Things are suddenly moving fast with the pending land sale of EPCAL. For years, so many anxious buyers have come and gone, while much of the former Grumman property in Calverton lies quiet. All these “almost” deals leave few of us who pay attention anymore. And this one has to happen right in the middle of the clumsy intrigue of an election year in town hall. All this can lead to sloppy outcomes. It means careful decision-making will be hard to come by. The Riverhead Town Board is in the driver’s seat. Here are some humble suggestions on how they might drive carefully.
So much has been reported about the current purchaser, Luminati Aerospace, yet so little is known about them. In a timeframe of about three months, they’re to disclose how they will make possible both this $40 million purchase and how they will evolve into a large-scale industry, with lofty plans to manufacture drone aircraft. One thing they will be unable to show, simply because they don’t have any, is experience with development of a thousands-acre property.
Of considerable interest is EPCAL’s tale of two runways, where Grumman tested fighter jets for 40 years. In the past 20 years of Riverhead Town’s ownership, these runways have fallen into major disrepair. The town says it will take “several millions” of dollars to restore them. If this current deal happens, it will include these runways. The new owner will likely take federal money, with all the strings attached, to restore them for their drones. Still, federal funding of prime runways at a buffered site, now to be privately owned, will surely attract America’s power elite. Have a care, Riverhead!
If indeed these runways get the costly repairs they need, how will Luminati, as a small startup company (or their money-lenders) get a return on such an investment? The town’s answer: it will restrict use of the runways well into the future with a “covenant” prohibiting their use by commercial aircraft. But if special interests get their hooks into the property, watch how fragile this covenant might become. To what extent special interests find their way into Luminati all depends on how much Luminati will need them to make a go of their overall startup plans.
On another crucial point: how convinced should we be that the sale of about 1,400 acres is really a sale of only about 600, because the rest cannot be developed. Says who? If the feds start to eye EPCAL someday, with its restored, privately owned runways, how tightly will that covenant stick? And what will New York’s SEQRA mean to the feds, given that SEQRA is the singular protection for the the so-called preserved acres? The sobering fact: the feds could make short work of NY SEQRA if they set their minds to it.
What if our governor, long silent and oddly distant about all goings-on at EPCAL, joins with Luminati or future owners to pursue a completely different agenda?
Every document, every element of this closing has to take these possibilities into account. Inadequate consideration of the significance, and potential, of all the acres we assume cannot be developed would be colossal and unforgiving error.
Also ever so fragile is building houses at EPCAL. Last August, though fully aware there was no public support for it, Riverhead Town completed all the tedious processes to change the zoning to allow housing at EPCAL. As Luminati tells us, they don’t want housing at all. So the town and Luminati will include in the sale a simple letter saying there will be no housing allowed. Are they serious?
Down the road, after the sale, suppose Luminati or a future owner of this land desires a housing development. Suppose further that a court is asked to decide how to resolve a conflict between a letter then denying housing at a closing from years prior, or the zoning. In that controversy, wouldn’t the zoning prevail?
Of course, all sorts of legal questions can be expected. But to save money on legal fees (why? It’s common practice to hold paying fees from closing proceeds), the town board hired a local attorney in Riverhead to handle the EPCAL sale. But will he be enough? How many $40 million deals has he handled? Even if the town board is personally comfortable with him from past representations, shouldn’t he have backup? This is not to reflect adversely on this attorney’s abilities. But with so much at stake, prudence dictates that we need a legal team second to none. Why be “penny wise and dollar foolish?” Such a concern has been discussed among the town board, but sadly that’s as far as it went.
And then there’s Luminati’s financing. Reliable sources describe a major, international, financial backer for Luminati, whose identity is at least for now kept under wraps. Yes, this poses a feature of any property deal of this scale, but with a small purchaser such as Luminati, financing makes for some real drama in this respect. A super-major investor may turn out to be the real owner in a short time.
Clearly a 1,400-acre property zoned for housing, with existing runways suitable for jet plane use, will make a remarkably attractive investment. Riverhead Town must step ever so carefully. How they iron out every detail, such as their hopeful covenant to restrict the runways’ use, will deeply impact the North Fork well into the future, far beyond any current politician’s tenure.
Consider as well a compelling aspect about Luminati as they come front-and-center: their self-promoted aura as a pioneering manufacturer of pilotless aircraft; the irresistible image they try to project as a cutting-edge player in aviation; a company that offers the region the tender notion of resurrecting our aeronautical heritage, and above all, hefty promises of jobs, jobs, and more jobs.
There’s more than meets the eye in this suspenseful mix of high-end finance, jet-set real estate investors, a huge, daunting land deal and local politics. Our politicians find themselves with the remarkably tempting chance to deliver big-time for the community, to fulfill campaign promises and make up for past disappointments at EPCAL. It’s a golden opportunity to help the economy of a financially ailing town and school district, both of whose hunger for tax revenue borders on well-intentioned greed. But remember, there’s such a thing as “Fool’s Gold.”
Do our supervisor and town board hear voices about the EPCAL sale? Does it offer welcome relief from yammering regulators, an end to the crossfire from lawyers and citizens groups, no more bobbing and weaving at tense public hearings, even an end to mowing grass to the tune of a hundred thousand bucks every season. Cut no corners, Riverhead; you’re already intent on selling the rest of EPCAL for a song, as you did years ago with the sale of the first batch of acres. Be demanding and shrewd.
To summarize, Riverhead should assemble a solid legal team; should beware of how much a startup enterprise will depend on huge, clever financial backers; should retain rights in some form on the so-called useless acreage that may become highly profitable; should assure rock-solid, long-term limitations on the runways; and begin the process, before this deal closes (to establish intent) to amend the area’s zoning to ban any housing, rather than to rely on a simplistic letter. All this is common sense, but in an election year, it’s a tall order.