Hours after the Riverhead zoning board of appeals denied a controversial application for a Sound Avenue microbrewery that has sparked contention for months, some residents are applauding the decision.
"I think I can speak for all of us who worked on this issue together when I say that we are extremely pleased with the ZBA’s decision," said Dominique Mendez, president of the Riverhead Neighborhood Preservation Coalition. "This type of commercial operation masquerading as agritoursim simply doesn’t belong on Sound Avenue or the agricultural protection zone and that is clear in town code."
For months, residents questioned for an abandoned almost-100-year-old schoolhouse located on Sound Avenue. "We knew that there were no grounds to grant these variances and gave them every reason to deny them but we also knew that didn’t mean the ZBA wouldn’t approve one of them. Kudos to the ZBA for doing the right thing," Mendez said Friday.
The ZBA voted 2-1 Thursday night to deny the application. ZBA member Leroy Barnes recused himself from the vote and the ZBA is down one member after the resignation of Charles Sclafani.
After the vote, there was some confusion about whether the decision could be upheld, since three members are needed to approve a variance; some questioned whether three votes were needed to deny the application.
Scott DeSimone, special counsel for the ZBA, referred to a former ZBA case against the Town of Huntington, Tall Trees, where legal precedent was made; the case stated you need a majority of the board to take action or approve an application, which would have meant all three votes, but not to deny.
On Thursday night, he said, "you had a valid denial of all relief sought."
Both ZBA chairman Fred McLaughlin and vice chair Otto Wittmeier voted to deny the microbrewery application; ZBA member Frank Seabrook voted in favor of the proposal.
Mendez said since they did not have the three votes necessary to green light the microbrewery, she believes the denial will stand. "I think this project is dead," she said. "Maybe they’ll look to do this downtown, maybe not. I’m just happy it’s not on Sound Avenue."
John Ciarelli, representing property owner John Reeve, Jr., said the decision regarding the plan for McCarthy's On The Green, Inc., presented by principals Tim McCarthy, of Lake Grove, and George Greene, of Wading River, could most likely be challenged.
"We can challenge for a lot of reasons," he said. "It's my understanding that you need three votes to take action. Their taking action to deny, with only two votes, I don't know what that means in the long run. The question is whether or not my clients would want to appeal. I haven't discussed that with them yet. And if they don't -- it's too bad, because it would have been a nice use for that property."
Ciarelli said his clients could take their microbrewery elsewhere. "I think they're committed to doing something but it's unlikely they'll come back to the town of Riverhead."
The likelihood his clients will appeal has not been determined, Ciarelli said. "It's very difficult for a business person to go through the litigation process. They're in business, not in the litigation business," he said.
Georgette Keller, founder of the Save Main Road group and the president of the Jamesport-South Jamesport Civic Association said she believes the denial will stand, although she said immediately after the vote on Thursday night, many were confused.
Of the decision, she said, "I don't know if it was time for a vote already." Keller said she had questions regarding whether or not Barnes, if he was recused from the vote, should have been in the room. "It confused us. We're not experts; we're just residents."
Keller also said, of the decision, "I'm sorry it's dead in the water. One gentlemen said, of the application, 'A high tide floats all boats.' The more the merrier. We have wonderful vineyards that are doing well; why not microbreweries? But it has to be done right. If the process is circumvented, then no one is served."
That is why, Keller added, the Save Main Road group against Riverhead this week. "It's all about the process in Town Hall." So far, she added, supporters have contributed over $11,000 to Save Main Road's legal fund.