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Editorial: Signs of a breakthrough at Calverton

The view of Riverhead Enterprise at Calverton facing

The view of Riverhead Enterprise at Calverton facing west on Route 25 in Calverton. (Jul. 7, 2013) Credit: Heather Walsh

Fifteen years is long enough.

That's how much time has passed since Riverhead Town took possession of the old Grumman Corp. plant in Calverton. Since then, those 2,300 acres have been repeatedly described as having the potential to be an economic engine for the East End. Underscore potential, since no development has taken place yet. So it was good news that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recently signed legislation that should jump-start the process. Now the ball is in the town's court -- where it really has been all along -- and Riverhead officials need to start taking, and making, shots.

The bill signed by Cuomo allows the town to do one environmental impact statement for the entire property -- known as Enterprise Park at Calverton, or EPCAL -- detailing such things as how development will take place on the 600 acres set aside for just that, the zoning that will be in place, and how the rest of the environmentally sensitive pine barrens will be protected. If a developer's application meets all the requirements, it automatically receives all relevant state and county permits. Town board approval must come within 90 days, along with building permits.

That's a lot more efficient than the usual process of requiring an environmental impact statement for each piece of land purchased inside the enterprise zone.

It's not clear town officials needed state legislation to do that, but Supervisor Sean Walter wanted it, and seeking the state's imprimatur might turn out to be a good idea if it works as a sales pitch: We're open for business, and ready to make it happen.

Also promising is that the town, at least initially, will issue requests for proposals for the sale of the land. In other words, Riverhead will tell developers what it's looking for as opposed to waiting to see what's pitched. In the past, that led to one outlandish scheme after another. Remember the indoor ski mountain? The recreational park to rival Disney World? Racetracks and polo fields? Walter once famously called EPCAL the place where bad ideas go to die.

Among the enterprises Riverhead plans to encourage: high-tech businesses, solar farms, pharmaceutical companies, manufacturing, agribusiness, food processing and green technology.

In fairness, Riverhead is not the only municipality that has struggled with adapting an abandoned military base or weapons-testing facility. That's happened all over the country. And progress will be affected by lingering difficulties in obtaining financing for commercial development. But Walter and town officials deserve credit for removing a lot of uncertainty from the process. Developers crave predictability, but after some well-publicized failures in the absence of a town master plan for EPCAL, they stayed away in droves.

Town officials are writing the environmental impact statement now. The environmental community is on board; pine barrens protection standards will be met. The town has some ideas on how to finance sewer and other infrastructure improvements. At last, there is hope that shovels will be deployed relatively soon, buildings erected, jobs created and tax dollars generated. Walter says he's fielding lots of calls from interested buyers, and wants to land a project in 2014. His time frame might be optimistic, but for the first time in a long time, the enthusiasm is no longer laughable.