Equal Time: Riverhead Town has an obligation to enforce zoning laws

Court decisions concerning land use recently reported by the Riverhead News-Review require response by the North Fork Environmental Council. The New York State Supreme Court determinations in question basically undermine the Town of Riverhead’s independence and ability to enforce its own zoning regulations.

The News-Review article of Jan. 6 reported the determination by Supreme Court Judge Peter Cohalan requires that the town must reverse its position to dismiss the application by the Jamesport Manor Inn to expand its operation to include catering. In this article, Supervisor Sean Walter is quoted as saying that Riverhead has “no choice but to appeal [the Supreme Court decision]. It doesn’t make for good law or good precedent. It needs to be appealed.” A follow-up article on the matter that was printed in the News-Review of Jan. 20 implies that even though the town has filed a notice to appeal the court’s verdict, the Town Board may not actually proceed with the appeal. The North Fork Environmental Council believes that the Town of Riverhead has an obligation and responsibility to follow through with an appeal in order to defend its ability to enforce its zoning regulations and to protect the quality of life for Riverhead’s residents, for whom those zoning regulations were crafted.

The court determined that catering is a “permitted, incidental and customary accessory use to the permitted restaurant” and that not allowing this expansion of commercialism in the town’s Agricultural Protection Use zone would result in a financial hardship for the owners of the restaurant. However, finding that “the proposed catering facility does not change the basic nature of the use of the property” is, in Judge Cohalan’s own words, an arbitrary and capricious determination. Furthermore, the court’s decision is based in part upon the fact that there are other nearby facilities that also provide catering, such as Martha Clara Vineyards.

What apparently was not recognized is that these businesses were established prior to the adoption of new zoning regulations. The town’s position that allowing the construction of a catering facility adjacent to the restaurant is by definition an expansion of a pre-existing, non-conforming use must be sustained if the town’s own zoning laws are to have meaning.

The principal owners of the Jamesport Manor Inn, Matt and Gail Kar, are well-liked and highly respected members of the community and have donated generously to the North Fork Environmental Council. Regardless, it would be irresponsible of the North Fork Environmental Council to not support the town’s intentions to appeal the court’s decision.

The second issue that was reported in the Jan. 13 News-Review involves a state Supreme Court decision denying Riverhead’s ability to enforce an injunction against the Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard. The town was reacting to complaints by neighbors that the vineyard was conducting “special events, like weddings and parties, without obtaining proper town permits” and the noise generated by the loud music at these events was an infringement on the quality of life of surrounding residents. The court’s determination in this case was based upon the position that any activity that promotes farming activity should be allowed and cannot be regulated by town code. This decision has the potential of negatively impacting the rural character of the entire Sound Avenue corridor and the North Fork of Long Island. The council applauds the entrepreneurship of the wine-producing industry of the North Fork and the fact that most of the vintners are successful without the hosting of the types of events conducted by the Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard. Hopefully, the owners of the Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard will realize that they have a certain responsibility to help preserve the rural and scenic quality of Sound Avenue.

The North Fork Environmental Council calls on the Riverhead Town Board to act responsibly to enforce its zoning laws and protect its local jurisdiction to protect residential and agricultural zones from improper commercial development. The Town of Riverhead is a critical part of the North Fork and the government of Riverhead needs to do whatever it can to help “save what’s left.”

Mr. Bartunek is vice president of the North Fork Environmental Council.