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Sparks Fly During Talks Over Zoning To Green Light Family Community Life Center

Despite more discussion, board still needs to vet issues.

Discussion revolving around the proposed Family Community Life Center in Riverhead, which will cost $60 million to build, got heated at a town board work session Thursday.

The board met to discuss suggested changes to zoning legislation that would pave the way for the proposed Family Community Life Center before the matter can be scheduled for another public hearing.

The proposed complex, planned for almost 20 years by the First Baptist Church of Riverhead, encompasses a 68,830 square foot "community benefit district," including a community pool, media center/theater, a 24-hour childcare facility, a senior citizen wellness and day care center, and a sports and recreational compound. In addition, the plan calls for 132 one- and two-bedroom apartment units to frame the center complex, that would be used for workforce housing.

The facility would be sited on a 12-acre Northville Turnpike site owned by the church.

An outpouring of support came from all corners of the community during the first public hearing, as the Riverhead town board considered passing legislation for a new overlay zoning district that’s needed before the project can move forward.

But in a later town board work session, some board members raised concerns and Deputy Town Attorney Bill Duffy brought revisions back to the board for review this week.

Some of the changes involved new wording regarding the definition of workforce housing so it would align with the county's, as suggested by Councilwoman Jodi Gigio.

A proposed 800 feet of road frontage requirement was removed.

Supervisor Sean Walter said wording should be put back in stating that a project should hook up to the town's sewer district, or be within a reasonable district of the sewer district, despite some protest from board members who suggested the decision be made when Giglio, who was absent, could weigh in.

"I don't know why we're having this discussion if she's not here," said Councilman John Dunleavy. "I don't want to change anything without her being here. She would give me the same courtesy."

Councilman George Gabrielsen agreed. "I don't want to flush her out because she's not here. That doesn't work for me."

Walter insisted the language involving hook-up to the sewage treatment plan be added back in. "I'm trying to consensus build here."

The supervisor added that the language was necessary so large scale developments didn't appear in areas such as Jamesport, Aquebogue, or Wading River.

Riverhead planning director Rick Hanley said a new frequency map and analysis would be done.

A proposed buffer was changed from 25 to 50 feet; the board also decided to add language so no project would be sited in the agricultural protection zone.

Guy Germano, attorney for the Family Community Life Center project, raised some concerns.

"We're not talking about your project — we're talking about a project that can be put anywhere in town," Dunleavy said. "You can go to the ZBA. This is for all of the Town of Riverhead, not just your project. I don't want this to be pinpointed to one project."

The board also discussed adding language to the legislation that would require community benefits to be built in tandem with the project.

Gabrielsen said he'd like a recreation center, not just affordable housing; he added that he still had "an issue" with the church, as a not-for-profit, being tax exempt and said the public benefit was critical.

"I've heard concerns from the community that this project will be subsidized by the taxpayer," Gabrielsen said, adding that the board needed to see if the community benefit outweighed the fiscal impact.

Dunleavy said if the recreation center was free for Riverhead residents, then it was a community benefit, but less so if they were charged admission.

Gabrielsen then spoke directly to Rev. Charles Coverdale, blasting him for a quote he'd read in a news publication. "You owe this town an apology for a statement you made, saying that intellectually, we (the town board) are so far off from the community."

Coverdale tried to appease the councilman. "You know me," he said.

"Can we talk about it off camera?" Walter asked.

Gabrielsen and Dunleavy both agreed taxes were a critical factor.

Any not-for-profit "that would build a YMCA-type facility on steroids like this" would be tax-exempt, Walter said.

The difference, Gabrielsen countered, is that the FCLC proposes the sale of workforce housing.

"It's a community center — with workforce housing," Dunleavy said. "When they advertise all these supporters, they're people that will make money on the project." He added, "I'm looking out for the taxpayers."

Walter said there was a dire need for workforce housing in Suffolk County. 

Dunleavy said locally, workforce or affordable units are vacant. "No one is jumping into these places."

"There is a reason companies are relocating," Walter said. "They can't keep a workforce here." He added the town would run into trouble "if we're not committed to trying to create that workforce housing."

Dunleavy said Riverhead Town should not bear the burden of providing workforce housing for Suffolk County and said a census should be taken of how many units remained empty in Riverhead. "Why should we help Suffolk County out?"

"Because you're a part of Suffolk County," Walter said.

"Amen," said some members of the First Baptist Church of Riverhead from the audience.

Gabrielsen added, "I understand we have to keep our youth here but when something is tax exempt, it's being subsidized by the taxpayers of Riverhead."

Walter said the town would build a tax base. "We've done it on Route 58," he said. "I'm asking you to take a leap of faith with me."

Dunleavy said the project could add burden to an already strained school system.

"It’s something taxpayers will have to bear," said Councilman Jim Wooten.

The Coverdales said the FCLC would add only approximately 13 children to the school district.

"Other school districts are closing and anyone who thinks it won't happen in Riverhead has their head in the sand," Walter said.

"He didn't want to give us a $1000 raise this year because he didn't want to raise taxes," Dunleavy said of the supervisor.

"I didn't think you deserved it," Walter quipped.

Gabrielsen asked where the $60 million to build the FCLC was coming from.

"We have to raise it," said Rev. Coverdale, adding county and federal grants, as well as private donations, would be garnered. "I haven't asked Riverhead Town for five cents."

Gabrielsen said he pays state and federal  taxes. 

The board agreed to discuss the issue again at their next work session.


Riverhead Resident December 06, 2013 at 10:40 AM
The church is tax exempt but it is trying to create a place that has town involvement. This is a slippery slope that makes me uncomfortable. I am afraid it will end up effecting the tax payers negatively. Children at our local elementary schools are not allowed talk to each other during indoor recess because there are not enough monitors to handle the large groups of children. We are maxed out and out of money. Any parent in Riverhead who would rather see their taxes go to thing like 24/7 day care facility, etc., rather than money to hire more staff so kids can at least play a game or talk to one another then yes, go ahead and support it. Sorry to all those who think I am a heretic for being opposed to a religious organization taking on an enormous project involving the town/taxes, but "church and state" shouldn't mix. Private donations? From whom? People can't raise enough private donations around here for a decent animal shelter, and that was necessary. The private donations will probably come from the people that will make more on the project than the money that they donate. Based on a radio program in which I heard Supervisor Sean Walter speak, it is very clear he is religious. I am wondering if his religious alignment doesn't factor in. Also, Riverhead already has a recreation department with a beautiful Recreation/Senior Center. Why are we considering building another one? A Sports & Recreational compound? We have enough!! Also, 24/7 day care? For whom? That sounds like an orphanage. Let's improve what's here already before we break ground on something else.
Virginia Bile Seidita December 08, 2013 at 06:05 PM
Very well said. I have to agree.

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