Riverhead ZBA upholds controversial permit for food processing facility

TIM GANNON PHOTO | Attorney Steve Angel speaks before a full house at Thursday's ZBA meeting.

The Riverhead Zoning Board of Appeals on Thursday upheld the issuance of a town building department permit to allow J. Kings Food Service Professionals to operate a food processing and storage facility at the old Blackman Plumbing warehouse on Sound Avenue in Calverton.

The decision came at the end of a nearly three hour public hearing in a packed meeting room in which several neighbors raised concerns about potential traffic and noise from the proposed facility.

The hearing was brought about because neighbor Austin Warner had challenged the building department ruling, claiming the property’s zoning — Agricultural Protection Zone — doesn’t allow agricultural processing.

Mr. Warner challenged the building permit in court and before the ZBA.

Steve Angel, Mr. Warner’s attorney, argued that a 1974 ZBA ruling allowed the former potato chip manufacturing site to be used as a warehouse for plumbing supplies, and that John King’s company was seeking to use it as a food processing and storage facility, which he maintains is a different use.

“A use variance can’t just be changed by simple stroke of the pen by an official without proper analysis,” Mr. Angel said before the ZBA.

Mr. Angel also said the proposed use doesn’t meet the town code definition of agricultural production.

Initially the 1974 variance only allowed the warehouse use for Blackman, but a 2000 ZBA decision modified it to permit warehouse use for other companies, Mr. Angel said.

Town building inspector Sharon Klos said she granted the permit because she felt the uses Mr. King proposed for the site are within the scope of a warehouse, and she said the history of the building clearly shows that the warehouse use has not been discontinued.

Mr. King said that when he went into contract to buy the building, he assumed the agricultural use he proposed was permitted.

Joe Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, which has supported the proposed facility, said the state definition of agriculture supports the proposed use, and the town’s stated goals of the APZ also support it.

The facility, he said, would allow local farmers to get better value for their crops by extending the life of their product. He said the hydro cooler Mr. King is purchasing for the site costs $900,000 and individual farmers could not afford to buy that equipment on their own.

Several residents who live on nearby Baywoods Drive and on Sound Avenue near the Blackman site said their concern is with traffic, which they said is already a problem on Sound Avenue.

Kevin Wells of Sound Avenue said, “We are here because we want to know why this was pushed through in such a hasty manner?”

He said no one in the neighborhood was notified.

Mr. King said “there was no cloak of silence.” He said he held meetings with farmers earlier in the year and established a web site in February showing how the facility would work.

Mr. King said he assumed the proposed use was permitted. He said he held an open house on Tuesday, which some neighbors said they didn’t know about, and that he will do it again if they want.

Phil Barbato of Jamesport, who owns an organic farm, said he has a problem with the concept of Mr. King’s facility.

“Sustainable agriculture means you become part of the community and sell to community members and it doesn’t go 3,000 miles to Costco,” he said. “I sell locally to people, directly to human beings.”

At the end of the hearing, the ZBA went into a closed executive session to discuss “potential litigation,” according to attorney Bob Duffy.

They didn’t specify what potential litigation.

When they returned, Mr. Duffy  — who was filling in because the ZBA’s regular attorney, Scott DeSimone, recused himself due to a conflict — told ZBA members that in his opinion, the proposed use didn’t meet the town’s definition of agricultural production.

However, he said he feels it does meet the definition of warehouse, the use currently permitted by prior ZBA rulings, and that the other uses qualify as permitted accessories to a warehouse.

With that, the ZBA voted 4-0 (it is currently one member short due to the recent resignation of Charles Sclafani) to reject Mr. Warner’s request to overrule the building permit.

“You’re wrong,” a man in the back of the meeting room shouted after Mr. Duffy spoke.

Both Mr. Warner and Mr. Angel declined to comment following the meeting.

“It’s not about winning or losing,” Mr. King said. “It’s about what’s best for the community.”

He said he’s already ordered the freezers planned for the facility and hopes to have it running soon.

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