Editorial: Town Board was up to task on Village at Jamesport vote

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Virginia Lammers of South Jamesport (left) and Helga Guthy of Wading River at Tuesday's Town Board meeting.

Agree with them or not, Riverhead Town Board members are justified in approving two special use permits that will allow the controversial 42,000-square-foot Village at Jamesport project to move ahead as planned on Main Road.

The board was tasked with determining whether or not proposed special uses met a set of criteria under the town code. At the heart of the matter was whether such uses would offer a net benefit to the surrounding area and the town as a whole. And while opponents have argued that the project’s additional office, retail and restaurant space would hurt other businesses in a hamlet already beset by vacant storefronts, Town Board members thought otherwise. That’s their call — and there are reasonable arguments for it.

[Click here for coverage of the town board’s permit approval]

For instance, are vacancies in the hamlet absolutely the result of a down economy, as opponents claim? Maybe, but there’s no way to prove it. Other factors could be at work. Many people driving through Jamesport’s hamlet center don’t realize there’s free parking at the community center on South Jamesport Avenue, despite a small sign saying so. It’s also hard to tell there’s some parking behind the small string of shops on the north side of Main Road. So what do many of these people do? Perhaps they head to the next, more developed hamlet with more parking and slower traffic — like Mattituck or Southold. It can be scary having to cross Main Road in Jamesport, especially with a child in tow.

As Councilman George Gabrielsen said this week, the Village at Jamesport, with its extra parking and people, could be a boon to area businesses by providing a clear, open place to park and allowing shoppers and employees to visit different types of businesses without having to cross a street. Medical and professional offices typically have more employees than most retail stores, which, without the special uses, are all that’s allowed at the site. A wider variety of businesses also means more people to shop locally, eat at a deli or pizzeria or visit a farm stand — and at varying hours. The board’s condition that the Village offer cross-access easement to the east was a good call to ensure a steady flow of shoppers between the new development and the existing hamlet center.

At 2,000 square feet each, and maxing out at 50 seats, the approval of so-called bistros raises a lot of questions — and there’s much to be skeptical and even worried about. But having two more restaurants won’t necessarily hurt other local eateries. What if Jamesport were to become a restaurant row-type destination? As Councilman James Wooten said at Tuesday night’s Town Board meeting, having restaurants on every corner seems to work fine in Huntington Village. That’s because that’s where many people in the surrounding areas go to eat. The restaurants are a destination in themselves.

The argument that Jamesport’s becoming such a destination would hurt Riverhead’s downtown revitalization efforts is also not watertight. Having two restaurant-rich hamlets in a large town with many residents, neighboring residents and visitors is certainly not a surefire recipe for failure.

So maybe a destination like the Village at Jamesport is the answer to the beleaguered hamlet’s woes and won’t necessarily make things worse. This is what Town Board members believe. Maybe they’re wrong. But they were charged with making a determination, a judgment call on special uses under the law, and they did. The alternative is that the developer builds only retail at the site — and under current zoning, he’s allowed to build just as big a building without restaurants and office spaces. Having a mix of businesses seems like a better bet.