly revise the 2015 Riverside Revitalization Action Plan, which is moving forward nearly a decade after its creation.

The plan calls for a new sewer treatment plant on Flanders Road near the Riverside traffic circle, which would pave the way for up to 3.2 million square feet of mixed-use development, including as many as 2,300 units of high-density affordable housing concentrated in a small, historically depressed hamlet on Riverhead’s doorstep.

The purpose of the 2015 plan was to incentivize through zoning changes the development of new housing and business in a community with a nearly 20% poverty rate and the lowest median income in Suffolk County. While the sewer treatment plant is a welcome project, officials in Riverhead said that conditions have changed dramatically since the plan was finalized in 2015.

In an interview this week, Southampton Supervisor Jay Schneiderman challenged Riverhead’s projections and said he did not agree that conditions have changed enough in the last decade to justify revising the plan. Riverhead’s projections represent “the extreme case,” Mr. Schneiderman said. 

“Whether that will ever happen or not is unknown.”

Riverhead officials made the case this month to the Southampton Town Board that while downtown Riverhead and Riverside are located in different towns, “they effectively function as one community and one economic ecosystem.”

Dawn Thomas, Riverhead’s Economic Development, Planning and Building Department administrator, said at a Dec. 12 Southampton Town Board meeting that “both Riverside and Riverhead are Areas of Persistent Poverty, Environmental Justice Areas and are considered Historically Disadvantaged,” she said, referring to federal designations. 

“Both hamlets depend upon necessary infrastructure and services located in Riverhead Town. Both hamlets have struggled to be revitalized for many years. 

“Accordingly, it is critical that Southampton and Riverhead towns work closely together to ensure the best results in the redevelopment of Riverside, as it will have a substantial impact on Riverhead and the infrastructure it provides to Riverside.”

Riverhead provides a variety of services to the Riverside community, including fire, school and library services, as well as Little League and peewee football programs. Riverhead also has a contract to treat the waste water from the Riverside county center and correctional facility. 

Ms. Thomas said that in the decade since the Riverside Revitalization Action Plan was developed by Southampton officials, “many of the underlying assumptions and data contained in the RRAP have changed dramatically” — citing a “marked reduction in opportunities for home ownership … the increase in population due to COVID and migration and the increased need for workforce.” 

Ms. Thomas also said in her remarks that if the RRAP goes forward as planned it could result in “the inadvertent exacerbation of the already ‘extremely high’ segregation that exists in this area.”

Ms. Thomas believes that market-rate housing and home ownership opportunities are essential to encouraging racial and economic diversity in a community like Riverside, citing similar efforts in downtown Riverhead.

In response to board questions, Ms. Thomas urged a cautious, thoughtful approach to the plan.

“I think there are many predatory investors, and there’s a lot of funding available for affordable housing, which is wonderful, but concentrating affordable housing in one area is something that is not wonderful.” 

Riverhead school officials said that the district couldn’t absorb the “several hundred” children expected to be part of a projected nearly 4,000 new Riverside residents. 

“It is not an exaggeration to say that the district is at a tipping point when it comes to its space capacity,” officials said in a Dec. 11 letter to Southampton officials. 

School officials said that any final RRAP should include funding for school expansions and hiring of more teachers and staff.

“It is the nuances of our township boundaries that has placed control over the approval process for the proposed [RRAP] outside the province of the township and school district this plan will primarily impact.” 

Mr. Schneiderman said conditions haven’t changed to a degree that warrants revising the plan. 

“Not much has changed, other than all the development that’s happened in Riverhead. They’ve built quite a number of units of housing. I don’t think they maybe thought of the impacts on the Southampton side of the [Peconic] river.”

The outgoing Southampton Town Supervisor said the sewer treatment plant is vital to spurring development in Riverside. 

“The Riverside area needs revitalization and the sewers will give it that, “ Mr. Schneiderman said, adding that taxes on both housing and commercial development in the area will go to Riverhead’s school district. 

“What is in front of us now is building the sewer system — which we’ve been putting the pieces together for — for years. This is multi-million dollar investment in Riverside.”