Ten of the most important local stories in 202222 min read
As we get ready to ring in 2023, we’ve compiled what we think are the 10 most important stories we followed and reported on for our town in 2022. Here’s a rundown of each, with links included if you want to go back in time and read our coverage more in depth.
We look forward to covering the issues, people and events in and around Riverhead in 2023.
Happy New Year!
Downtown revitalization in Riverhead continued with a $10 million boost.
This past year was perhaps the most important for downtown Riverhead since the town began revitalization efforts years ago.
2022 started off with a bang when the state announced on Jan. 13 that Riverhead had won a $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative award from the New York Department of State to invest in both public and private projects downtown.
Throughout the year, a local planning committee made up of state and local officials and business leaders, with community input, recommended 10 projects totaling funding requests of $13.4 million — though the amount of funding that would actually be available was $9.7 million, after fees for consultants hired by the state to assist with the planning and application process were deducted from the $10 million award.
Those recommendations culminated in an announcement last Tuesday that eight of the projects would be funded by the award, most of them at the full amount recommended by the committee.
At the center of it all is the Riverhead town square: a public space project that started development in 2019, and leapt forward in 2020 with the town’s purchase of three buildings on the south side of East Main Street. Town-sponsored projects in the square received just under $3.5 million in funding from the DRI award.
Following the demolition of two of the buildings last year to make way for the town square, it was planted with grass and improved with a cement walkway this year, connecting Main Street to the riverfront, and even became home to a 18-foot spruce that was decorated as a Christmas tree for a new Riverhead holiday tradition.
The Town Board took the town square’s development further this year by also designating J. Petrocelli Development Associates the master developer of the town square project, endorsing a proposal that included a boutique hotel on the east side of the square and a condominium building on the riverfront. A master developer agreement for the project is still in negotiations and is expected to be revealed early next year, with revisions from its initial iteration.
The final design of the town square and other riverfront development is still taking shape. The Long Island Science Center is also still developing plans to renovated the building on the west side of the square as a new museum with a planetarium.
The town is also looking at building possibly two parking garages off of Main Street to make up for parking space on the riverfront that will be lost to new uses.
Aside from town-sponsored projects, development proposals for other properties downtown are also in motion. Those projects include a five-story mixed-use addition to the back of the Suffolk Theater, a four-story mixed-use building at the former West Marine building called Landmark at Riverhead, a four-story mixed-use building on McDermott Avenue known as the Zenith building, and a five-story mixed-use apartment complex on East Main Street.
Redevelopment of the blighted area around the Long Island Rail Road station also took steps forward with the designation of RXR and Georgica Green Ventures as the joint master developers of the town’s transit-oriented development project. The developers were designated qualified and eligible under urban renewal law by the Town Board in October, and a master developer agreement has been executed.
The developer proposed a four- and five-story, mixed-use building with 243 apartments, and “podium” parking on an internal portion of the ground floor, lined by perimeter uses on the two-acre, town-owned parking lot between Court Street and Railroad Avenue.
In addition, a mixed-use, multi-level building with 36 workforce apartments and retail shops along Griffing Avenue is also proposed on a county-owned parking lot, with a multi-level parking garage planned for behind the building. This project received $2.75 million in DRI funding.
The Town Board also approved plans for a five-story, mixed-use apartment building on the corner of Osborn Avenue and Court Street, with a blighted, long vacant medical office being demolished to make way for the new development.
A lot of industrial development was proposed in Calverton, sparking calls for a moratorium.
This year continued the trend of a slew of proposals for industrial development in the hamlet of Calverton.
Included in those proposals is a 641,000-square-foot Riverhead Logistics Center facility proposed by NorthPoint on Middle Road. The Planning Board adopted the final scoping statement for the environmental review of the project in October, and the project is awaiting a submission of a draft environmental impact statement.
The Planning Board also continued the review of the 2020 application for a 412,629-square-foot industrial building complex proposed by HK Ventures on 30 acres on Middle Country Road. The board accepted the final environmental impact statement for the project, and is currently accepting comments on a supplemental environmental impact statement.
These projects were criticized by local residents throughout the year for the potential truck traffic they could bring to an area with primarily residential roads.
The Planning Board also began review of a 131-acre industrial subdivision on Middle Country Road by OSTAD Riverhead that would prime the land for millions of square feet of industrial development.
Plans for the expansion of two existing warehouses in Calverton — the PODS warehouse, whose owner is seeking to double its size, and 74,650 square feet addition to an existing 139,806-square-foot warehouse, with 127,415 square feet of new outdoor storage — also surfaced this year, as did plans for a U-Haul warehouse and self storage facility.
In addition to that development, there’s the ongoing development proposed for the Calverton Enterprise Park, where a developer proposes building an air cargo hub and other industrial buildings on land it seeks to purchase from Riverhead Town, or proposals for other industrial buildings meant for warehouses and storage.
But in the midst of the review of the applications for these and other industrial projects this October, the Riverhead Planning Board came out in support of a moratorium on industrial projects outside of the Calverton Enterprise Park. Some residents have been urging the Town Board to impose an industrial moratorium for the last two years, but to no avail.
If you’ve been to a Town Board meeting lately, you’ve heard the word “moratorium” more than once. A moratorium is a temporary pause on designated development activity while a comprehensive plan is being written; the Town Board can halt the processing of applications for new development by adopting a local law establishing a moratorium.
The main reason why both the Planning Board and residents want a moratorium — particularly in the industrial zoning districts located outside the Calverton Enterprise Park — is because of the age of the town’s current comprehensive plan, last revised between 1999 and 2003. The town is currently going through the process of revising and updating the comp plan, which is supposed to guide development within the town, but the process for revising the plan was delayed over and over again since it got underway in early 2020.
The existing plan, adopted in 2003, does not contemplate some uses currently proposed in industrial districts, such as “high cube” warehousing and distribution centers. The development also has the potential to create significant cumulative impacts, on things like traffic, air quality the character of the Calverton hamlet and the town’s water and sewer infrastructure. Moratorium advocates say the proposed projects require in-depth study through the comprehensive planning process.
But the only Town Board member in support of a moratorium for the full length of the estimated time to complete the comprehensive plan update following the Planning Board’s recommendation was Council Member Tim Hubbard, who proposed an 18-month moratorium. Other board members argued a moratorium could stall tax base growth in the town, and two members said might support a short-term moratorium but only if it exempted projects.
The Greater Calverton Civic Association started asking for a moratorium in the fall of 2020, but the idea did not gain traction with the Town Board. Outcry for a moratorium, particularly from Calverton residents, has escalated within the last few months at Town Board and Planning Board meetings. At the last Town Board meeting of the year, community members rallied outside of Town Hall and then packed the meeting room to urge the adoption of a moratorium.
The board has a resolution on its Jan. 4 agenda scheduling a public hearing on a 6-month moratorium proposal, but it remains to be seen if three members will support it. Discussions on whether to adopt a moratorium, and what it should look like, will most certainly continue in the new year, as passionate residents show no signs of letting up their pressure. The Town Board also extended a moratorium on applications to build solar energy production systems this year, continuing the pause on development for another use being built primarily in Calverton near the LIPA substation on Edwards Avenue.
The comprehensive plan update stalled…again.
Riverhead’s comprehensive plan update process hit its biggest snag yet this year.
Dissatisfied with the “slow pace of progress and shallow depth of study” on the update to the 20-year-old master planning document, the Town Board in July terminated its contract with the planning firm first hired in late 2019 to prepare the comp plan update, AKRF.
Originally scheduled to be completed in August 2021, the completion date was extended for one year, and then extended again to spring 2023.
The town’s top planner, who is leading the comprehensive plan update, along with AKRF were also criticized by Jamesport Civic Association members in February for being out of touch with residents after the community outreach meetings. Murphree, who lives on the South Fork, also said during a civic association meeting that he never personally drove on Sound Avenue on a weekend and had no first-hand experience of heavy traffic on the roadway. He said the same about crowded town beaches and wineries.
The Central Advisory Committee for the comprehensive plan update, made up of town officials, residents and business leaders, only had one meeting in 2022. During the March meeting, the sub-consultants hired to do traffic analysis for the plan, L.K. McLean Associates, presented recommendations for easing traffic congestion and improving transportation throughout the town in connection with the plan update.
Among the recommendations during the meeting was widening Sound Avenue and adding a center turning lane and bike lanes along the length of the road. The recommendation was not received well by committee members and sparked public backlash, causing the consultants and Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree to walk back the recommendation during a presentation to the Town Board days later. He denied that the consultants had recommended adding a center turning lane along the length of Sound Avenue and there has been “misinterpretation” in the press about the idea. He said that the center turning lane would only be at certain “choke points” on the road.
After a string of community meetings in April, there was radio silence about the progress of the comprehensive plan update, until Supervisor Yvette Aguiar announced on June 24 that the town would be terminating its contract with AKRF.
The town took three months to decide what planning firm would succeed AKRF to complete the plan. The board heard pitches from three firms in August: H2M Architects + Engineers, BFJ Planning and Cashin Associates, before inviting back BFJ and H2M a second time, this time with cost and work estimates. The Town Board finally decided to hire BFJ on Oct. 6 and said they would pursue hiring L.K. McLean Associates to continue the firm’s traffic and infrastructure analysis for the project.
At last week’s board meeting, the Town Board authorized a $422,000 contract with BFJ Planning and L.K. McLean as sub-contractors, to finish the update. Residents and town officials alike hope to see progress on the plan in 2023, although the 14-month timeframe given by BFJ to complete the plan means the town won’t adopt a full plan until 2024, at the earliest.
The stalled process has only invigorated calls for moratorium on development, especially in Calverton. Town Board members said analysis on the impacts of solar energy systems, battery storage systems, anaerobic digestion systems and the repair of the town’s ineffective transfer of development rights program are some of the biggest priorities for the update.
The fight for drinking water extensions in Manorville and Calverton continued.
The goal of getting public water extensions to homes serviced by polluted private wells in Calverton and Manorville got a lot closer to being realized this year.
Riverhead Town received two federal grants throughout the year for the public water extension projects through the congressional Community Project Funding program — $3.5 million in March and $2 million in December.
Riverhead officials said the federal funds will be split proportionately between Riverhead Water District extension projects in Calverton and in Manorville, the latter of which is in partnership with Suffolk County Water Authority under an agreement reached in September to fund an extension project in the hamlet in homes in both the towns of Riverhead and Brookhaven. The Riverhead cost of the Manorville project is an estimated $9.5 million, while the other extension projects in Calverton also cost an estimated $9.5 million.
Other state grant applications by the town were not funded, although town officials said they anticipate having more funding opportunities coming in the new year.
Residents in the Manorville and Calverton area continued to show up to Town Board meetings and water forums to demand action and advocate for clean water. They also held a protest after Riverhead’s funding application was denied to demand state officials bring funding to the drinking water projects.
In June, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a new lifetime health advisory for PFAS chemicals in drinking water, due to new analysis that showed an impact on human health at exposure levels much lower than reflected by the agency’s 2016 lifetime health advisory. The EPA is also in the process of creating drinking water maximum contaminant levels for the substances.
Despite the new advisory, the U.S. Navy will still rely on the old EPA health advisory level to rule out intervention in areas near the former Naval Weapons Reserve Plant in Calverton. Residents continued to argue this year that activity by Grumman, which manufactured and tested aircraft for the Navy at the facility from the 1950s until 1996, is to blame for the pollution in their private wells; Navy representatives said their testing does not draw a causal relationship.
The coronavirus roller coaster ride continued.
The coronavirus disrupted life in 2020 and 2021 — and that trend continued in 2022.
The year started off with a surge of coronavirus cases fueled by the omicron variant of the virus, resulting in school absences after the winter break. Cases started to drop off gradually by late January. It was found that the omicron variant, although more contagious than previous variants, caused less severe illness.
At the end of January, the mask mandate debate hit a high point in Riverhead after a Nassau County judge struck down a mask mandate requirement. Although the mandate was still enforced pending an appeal, the ruling sent some community members to protest the restrictions at Riverhead Central School District offices. People also protested the restrictions in front of the high school days later, including with representatives from the right-wing political group, the Long Island Loud Majority.
The mask mandate in schools remained until February, when new Center of Disease Control and Prevention guidance prompted Gov. Kathy Hochul to lift the mandate. The school board removed the mandate from the district’s reopening plan days later.
New vaccines and guidance on booster shots also came and went. In March, the Food and Drug Administration authorized a second COVID-19 vaccine booster shot for people 50 and over, and for all other people age 5 and older in the following months.
In August, the CDC changed its COVID-19 guidance and quarantine recommendations to make the disease less disruptive to everyday life, and removed strategies like “test-to-stay” for schools. The school year started with no mask mandate and no quarantine requirement, the most normal it felt since the virus shut down the country in 2020.
In September, a new bivalent coronavirus vaccine booster shot, crafted to give greater protection against the omicron variant of the virus, became available. Masks also became optional in public transportation, although the requirement for masks in healthcare facilities is still in place.
Currently, transmission rates for coronavirus and other respiratory illnesses are high in New York. Suffolk County has a high transmission rate and people in Suffolk County are advised by the CDC to take precautions, including wearing a high-quality mask or respirator in public places and on public transportation, in addition to keeping up with their vaccinations. Although 2022 might be coming to a close, the coronavirus seems to want to stick around.
The sale of Calverton Enterprise Park land entered a new chapter.
Riverhead Town’s $40 million sale of more than 1,600 acres of undeveloped land in the Calverton Enterprise Park took several steps forward this year.
The town unveiled a plan in February to complete the long-delayed real estate transaction between the town Community Development Agency and Calverton Aviation and Technology, a Triple Five company, caused by the town’s inability to move its State Department of Environmental Conservation permit applications forward necessary to subdivide the land.
In March, the town approved the transfer of its land holdings to the Riverhead Industrial Development Agency — 1,644 acres of which are currently under contract to sell to CAT — and made a joint application with CAT to the IDA for benefits to induce the redevelopment of the site. Only about 600 acres are developable, with more than 1,000 acres, considered environmentally sensitive, to be set aside for preservation.
If the IDA approves the application for benefits, the town will transfer the land to the IDA and both the town and CAT will enter into “lease and project” agreements with the IDA that town officials say will require CAT to complete the intended development plan required by CAT’s current contract with the town, approved in December 2017.
The lease and project agreement between the IDA and CAT would also shift the burden of obtaining subdivision and other approvals to CAT, at CAT’s expense.
The IDA in September released the joint application by the town and CAT for financial assistance for the first stage of development. The IDA benefits sought include real property tax abatements, sales/use tax exemptions and mortgage recording tax exemptions.
During a presentation following the application’s release, representatives from CAT revealed a plan to transform the Calverton Enterprise Park into a regional air cargo logistics hub for package delivery services to consumers on Long Island. The development would also include “flex” buildings to have “tenants in the aeronautics, industrial, aviation, environmental, energy…medical (and) educational…fields.”
In the following weeks, CAT representatives released statements contradicting its presentation to the IDA, with attorney Chris Kent saying that CAT has “no intent to develop an air cargo jetport.”
After it was reported in October that the law firm hired by the IDA to do the due diligence review on CAT’s financials represented a Triple Five subsidiary in connection with the Ghermezian family’s American Dream mega mall in New Jersey, the IDA last week hired a new transaction counsel to avoid a perceived conflict of interest in the community.
The joint application remains under review by the IDA.
Meanwhile, the financial situation of Triple Five, a parent company of CAT, raised questions about the firm’s financial feasibility to undertake the massive development. The firm is currently involved in a civil racketeering lawsuit claiming a Triple Five subsidiary and members of the Ghermezian family sold counterfeit hand sanitizer beginning in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The company also missed debt payments on its New Jersey megamall project, which it lost more than $59 million in during 2021.
Proposals for new warehousing and manufacturing buildings in the industrial core of the park were unveiled. A company is also interested in putting an anaerobic digestion facility within the park, a food-to-waste energy system not currently allowed in the park, but which the Town Board is considering changing the town code to allow.
Drag racing events on the runways also went on for the second year in a row in spring, summer and fall — and the promoter of the event made himself at home on the runway in July. More drag racing events are scheduled for summer and fall in 2023, subject to the sale of the town-owned land.
Riverhead prepared for recreational marijuana.
Recreational marijuana took the spotlight this year, as Riverhead continued to prepare to be one of four municipalities on Long Island to allow retail sales of cannabis under the 2021 Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act.
The town’s marijuana advisory committee finalized its recommendations for regulating the location and business operations of recreational cannabis dispensaries and lounges in March, but revisions from town officials delayed the code a few more months.
While the town law was being hashed out, the Office of Cannabis Management opened the first applications for recreational marijuana dispensary licenses in August. The first licenses being distributed are going to businesses majority owned and run by “justice involved” individuals, or people convicted of marijuana-related offenses in New York State during the drug’s prohibition, and their close relatives.
Long Island is slated to receive 20 conditional licenses, according to the OCM.
Nonprofit organizations or businesses owned by a nonprofit also could apply for a license if it is a 501(c)(3) entity, has “a history of creating vocational opportunities for current or formerly incarcerated individuals, including justice involved individuals,” has a justice involved individual in its governing staff, and other criteria.
Farmers in Riverhead also received licenses to grow adult-use marijuana, including Plant Connection and Van de Wetering Greenhouses.
The Town Board finally held a public hearing on the zoning proposal in October. Under the code, marijuana dispensaries and lounges licensed by the state are allowed in most commercial zoning districts that allow retail uses, subject to minimum distance requirements to prevent the businesses from locating near residences, schools and other family-friendly places.
Prospective marijuana business owners hailed Riverhead’s zoning regulations as the friendliest to the emerging industry on Long Island during the hearing. Not everyone was happy, however, and the Town Board adopted regulations in early November, with Supervisor Yvette Aguiar dissenting.
The Office of Cannabis Management began granting licenses for dispensaries in November, and have so far granted four to Long Island businesses. The exact locations are yet to be determined, according to an OCM spokesperson. The office is expected to issue more licenses in the new year.
The community rallied to support Ukraine in its war against Russia.
The Ukrainian national salute, a symbol of Ukrainian sovereignty, echoed throughout Riverhead this year in support of the country’s defense against a Russian invasion that started in February.
A Riverhead church became the focal point of Eastern Long Island’s support for the Ukrainian people, as Rev. Bohdan Hedz and the parish of the St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church collected donations to send to Ukraine. Tons of medical supplies, clothing, food, children’s items and other donations were and continue to be shipped overseas.
More than 100 people, in a sea of yellow and blue, rallied against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and showed their support for the East End’s Ukrainian community in a February gathering on the Riverhead Town Hall lawn.
Riverhead businesses joined in to raise money for Ukrainian organizations. Twin Fork Beer Co. fundraised for a Ukrainian orphanage; Tradewinds Brewing Co. joined an international craft brewery fundraising effort and brewed a Ukrainian beer recipe; and the Suffolk Theater raised $35,000 during the “ALL FOR UKRAINE” benefit concert.
In August, six months after the start of the war, Riverhead held a ceremony to celebrate Ukrainian Independence Day.
Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in November that he estimates more than 40,000 civilians have died in the war and that the invasion has displaced 15 million to 30 million, according to The New York Times. Milley also estimated that 100,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded in the war, and Ukraine likely has the same number of casualties.
The New York Times reported this week that although both Russia and Ukraine are open to peace talks to end the war, both of the governments’ hard-line positions make it unlikely that serious negotiations will open soon.
And throughout the last 10 months, the Ukrainian community on the East End remained confident that the country would deter the attack and retain its sovereignty. The church is still accepting donations. A list of what they are currently requesting is below.
We learned what happened during the Second Street fire, and continued to mourn.
The charred remains of the East Second Street historic home where five people died in fire remained standing for most of 2022, a haunting reminder of the events that transpired in November 2021.
Mourning continued for the five members of the Rivera family, natives of Jeréz Jutiapa, Guatemala, who lived on the third floor of the multifamily home and died in the blaze: Rivera Mendoza, her children, Carlos Cifredo Peñate Rivera, 25, and Andrea Isamar González Rivera, 16, and her nephews, Duglas Edgardo Rivera Aguirre, 27, and Carlos Alberto Ramos Aguirre, 24.
A RiverheadLOCAL investigation into the home’s compliance with safety requirements found that the third floor apartment where the Rivera’s died did not have two independent means of escape, as required by the N.Y. State Multiple Residence Law.
Town officials said a letter of pre-existing use issued by the town in 2009 exempted the building from that requirement.
However, town records do not present a clear picture of the building’s pre-existing use status, as far as the third-floor apartment is concerned and contained numerous inconsistencies. The records also show Riverhead Town issued rental permits for the third-floor apartment for more than 20 years, despite the fact that town tax records have the structure listed as a three-family dwelling containing apartments on the first and second floors only — and notwithstanding the lack of a second means of egress for the third-floor apartment.
The Riverhead Town Board took action to prevent similar incidents from occurring, introducing a local law to reform its Rental Dwelling Units code. The amendment, which passed in June and takes effect in the new year, requires that homeowners renting homes three stories or more have a sprinkler system, a second means of egress and an interconnected smoke detection and alarm system. The local law also reduced the term of the town’s rental permit from two years to one year to allow town officials to inspect rental homes more often for compliance with fire safety codes.
The Suffolk County Police Department also released the documents detailing what happened during the fire on Nov. 16. The fast-moving fire was caused when recently extinguished cigarette butts discarded in a plastic receptacle on the porch of the home sparked a fire in the receptacle, which then ignited a cushioned wicker couch on the porch and spread throughout the home.
What remained of the home was finally demolished on Oct. 18. The community continued to mourn the Rivera family and held a second candlelight vigil in their memory on the anniversary of their death.
The Rivera family’s story will continue into 2023, as notices of claims for damages were served on the town — as well as Suffolk County — by the proposed administrator of the estates of the Rivera family early in the year.
Riverhead Town also served three summonses on the homeowner, Carmela Cannella, just three weeks before the fatal fire for renting the apartments without permits. The summonses remain pending, with the next court date scheduled for January.
Sister Margaret Rose Smyth, a champion of the East End’s Hispanic community, died.
The East End lost a force of nature in 2022. Sister Margaret Rose Smyth, who ran the North Fork Spanish Apostolate for more than 20 years and a staunch advocate for the Latino community, died on Dec. 19. She was 83 years old.
Sr. Margaret, a member of the Sisters of St. Dominic of Amityville, was known for her passionate devotion to migrant workers and the immigrant communities of the East End. She was the one people turned to for help with everything from putting food on their table, finding a place to rest their head, and helping them with their financial and legal troubles.
She helped establish education workshops, from English for non-native speakers, to public speaking, community organizing, and even cooking. She assisted in organizing hundreds of multicultural events, from Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners to live Via Crucis in Spanish and festivals through the North Fork.
Hundreds of people mourned Sr. Margaret, also known as Madre Margarita, during services last week at St. John the Evangelist R.C. Church. Parishioners reminisced about how she treated them like family, spread joy and laughter, and helped them keep their faith.
Her death leaves a void in both the Hispanic ministry she led and St. John’s parish outreach which she ran as well. The void will not be easily filled.
Donations sought for Ukraine. Drop off items at St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church, 820 Pond View Rd, Riverhead, NY 11901
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