Plan for Riverhead community center bogs down

Charles Coverdale, far right, pastor of the First Charles Coverdale, far right, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Riverhead, looks over an illustration of how the Community Life Center will look during a meeting at the Culinary Arts Institute on Main Street in Riverhead. (Oct. 21, 2013) Photo Credit: James Carbone

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A plan by First Baptist Church in Riverhead to build a community life center on part of 12 acres owned by the church on Northville Turnpike has bogged down due to town board members' conflicting visions for the project.

"I don't have three votes for it," said Supervisor Sean Walter, who, along with Councilman James Wooten, backs the plan announced this year amid Suffolk County fanfare.

The other three town board members differ on their reservations about the project and its tax-exempt status, and any future vote could require months of private negotiations among board members and possibly the church, Walter predicted.

"I can't comment on it now," said the Rev. Charles Coverdale, pastor of the church. He has been in Riverhead for decades, seeing plans for the project change over the years.

The project grew out of a desire by the church congregation to use its land to give back to the community, but over a decade the dream evolved as Riverhead changed from a rural, agricultural to a suburban town with different needs, he said.

Few of the 500 church members still work on farms, and affordable housing and recreational opportunities have become more important to them and to their neighbors, Coverdale said.

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The project, detailed on the First Baptist Church website, includes a 132-unit workforce housing complex.

Coverdale, who has a master's in business administration from Harvard, said the housing is needed to provide the revenue to cover operations for the rest of the facility. Some town board members privately say they are concerned about the tax impact on the school district and object to the housing getting a tax-exempt status.

Councilman George Gabrielsen said that while the church expects to get federal grants to help pay for construction of the community life center, it's still taxpayer money.

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The project was formally announced in two-hour presentation in downtown Riverhead in October, complete with artists' renderings, a pledge of support from County Executive Steve Bellone and a $25,000 donation from the Horace and Amy Hagedorn Fund, a private family foundation that has supported hundreds of groups on Long Island and across the country.

At an initial public hearing on the plan in November, the town board was given a petition signed by 1,700 people who supported the project, not all of them living in Riverhead.

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