Compliments to the chef.
At least that was the theme of Thursday night’s Zoning Board of Appeals hearing, as speakers overwhelmingly supported an application for Farm Country Kitchen to have an off-site parking lot and other variances needed to continue operating at its riverfront site on West Main Street.
There also was a petition presented with more than 400 signatures supporting the restaurant’s application.
The popular restaurant, owned by Tom and Maria Carson, hasn’t been entirely popular with the town, however, as Farm Country Kitchen has operated beyond the scope of its permitted use as a 16-seat take-out deli, according to a lawsuit the town filed against it in 2012. The court case is still pending but may be resolved if the ZBA and planning board approve Mr. Carson’s current applications, officials said.
Mr. Carson has been trying to come into compliance with the town’s requirements, according to his attorney, Peter Danowski. He has leased off-site parking at the Polish Hall, he has had valet parking, and he considered building a retaining wall on the riverfront property to allow more parking there, Mr. Danowski said. He’s also considered other locations for both the restaurant and the parking,but decided instead to keep the current restaurant location, he added.
“He’s a victim of his own success,” Mr. Danowski told the ZBA. “He starts out with a little operation and soon everybody is coming there.”
The restaurant, which is housed in an old farmhouse, sells paninis, salads, sandwiches and wraps for both lunch and dinner.
His most recent proposal to solve the parking issue was to purchase a lot on Swezey Avenue, just south of the railroad tracks, for $250,000, for use as parking. Mr. Carson mortgaged the restaurant property against that purchase, Mr. Danwoski said.
That property is 575 feet from the restaurant, according to the town’s measurement, which Mr. Danowski has disputed, and a variance is needed because town code requires off-site parking to be no more than 200 feet from a primary building.
But speakers at Thursday’s ZBA hearing said they didn’t mind walking and urged the ZBA to approve the application.
“This is a particular business that this town is just crying to have more of,” said Ken Zahler of Aquebogue. “It’s not just another place to get something to eat. It’s a very special business…There isn’t anything like it in Riverhead.”
He said “the town really needs to do whatever is necessary to approve their application.”
Ron Jager Wading River said he’s always had a positive experience at the restaurant and that it’s in a “very unique spot” on West Main Street.
“That’s an area that definitely needs more people like Tom improving that spot,” he said referring to parts of West Main Street. “It’s a little bit rundown in some of those areas.”
Mr. Carson “gives back to the community is so many ways,” Mr. Jager said. Mr. Carson is a member of the Riverhead Rotary and the Riverhead Board of Education.
“Let him improve that area,” Mr. Jager said. “I think if the parking was anywhere, people are going to walk to it, because it’s really that kind of an ambiance there.”
Doug Wald of Riverhead, who manages the restaurant’s Facebook site, said that if you read social media websites like Yelp, which makes recommendations on restaurants, you’ll see that people come from all over the metropolitan area to come to Farm Country Kitchen.
“It’s a unique brand,” he said. ”If people are going to drive 75 miles or 100 mile to come to Farm Country Kitchen,” they will also walk to the restaurant, he said.
Lillian Lennon and Kelly Keenan, who are both volunteers for the RSVP Animal Welfare & Rescue Group, said Mr. Carson has always been very generous in helping their nonprofit with donations and other contributions, and urged the ZBA to approve his application.
“Tom is one of the business owners I see investing into West Main Street,” said Richmond Real Estate associate broker Ike Israel of Aquebogue, who also urged approval of the application.
Mr. Carson thanked speakers for their support.
“If I thought 10 or 11 years ago when I came here that I’d be at this meeting asking for more parking, I’d have to say it was a miracle,” he told the ZBA. “That spot was blighted and beaten, so I took a chance.”
He said he gradually started getting more and more customers until the town finally told him he was “too busy” and needed to find more parking.
On the issue of the safety of people crossing West Main Street to come to and from his restaurant, Mr. Carson said he is willing to have a crosswalk, valet parking, have a crossing guard or whatever is needed.
“If safety is the issue, you can bet I’ll be the first one to stand out there with a crosswalk sign,” he said.
The ZBA application also seeks variances to allow a front vestibule to stand seven feet from the property line instead of 25 feet, and to allow an existing deck to be 47 feet from the property line instead of the required 50 feet.
Mr. Carson also has a site plan application pending before the Planning Board that would convert the use from take-out deli to restaurant, but the Planning Board said they will not consider that application unless Mr. Carson gets the ZBA variances first.
The ZBA did not vote on the application on Thursday, and adjourned the hearing to its April 10 meeting.
“We’ve got a little more reading to do,” ZBA chairman Fred McLaughlin said.