Developers and residents hash it out at stormy session on Wading River’s future

BETH YOUNG PHOTO | Frank Fish of BFJ Planning spoke to Wading River residents about proposed changes along the Route 25A corridor.

Well over 200 Wading River residents packed the fellowship hall at St. John Baptist R.C. Church Saturday morning to tell planning consultants what they think of a new plan for a three-mile stretch of Route 25A that winds through the hamlet.

It was a feisty crowd that cheered loudly at every suggestion to keep Wading River small and limit development. Many seemed to dislike “Knightland,” the commercial development proposed by Ken Barra at the eastern edge of the corridor. But there was a strong contingent present that also believed in respecting the rights of commercial property owners.

The town made several recommendations for the Route 25A corridor in its 2003 master plan, but consultants BFJ Planning were hired last year to update those recommendations and examine possible zoning changes along the corridor.

Much of the land along the stretch of road is occupied by a Boy Scout camp, the Deep Pond conservation area and the Calverton National Cemetery.

Part of the corridor is in a unique zoning district called MRP, which is designated for multi-family residences and professional offices. It is the only area zoned MRP in the entire town, said Frank Fish, a principal at BFJ Planning.

BETH YOUNG PHOTO | Mary Kouras, whose property on Route 25A is slated for redevelopment, spoke at Saturday's meeting.

The consultants suggested that about 42 acres belonging to five property owners be rezoned into the MRP district. Those properties all have “Neighborhood Rural Business” zoning fronting Route 25A, which allows retail, and some are partially zoned for residential development.

People attending the meeting had a mixed opinion of the change, with some saying it would increase the number of children going to the Shoreham-Wading River School District and others saying it didn’t do enough to keep Wading River a small community.

Two developers whose property would be rezoned under the proposal adamantly opposed it.

Ken Barra, who owns The Inn and Spa at Eastwind and two of the properties slated for rezoning, is the developer of the controversial Knightland project. He said he didn’t know why he’d been demonized by the community when he said he’d done a lot to give back to Wading River. He said he was in the process of selling another property he owns on Parker Ave. to the town for open space at two-thirds of its market value.

“I work seven days a week to maintain my business,” he said. “Thousands of your kids have worked for me … I can’t even believe half of the stuff I’m hearing. We are the backbone of your community. We’re the ones that support the community.”

Recently approved by the Riverhead Town Planning Board, the Knightland proposal would replace the existing beverage store at the corner of Route 25A and Sound Avenue in Wading River with a new shopping center consisting of 24 retail buildings totaling 32,518 square feet of retail and a 4,928-square-foot restaurant.

Mary Zoumas, who owns an eight-acre property slated for development on the south side of Route 25A with her husband John, also objected. The couple recently received an offer to buy the land for preservation, she said, but she said the offer wouldn’t even cover the money she’d spent on consultants to develop the land.

“I have to endure constant criticisms. I’ve lived in this community for 42 years. We’ve been villainized as though somehow we’re trying to destroy Wading River,” she said. “I don’t understand where the person who is a developer is supposed to go. We’re not putting a strip mall in. That’s not what it is. I’m sorry that some people in the community feel as though we’re trying to make it Middle Island. We’re not.”

She said her project will likely include a 145-seat restaurant, a bank, offices and two diagnostic imaging offices.

Ralph Perez, a chef at Eastwind, said he’d lived in Wading River for nine years. Local farmers are important to him, he said, and he encouraged his neighbors to look at Ken Barra’s plans for Knightland, which are on display at East Wind.

“See what he’s building. It’s not Tanger Outlets,” he said, as the crowd began to boo loudly and several people got up and asked him to take his seat and stop talking.

Resident Patrick Dougherty wasn’t convinced that the plan will help Wading River.

“I see no assets to this. I want no development here. I don’t need more houses. I don’t need more traffic,” he said. “I don’t need pumpkin picking traffic year round.”

Cheers went up from the crowd, but one man nearby said “then you buy the property and you pay taxes. You’re un-American.”

Mr. Fish said there’s little planners can do to stop development entirely, because the courts would overturn any rezoning that denies property owners a viable economic return on their investment.

“In order to get no development you have to either buy the land or you’ve got to find a zone that guarantees a reasonable economic return,” he said. “As a planner, I can show a desire for open space, but I can’t zone for open space.”

He added that, while the MRP zoning district does have impacts, it won’t have an impact on the number of students in the school if it can be restricted to senior housing.

One woman asked if mobile home parks will be allowed in the new zoning district. Town Planners in attendance said they won’t be allowed.

Mr. Fish then asked what people liked the least about Wading River.  Many people said they couldn’t stand the traffic and the noise.

A woman who bought a condo last year in one of the residential developments in the existing MRP district said there was noise outside her window until the wee hours of the morning.

“I bought it only a year ago and it was a very big mistake,” she said. “I can’t even sit outside in summer.

Kevin Keilor of Wading River pointed out that most of the traffic on Route 25A is due to through traffic between Port Jefferson and Orient Point. “It’s not from your neighbors,” he said.

He added that, while he was disappointed at the decline in the number of farms in Wading River, “I’m not quite sure we’re in position where can start telling owners of property what to do.”

“You’re taking the rights of people who bought property. It’s just like if you had an extra acre of land and you wanted to build a house for your son on it. We have to be a little careful here how we treat people who have invested and been paying commercial taxes on this property for a long time. What does town give commercial properties? Nothing,” he said, adding that they have to hire their own garbage haulers and snow plowers.

“All the town gets is taxes that are never spent on those businesses,” he said.

The consultants will bring today’s feedback on the corridor study proposal to Riverhead Town Hall on Feb. 22, where they will make a presentation to the Town Board at 7 p.m.. They will be available to meet with residents at Town Hall regarding their concerns for an hour before the meeting.