Sparks fly on country inn debate

05/12/2011 3:15 AM |

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The barn on the Jedediah Hawkins Inn property in Jamesport.

A proposal to change the town code governing “country inns” turned into a debate about whether civic associations are wielding too much influence in Riverhead and whether the proposal was being made to benefit just one business owner.

The proposal, discussed at last Thursday’s public work session, does not seek to increase the number of rooms allowed in a country inn — 20 under the current code — but it would allow these rooms to be in two separate buildings. The current code allows just “a building.” The proposed code revision would also require a country inn with more than 10 rooms to be located at least 1,200 feet from the road.

The Town Board held a hearing on a similar proposal a year ago but took no action because several citizens voiced opposition.
In a May 2 letter to the Town Board this year, members of the Riverhead Neighborhood Preservation Coalition civic group wrote that “it is clear … that the Town Board is attempting to change this definition to assist one property owner,” referring to the Jedediah Hawkins Inn in Jamesport. “This is not only a dangerous precedent, it is also poor public policy.”

The owners of the inn — a historic structure that was built in 1863 then fell into disrepair several years ago before being restored and reopened in 2006 — are seeking approval to convert a storage barn on the property into additional space for rooms.
Supervisor Sean Walter said he wanted more information on the proposed code change and its impacts before making a decision. He said the town should keep civic groups informed so they could give their input.

But Councilman John Dunleavy interrupted.

“You’ve got to realize, civic associations don’t really want anything,” he said. “They fight everything we do.”

“We’re frequently here on the defensive, but to characterize us as completely negative, I really resent that comment,” said Sid Bail, a vice president of the Wading River Civic Association who was in the audience when Mr. Dunleavy made his comments at the work session.

Mr. Dunleavy said neighbors had opposed catering uses at the Hawkins Inn and that the proposal to modify the barn into guest rooms would have less impact on the community and make less noise than would the catering use.

“Do we want to let this [building] become dilapidated again and have the business fail, or do we want to help a business and keep it as beautiful as it is?” Mr. Dunleavy asked.

Mr. Bail countered, “that seems to be the rationale for so many things. One thing starts out and morphs into something else and it’s always the rationale that we’ve got to do this to keep the business viable. Where does it end?”

Mr. Walter said he understands both sides of the argument, although he acknowledged, “having a few additional rooms and getting rid of catering is probably a lower impact use.”

The Hawkins Inn is one of only two designated country inns currently in Riverhead Town, but six zoning categories actually permit them, according to town attorney Bob Kozakiewicz.

The board plans to discuss the issue further before making a decision.

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One Comment

  • The question that should be asked of Pam Hunt who represents the owners of Jedediah is whether or not adding the rooms, and hence increasing seating for the restaurant will actually increase business and hence perhaps put this enterprise in the black. There has been no solid information demonstrating such an outcome if the Town Board were to grant the request. Such exceptions to the rule should have to show the viability of their proposal just as developers have to show they are qualified and eligible. The core problem with The Jedediah Inn from day one was not zoning but the ability of the owners/developers to create a viable business plan and sustain their venture. They have devolved into speculators loosing ground rapidly and now wish the community at-large to throw them a lifeline simply because they “are”.

    The history of this site is rapidly becoming a chapter of poor planning, poor policy for Riverhead. Yes, we all agree the restoration is magnificent, exceeding everyone’s expectations. It was an eyesore and safety hazard that Leroy Barnes wished to tear down and several local business speculators stepped in to “save”. However, benevolent behaviors do not necessarily grant individuals extraordinary privileges. The original plan called for extending the rural corridor zone use district down the east side of South Jamesport Avenue to accommodate the creation of a restaurant with rooms to let; the area residents did not oppose that measure. The grand opening, offered as a fundraiser for our Medical center, although burdensome from the increase in traffic and the rudeness shown adjacent residents during the many day event, also was not opposed. What was opposed was the request to erect a catering hall on the property- it was clear from the start that public policy would not tolerate such a development and that was made clear to the owners/developers. Like all other projects in Riverhead, the owners/developers took the ” lets’ build it and then get what we want because the Town will be loathe to deny us once we are in operation” attitude that has been the norm for decades- it is the approach taken to acquire project rights and privileges that otherwise would not be given from day 1.

    The community met with Mr. Luce on several occasions, asking for his business plan and to reach agreement on the nature and level of activity for the Jedediah Inn. All participants believed he acted in good faith and on behalf of his partners. It is now evident that such perceptions were incorrect. Mr. Luce is a well-meaning, ernest young man, saddled with a significant mound of debt and prior bad decisions; his outreach letter to the community clearly communicated his desire to take root once again in Riverhead, raise his family, and operate a successful restaurant. One has to feel somewhat sorry for him, as the problems he faces were not of his own making- he just inherited them and is trying his very best to achieve resolution. But empathy and sympathy alone are insufficient to make a decision on this request for more rooms at the Inn.

    In her recent natterings about what the owners/developers should be granted and her ragings against local citizens, Ms. Hunt demonstrates a remarkable bias for social democracy that perhaps even she is unaware of, as economics is not her forte. When she states that civic associations do not want any progress and that the Town has an obligation to save local business by throwing out all and any prior policy and regulations, Ms. Hunt is indeed promoting social democracy and ignoring laissez-faire economics. She in essence is asking that the Town assume the role of a social service agency and save a failing business by offering it the equivalent of business welfare through the amendment of existing policy and zoning regulations. This is a considerable shift for the Town Board from the conservative economics that up to now all had seemingly embraced; Councilman Dunleavy should at least pause and consider the economic paradigm shift he is so vigorously promoting in the recent Board discussions.

    There are many viewpoints on this business in our community. All agree the site is beautiful, although it is not a genuine, true to the period restoration. All agree we do not want it to revert to the previous mess. However the question that still demands an answer is will conversion of a storage barn into rooms to let save this business from failure? The onus is on the owners/developers and their paid mouth piece, Pam Hunt, to provide the answer, and to provide it with sufficient detail to assuage the concerns of the local community. For if this plan is not successful, what next will be asked for? And when will the requests for exception and privilege end?