08/16/13 8:00am
08/16/2013 8:00 AM

TIM GANNON FILE PHOTO | The site of the Knightland shopping center at the corner of Sound Avenue and Route 25A. Village Beverage has since moved.

The Riverhead Town Board appears ready to grant an excavation permit that will pave the way for the construction of Knightland, the controversial retail center planned for the intersection of Route 25A and Sound Avenue in Wading River.

Board members discussed the plan briefly at last Thursday’s work session and informally agreed to issue the permit at the upcoming Town Board meeting — despite the fact that there is still an active lawsuit challenging Knightland’s site plan approvals.

That suit is currently in the appellate division of the courts, after the Riverhead Neighborhood Preservation Coalition, which challenged the town’s initial approvals, appealed a state Supreme Court ruling dismissing their original case, according to town attorney Bob Kozakiewicz.

The courts have not issued any orders preventing the development from moving forward while the case is being appealed, and have rejected a request to issue one, he said.

“The risk, if there is any, is on [Knightland principal] Kenney Barra,” said Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter. “The litigants had applied for a temporary restraining order and were denied, so there is no prohibition against us issuing the permit, and the developer could actually go to court and force us to issue the permit.

“If the developer begins construction and then loses the lawsuit, then Kenney Barra has a problem.”

TIM GANNON FILE PHOTO | A model, presented in 2011, of the Knightland development planned for Wading River.

Peter Danowski, the attorney for Mr. Barra who’s been asking the town since March to issue an excavation permit for the project, said he didn’t think it was risky to proceed with the development while the appeal is still pending.

“It’s risky to invest in projects in an economy that’s not great, but these investments hopefully will increase the tax base in the town,” Mr. Danowski said.

Mr. Walter said he liked the site plan Mr. Barra has submitted and doesn’t think it will clear-cut all the trees on the parcel, as several developers have done recently on Route 58.

“Kenney Barra does a nice job with landscaping,” Mr. Walter said. “There’s a couple of pretty dense tree buffers proposed in several locations and there’s a natural tree buffer around Sound Avenue and he does a beautiful job of dressing up East Wind Caterers,” which Mr. Barra owns.

“When you’re driving along Sound Avenue, you don’t even notice that East Wind is there,” Mr. Walter said.

“When he does something, he does it right,” Councilman John Dunleavy said of Mr. Barra.

The triangular-shaped property for which the shopping center is proposed had been rented to a beverage store.

The Knightland plan calls for 32,500 square feet of retail space and a 4,900-square-foot restaurant in a complex comprising 24 small buildings.

Knightland LLC received site plan approval from the Riverhead Planning Board on Dec. 15, 2011. Members of the nonprofit Riverhead Neighborhood Preservation Coalition filed a lawsuit challenging that approval the following day.

The lawsuit claimed the project didn’t comply with the zoning for the property and that the town failed to consider the cumulative impacts of this project along with other development proposals in the area.

State Supreme Court Justice Hector LaSalle dismissed the case in April 2012 on the grounds that the nonprofit and the three residents who joined its lawsuit as individuals all lacked “standing” to bring the action and failed to show how they would be negatively affected by the development.

The Town Board declined to include Knightland in the Route 25A planning study it initiated two years ago because of the lawsuit.

“Once the Town Board refused to intervene and the Planning Board approved this tourist mall — despite state environmental law and the zoning — and then the litigation process became protracted, this clearing permit became fairly inevitable,” said RNPC president Dominique Mendez. “It’s how the process works and it works especially well for developers.

“I certainly hope that Mr. Barra does not tear down these woods without having first attained his financing and securing his tenants, otherwise all the community may be left with is a wide swath of stripped land at the start of the Sound Avenue historic rural corridor,” she said.

The Town Board recently made code revisions that require developers to obtain a building permit before a clearing permit can be issued. The changes were made after several town officials came under criticism when a handful of Route 58 developers got the OK to clear-cut land before acquiring building permits. Town planning and building administrator Jeff Murphree said the building permits for Knightland are ready to be issued. Mr. Walter said he anticipates the excavating and building permits will be issued simultaneously.

tgannon@timesreview.com