Shopping center fight renewed

08/26/2010 12:00 AM |

Reeves Park residents refuse to say die when it comes to fighting plans for a shopping center at the northeast corner of Park Road and Sound Avenue.

They’ve hired an attorney who says the property should be considered zoned residential, which would bar a shopping center there.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter disagrees, citing a court ruling from earlier this year that rejected the town’s 2004 rezoning of the property to residential use and deemed the application approved, subject to environmental review. The lawsuit was brought against the town by the property owner, EMB Enterprises, owned by Kenn Barra.

The supervisor hopes to convene a meeting with Mr. Barra and his attorney to discuss options, which Mr. Walter said could include the town’s acquiring the site.

“We might want to make it into a park,” he said in an interview.

EMB Enterprises bought the property for $1 million in July 2004.

Carolyn Zenk, an attorney hired by some Reeves Park residents, said in a letter to town officials last week that she believes the residential zoning on the property is valid, which would prohibit the commercial development.

Ms. Zenk, a former Southampton Town councilwoman who is also legal counsel for the Group for the East End, an environmental organization, said that while the courts had ruled in 2007 that the town had illegally rezoned the property to residential in 2004, the town later went back and rezoned the property legally in 2007. No court decision, she said, had any effect on that later zone change.

“Because the courts have invalidated the original zone change to a residential/agricultural use does not mean that your subsequent, properly enacted zone change to a residential/agricultural use is not valid,” Ms. Zenk wrote.

She argued that the town should not change the zoning back to commercial because the second rezoning was correct.

Mr. Walter disagreed. “I understand her position, but the appellate court decision says the site plan is approved, subject to SEQRA,” he said.

The supervisor said he believed the current zoning on the property is residential, but that it doesn’t apply to this project because of the court ruling.

“We can’t fight this any further,” Mr. Walter said of any effort to oppose the project. “We lost the lawsuit and the appellate court approved the site plan pending [environmental] review.”

Some Reeves Park residents say the project doesn’t belong in the rural residential area and fear it will clog their neighborhood with traffic.

“I feel with this development, plus the residential development set for the northwest side, the rural nature of Sound Avenue and the community of Reeves Park will change forever,” Eric Biegler, president of the Sound Park Heights Civic Association, wrote in a letter to residents. “If you think traffic is bad on our corner now, wait till this goes in… It is the beginning of the domino effect that will turn Sound Avenue into another Route 58,” he wrote.

EMB Enterprises intends to build three retail buildings and one 100-seat restaurant on the 4.1-acre property. The total square footage of the project would be about 28,000, with a 7,680-square-foot retail building that would be divided into four smaller stores; an 8,200-square-foot structure shown on the site plan as being one “dry store”; an 8,400-square-foot building, also divided into four smaller retail spaces; and a 3,800-square-foot restaurant.

Mr. Barra’s EMB Enterprises — he also owns East Wind Caterers — first proposed the retail and restaurant complex in 2003 for the northeast corner of Park Road and Sound Avenue, before actually purchasing the site. It was zoned for commercial use at the time. Soon after, Boom Development, a company headed by Southampton developer Ed Broidy, proposed another commercial development on the northwest corner of the same intersection, although Mr. Broidy has since discussed building houses on his land.

Facing opposition from the Reeves Park community, the Town Board in 2004 changed the zoning of both parcels — along with that of property on the south side of the intersection — from commercial to residential.

A lawsuit challenging the rezoning was filed by EMB Enterprises, and in 2007, a state Supreme Court judge sided with EMB.

The Town Board that year voted again to change the zoning to residential, intending to cover any technical problems that may have led to the ruling against the 2004 vote. At the same time, the town appealed the ruling, again under pressure from Reeves Park residents.

In February of this year, the state appellate division again backed EMB, saying the Town Board had rezoned their property improperly in 2004, and deeming the site plan approved, once it was subject to an environmental review under the state environmental quality review act, or SEQRA. “The town has no legal recourse,” Mr. Walter said in an interview this week. “We have to process this application.”

The last resort would be to ask the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, to review the case, but Mr. Walter said the town isn’t going to do that because there is no question of law at issue and the court would refuse to hear the case.

“The litigation is done,” he said. “The town would have been better off to negotiate with Mr. Barra while the lawsuit was still active and try to get some compromise.”

He said Mr. Barra had agreed to remove one of the 2,000-square-foot stores from the project.

“If the Reeves Park residents want to bring a lawsuit, they’re free to do so, but the appellate court decision is clear,” Mr. Walter said.

Mr. Barra could not be reached for comment.

tgannon@timesreview.com