Sparks fly on country inn debate

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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