Riverhead Town is in over its head at EPCAL, as various town administrations have demonstrated again and again. The proof is in the pudding. The town has presided over one bad idea and botched project after another at the former Grumman site.
The false starts and bad deals at EPCAL are for two disparate reasons, connected by one theme: short-sightedness.
First, the town has looked upon the 2,900-acre gift from the U.S. government as a cash cow, land to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Second, the town has let its fear of an airport there color everything it's done -- and not done -- with the site.
So, before the town even got title to the property, it sold off the so-called industrial core of the site -- the existing buildings and much of the infrastructure -- for just $17 million to one "developer" who turned out to be not very interested in development at all. Jan Burman was more of a middleman. He flipped the property to others so quickly -- at a handsome profit -- he didn't even bother to wait for his subdivision map to be approved.
Then the town created a bizarre patchwork of zoning for the property outside the "industrial core." This anything-but-an-airport zoning scheme is what's made the rest of the site virtually undevelopable. It calls for things like theme parks, sports stadiums, hotels and golf course condominiums. All this on a site that has no road access capable of moving thousands of cars at once, something necessary for a sports stadium or theme park. Duh.
Remember the colossal traffic jam for the air show in September 2003? There was bumper-to-bumper traffic for miles, stretching west on Route 25 from the park entrance all the way to William Floyd Parkway in Ridge, and then miles south to the Expressway. The only way to bring tens of thousands of people to a theme park at EPCAL is a direct-access road to the site from the LIE -- which requires cutting a new road through preserved Pine Barrens. Yeah, right. Maybe with climate change, hell will eventually freeze over. But that road ain't gettin' built.
The town's inability to properly develop the Calverton lack-of-enterprise park is so complete that the open fields next to the runways where Grumman used to test its F-14 Tomcat fighter jets have overgrown and are now foraging habitat for protected species. In other words, the town's paralysis over the years since it's controlled the site has been so thorough, it managed to effectively turn the former naval weapons reserve plant -- officially a "brownfields" site in need of environmental remediation -- into a nature preserve.
Dick Amper and the environmental folks would be giving the town a conservation award for its stewardship of the site and creation of new "critical habitat" were it not for the town's insistence on selling off the rest of its holdings at EPCAL to a developer who plans to build "eight themed resorts," including a 350-foot-tall indoor ski mountain, smack in the middle of the "grasslands."
State Sen. Ken LaValle, fed up with town's shenanigans at EPCAL, is calling for regional management of the site. The town, he says, should come to grips with the fact that developing EPCAL properly is beyond its capability. He's right. The senator wants to broker a deal where the town will retain "the right to say yes or no" to development proposals at the site, but where stewardship and oversight will rest in a regional entity that has the resources to do the job correctly.
That means tax base and meaningful jobs from development compatible with the site's ecosystems and its supporting infrastructure. It can be done. Look at what's going on in and around county-run Gabreski Airport, where the county is using the Empire Zone designation (transferred out of EPCAL in 2004, by the way) to develop the Hamptons Business and Technology Park -- also in the Pine Barrens region.
Why, then, in Riverhead, do we insist on trading meaningful economic development for minimum-wage amusement park and hospitality jobs?
Ms. Civiletti invites you to join a discussion of this topic at civiletti.blogspot.com. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.