Senior Housing: As population ages, rising need for assisted-living housing goes unmet

by Denise Civiletti

A proposal to expand the retirement community zoning use district to allow senior life care communities as a permitted use caused a stir at Thursday’s Town Board work session. Supervisor Sean Walter is adamantly opposed to amending the zoning code and map to allow life care communities anywhere but in the town’s “main commercial districts” near Route 58 or downtown Riverhead, and says the development of such communities should only be allowed if they will be connected to the Riverhead sewage treatment plant.

The town’s adopted master plan called for zoning parts of the town’s hamlet centers – including Wading River, Jamesport and Aquebogue – Residence RC, or retirement community. The plan recommended allowing over-55 condominium communities as well as life care communities in the RC zone.

But those provisions of the master plan were never embraced by the Town Board and implemented in the zoning code.

Today, RC zoning only exists on several already-developed parcels along Middle Road and on another already-built site in Aquebogue. “There’s no question there’s a need for this in our town,” Walter said referring to the concept of lifecare and assisted-living communities, “but in my opinion this is an intense commercial use and should be allowed in or near commercial areas, and only if it’s part of the sewer district,” Walter said.

He took umbrage with the 2003 master plan’s recommendation to allow the use in the outlying hamlets, especially in Wading River, where, he says, the master plan provided for too much intense commercial development along the 25A corridor. “I have lost all faith in the master plan,” Walter said during the meeting, at one point even referring to the $400,000 planning study as “a load of crap.”

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said she believes limiting the use to commercial areas within the sewer district is too restrictive, especially since the sewage treatment plant is technically at its rated capacity.  “There are 4,000 residents over age 62 in the Town of Riverhead,” Giglio said.”There is a need for this here.” Giglio argued against requiring connection to the Riverhead sewer district as a condition of development, arguing that the proposed zoning code requires a minimum lot size of 25 acres to develop a lifecare community, which will minimize the number of such developments.

Three different potential life care/assisted-living developments have been “floated” past various board members. One would be on a Mill Road, Riverhead site to the north of Riverhead Centre. Councilman John Dunleavy initiated the effort to revisit the RC zoning code in response to the prospective development of the Mill Road site.

“People are getting older,” said Dunleavy, who lives in a 55-and-older retirement community himself. “There’s a need for assisted living. If they need a facility like this, they have to go far out of town. It’s hard for their friends to come visit them if they have to go up to Hauppauge or someplace,” he said. Another possible site that’s been discussed is in Jamesport, where Jul-Bet Enterprises wanted to build a retail-office complex on Route 25., according to Supervisor Sean Walter. A third site is property owned by Peconic Bay Medical Center on Roanoke Avenue, opposite the hospital. It is currently used as a parking lot. Peconic Bay’s president and CEO Andrew Mitchell said the area urgently needs assisted living, but it must be “an affordable model.” “Residents of the 55-and-over condominium complexes are aging in place,” Mitchell said. “The reality of life today is that the children of these aging residents are working full-time jobs and are unable to care for their parents themselves. They need assisted living, but they are largely middle class who can’t afford the very expensive ones that exist.” Mitchell said Peconic Bay has been exploring the development of “a senior housing complex that would be tied somehow to the hospital. We could provide home care and nutrition service,” he said.

“The question is how to construct and build something like that in a way that would still be affordable,” Mitchell said. “We’re looking at a variety of options, including collaborating with the town or a private entity.” He said it is hoped a development like the one being studied by the hospital would yield 100 units. “But the more the merrier,” Mitchell said. “A hundred units would fill up in the blink of an eye.”

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