The company that owns the Long Island Aquarium and the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Riverhead is looking to restore a dilapidated 113-year-old building it recently purchased across the street instead of tearing it down.
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.
A plan to build a 3,200-square-foot restaurant on three-tenths of an acre on Route 58 was rejected by the Riverhead Planning Board Thursday, following a debate in which the applicant implied there was a bias against him, though stopped short of calling it racism.
On a resolution to approve the 24-seat restaurant, the vote was 3-2 against, with board members Ed Densieski, Stan Carey and Lyle Wells opposed, and Richard O’Dea and Joe Baier in favor. The vote on the application — first filed in October of 2012 — had been delayed for several meetings due to a lack of a full board at the last four meetings, and the three board members who voted against the application had all publicly stated their position at prior meetings.
Applicant Chuck Chockalingam, who said he is of Indian descent, suggested that he feels the board was biased against him in a memo to the board asking the board members who opposed the application to “reconsider their votes based not the merits of the application without any prejudice and bias.”
Bill Duffy, the planning board attorney, asked Mr. Chockalingam to specify what he was meant by that.
“Have you received anything from this board that said anything to make you think they’re being prejudiced or biased?” Mr. Duffy asked.
“No, but the indications are leading to that, because following the hearings going over two years, I’ve basically done everything the board has wanted,” Mr. Chockalingam said.
He said every time he meets a requirement the board makes, another one is added on, such as the color of the bricks, the need for windows on the building or a solution to traffic stacking on Harrison Avenue. The lot on which the restaurant is proposed is between Taco Bell and Harrison Avenue.
“You’re alleging some type of prejudice or bias when all they’ve only talked about are site plan issues,” Mr. Duffy said.
Pressed by Mr. Duffy as to whether he was saying the board was prejudiced because of his race, Mr. Chockalingam replied, “I don’t want to.”
Mr. Chockalingam said he felt the board’s vote was pre-determined.
The vote on the application, formally issued by Guddha LLC, was delayed or deadlocked for several months because the board failed to have all five members present for the past four meetings. The outcome was not unexpected, since all of the board members had previously voted, at least once, the same way they voted Thursday at a prior meeting, but those votes never led to a decision because the board lacked five members and never got a three-vote majority one way or the other.
Mr. Chockalingam, who acquired the lot from the county in a tax default, said the county Department of Public Works did not oppose the project and only one person opposed the project at the public hearing, and that was Richard Israel, who owns the adjacent property that contained a Taco Bell and an office building.
Town planner Rick Hanley said Mr. Chockalingam’s application failed to meet several parking guidelines which the board has the discretion to waive, but has not done so.
And Planning Board member Lyle Wells said his vote was based on the fact that the lot was too small and was teardrop-shaped.
“I think you’re asking for an over-intensification of the lot,” Mr. Wells said.
Mr. Densieski said Mr. Chockalingam spoke with him about the application several times.
“I think I treated you with utmost respect. I don’t think I biased you in any way,” Mr. Densieski said.
Mr. Carey defended his vote, saying the lot is very small and oddly shaped.
“You’re trying to make a building fit on that piece of property that in my opinion, is going to give the appearance of being out of character for this area,” he said. He also cited the fact that the application doesn’t meet all of the parking guidelines.
Officially, Thursday’s vote constitutes a “no action,” rather than a denial, since it failed to garner three votes on a resolution to approve the application, according to Mr. Duffy.
In order to officially reject the application, the board will have to take up a separate resolution to reject the project, and then approve that resolution, he said.
The Planning Board will likely do that at its next meeting, but in the interim, the applicant also can make changes to try and meet the concerns of the board.
The developer planning to build a 24-seat, 3,200-square foot restaurant on three-tenths of an acre between the Route 58 Taco Bell and Harrison Avenue will have to wait again before the Riverhead Planning Board makes a decision on application.
The Planning Board on Thursday postponed its vote to a future meeting after the board ended in a 2-2 tie, with board member Lyle Wells absent.
At its previous meeting, they postponed the vote for two weeks because newly-appointed member Stan Carey, in his first meeting, wanted to get more information before voting.
And two weeks before that, the vote was postponed the vote because board member Ed Densieski was absent, and the vote ended up tied 2-2.
Mr. Densieski and Mr. Carey both voted against the application on Thursday, while Planning Board chairman Richard O’Dea and vice-chair Joe Baier voted for it.
Mr. Wells, who was absent last Thursday, voted against the application a month ago.
The applicant, Guddha LLC, headed by Chuck Chockalingam of Westhampton Beach, acquired the property in tax default from Suffolk County, and has been trying to develop it with a restaurant for more than eight years.
The property is zoned Business Center, which requires at least a half-acre to build, but Mr. Chockalingam claims that since it’s a single and separate lot that was created in 1950, prior to the advent of zoning, he is permitted to build on it.
Mr. Densieski said he strongly believes in people’s property rights, but added, “Putting a restaurant there is the epitome of poor planning.”
Mr. Carey said he reviewed the site plan and sat in the Walgreens parking for 20 minutes observing traffic at the site, which he said was stacking up on a Saturday morning where the proposed entrance to the restaurant would be.
“I really couldn’t get past how that building was going to fit on that property,” Mr. Carey said in voting against the proposed the restaurant.
Simple Table, a new restaurant proposed on West Main Street along the banks of the Peconic River, received site plan approval from the Riverhead Town Planning Board on Thursday.
The proposed 40-seat restaurant on 305 West Street, across from Concern for Independent Living, is expected to be open by April at best and Memorial Day at the latest, according to Tom Mielnicki, who bought the property earlier this year and plans to run the restaurant with his 23-year-old daughter, Ariana, a culinary student at Suffolk County Community College.
The Mielnickis have described the proposed restaurant as offering “comfort food served family style.”
Mr. Mielnicki, who is vice president of the Polish Town Civic Association, will be the executive chef at the new restaurant.
“This is another vacant store downtown that’s gonna be filled up with a good use,” said Planning Board member Ed Densieski in casting his vote in favor of the site plan. “I’m looking forward to it.”
The application has approval from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the town architectural review board, and the state Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act, which limits what can be built along the Peconic River.
“We’ll also have a kayak launching area on the river,” Mr. Mielnicki said following the approval. He said the state DEC recommended that.
The proposal calls for converting a vacant building on the site into an office and building an 18-foot addition addition on the building.
Mr. Mielnicki said he still has some paperwork and some construction to do on the property, which measures .31 of an acre.
The property currently includes three buildings, including the one designated for the proposed restaurant. One of the smaller structures is currently used as an office, and Mr. Mielnicki has said he plans to build a small addition to connect two buildings that are just eight inches apart, giving the restaurant a total of roughly 2,300 square feet. The third building will remain freestanding.