Following a protracted legal battle, the owners of the Jamesport Manor Inn on Manor Lane in Jamesport have won a decisive court victory against the Town of Riverhead and a group of Manor Lane residents who have been fighting the restaurant's expansion plans since 2005.
In a decision handed down on Dec. 20, State Supreme Court Justice Peter Fox Cohalan ruled that the town's demand that the inn's owners obtain a special permit before expansion could take place was "adopted contrary to the laws and procedures of the State of New York" and was, therefore, void. In other words, the public hearing that went against the owners was illegal.
The practical result is that, barring a successful appeal by the town, Matt Kar and Frank McVeigh have the court's permission to do what they have wanted to do from the outset – namely, build a standalone barn for catered events in the back of their restaurant and erect a temporary tent over the patio on the north side of the inn to accommodate an overflow of diners as needed.
Cohalan's ruling mandates that the town process two existing site plan applications – one for the barn, the other for the tent – within 20 days. In addition, it orders the town's planning board to approve the two site plans, subject to health code and normal site management considerations.
Reached Tuesday, Supervisor Sean Walter said, "The town will file a notice of appeal to preserve the town's position." But he said he would rather try to negotiate a settlement before spending town resources to perfect the appeal.
"It's always my desire to try to negotiate settlements on these things because if you leave it to the Appellate Division, you never know what you're going to get," Walter said. "Obviously, Kar and McVeigh have a stronger position because they won this round. We'll see if we can negotiate something that works for the community and the town."
Kar and McVeigh had maintained that the catering barn and tent were needed to make their restaurant economically viable. However, the town's planning director, Rick Hanley, had rendered an opinion that the barn and tent constituted an expansion of a pre-existing, non-conforming use and, as such, required the town board to hold a hearing on a special permit.
A contentious public hearing on the permit application was held in early 2007. The town board, bowing to pressure from neighbors and then-Supervisor Phil Cardinale's insistance that a non-conforming use could not be expanded, turned down permission for the barn and tent. It's only positive ruling was to permit Kar and McVeigh to expand the number of seats in their restaurant from 80 – the number of seats in the original restaurant on the property – to 120, a decision that the owners called "unacceptable."
There followed a number of suits, including one filed by Phil Barbato, a Manor Lane resident, which was ultimately overturned by the State Supreme Court. In the interim, the original structure on the property – a circa 1870 former residence that had functioned for years as a restaurant – burned to the ground just weeks before it was to reopen following a substantial renovation.
Kar and McVeigh had the structure rebuilt from the ground up to mirror the original building, and the restaurant reopened for business in May 2007, with the owners maintaining they still needed the barn and tent to be successful.
In October of 2009, Kar and McVeigh had their lawyer, John Ciarelli, file suit in Supreme Court to reverse the town's decision, which was the suit that Justice Cohalan ruled on last month.
Though Justice Cohalan in his decision rejected the request by Ciarelli for compensatory and punitive damages, Ciarelli said that he would continue to fight for financial relief.
"We're taking the position that the case goes on regarding the question of whether my clients' constitutionally-guaranteed property rights were violated," Ciarelli said. "The zoning issue having been resolved, we're now going to ask for a trial on whether there was a constitutional violation. And if we can prove there was a violation, were going to ask for damages."
Asked Monday for a reaction to the court decision, Kar said, "I am happy with the decision, which is all I have to say at this point."
Barbato, who has been the most vocal opponent of Manor Inn expansion, said he wanted to review the decision, which he hadn't seen, before making a comment.