After preparing to move forward with a plan to sue the owners of a 5,000-square-foot farm market on Main Road in Jamesport for operating outside the law, Town Board members opted on Tuesday to sit tight on heading to court — at least for now.
During last Thursday’s public work session in Town Hall, a resolution to authorize legal action against the owners of the Glass Greenhouse Farm Market was discussed and was expected to be approved Tuesday night.
But the resolution got tabled Tuesday by the three board members eligible to vote on it.
About a dozen supporters of the project came to speak against the lawsuit plans but couldn’t do so because Supervisor Sean Walter ended the meeting early due to icy road conditions and allowed no public comment.
Mr. Walter said the measure had been tabled in part because those in attendance didn’t get to be heard.
But, after comparing the farm market to a King Kullen last Thursday — the two-story structure features a full kitchen, elevator, office space and high ceilings with exposed beams — Councilman Jim Wooten said on Tuesday, “I think it’s a bit heavy-handed at this point to go to court. I think it’s time for us to meet with [the owners] and with the Long Island Farm Bureau and work this out, instead of having one more legal action where we’re only going to come to some resolution that we were going to come to anyway through negotiations and cooperation.”
Walter and Edith Gabrielsen own the Jamesport building, and the Farm Market was granted a temporary two-month certificate of occupancy by Riverhead Town on Oct. 4, Supervisor Sean Walter said. The market opened on Oct. 11, though without town site plan approval. The town considered commencing legal action shortly after the temporary CO expired on Nov. 4.
Councilman George Gabrielsen — Walter’s brother — has abstained from any vote related to the property, and Councilwoman Jodi Giglio has been away from Town Hall over the past week due to a family emergency. She was not at Tuesday’s Town Board meeting.
Mr. Walter said he still supports heading to court in this case.
“I walked though the facility and my opinion is that it’s a very high-end, sort of chic grocery store,” Mr. Walter said in an interview after Tuesday’s meeting. “If we were to allow this to happen, then you could do this any place in the Agricultural Protection Zone.”
However, the Farm Market’s location could prove tricky for the town if it attempts to shut the operation down through the courts.
While the entire parcel on which the Farm Market is located sits in the town’s Agricultural Protection Zone, the first 500 feet of the plot — and others in the area along Route 25 — are listed as Rural Corridor, a zone created to “allow a very limited range of roadside shops and services that are compatible with the agricultural and rural setting,” according to town code.
One of the accessory uses permitted in rural corridor zone is a farm stand. But in an accessory use in the agricultural protection zone, at least 60 percent of merchandise sold must be locally-grown — a standard Mr. Walter doubts the operation is meeting.
“If Mr. Gabrielsen wants to have 60 percent locally grown produce, I would support it 100 percent, but clearly when you walk into that building, that’s not what’s there,” he said. “If they had 20 percent locally grown produce, I would be surprised.”
Town Attorney Bob Kozakiewicz offered no comment when asked if the owners of the Farm Market could have found a loophole in the town code — which doesn’t define uses of a farm market in the rural corridor zone — though Mr. Walter said “it doesn’t matter,” as the 60-40 requirement is also mandated under state Agriculture & Markets law.
The supervisor referred to a similar case in 2010, when the town took “A Taste of Country” on Sound Avenue to state Supreme Court for the same reasons and the courts backed the town. That business is now closed.
“If this is okay, then ‘A Taste of Country’ is okay,” Mr. Walter said. “And if ‘A Taste of Country’ is okay, then King Kullen, in theory, could put a supermarket in the agricultural protection zone and the town would have no recourse.”
Mr. Wooten said most of the time when the town takes a business to state Supreme Court, the dispute is resolved by an out-of-court settlement. While he preferred attempting to sit down with the Gabrielsens before litigating, he added that he reserves the right to go to court in the future.
“We can do that without the expense of court,” Mr. Wooten said.
For the time being, Councilman John Dunleavy agreed with Mr. Wooten.
“Sometimes you have to work with people,” Mr. Dunleavy said. He said Mr. Gabrielsen told him he has ordered products that can be grown locally and help meet the 60 percent threshold — but they won’t arrive until spring.
Walter Gabrielsen declined to comment Tuesday when given the chance by a reporter after the meeting. He also declined to speak with a reporter when the News-Review first broke news of the dispute at riverheadnewsreview.com on Thursday.
Mr. Walter said the state Agriculture and Markets Department wants the town to give the business time to meet the 60-40 threshold.
“They applied for this as a farm market, and they are clearly not a farm market,” Mr. Walter said. “They have a building permit. The building is stunning, the parking lot is fine, but why have laws if you don’t enforce them?”