A plan to build a 3,200-square-foot restaurant on three-tenths of an acre on Route 58 was rejected by the Riverhead Planning Board Thursday, following a debate in which the applicant implied there was a bias against him, though stopped short of calling it racism.
On a resolution to approve the 24-seat restaurant, the vote was 3-2 against, with board members Ed Densieski, Stan Carey and Lyle Wells opposed, and Richard O’Dea and Joe Baier in favor. The vote on the application — first filed in October of 2012 — had been delayed for several meetings due to a lack of a full board at the last four meetings, and the three board members who voted against the application had all publicly stated their position at prior meetings.
Applicant Chuck Chockalingam, who said he is of Indian descent, suggested that he feels the board was biased against him in a memo to the board asking the board members who opposed the application to “reconsider their votes based not the merits of the application without any prejudice and bias.”
Bill Duffy, the planning board attorney, asked Mr. Chockalingam to specify what he was meant by that.
“Have you received anything from this board that said anything to make you think they’re being prejudiced or biased?” Mr. Duffy asked.
“No, but the indications are leading to that, because following the hearings going over two years, I’ve basically done everything the board has wanted,” Mr. Chockalingam said.
He said every time he meets a requirement the board makes, another one is added on, such as the color of the bricks, the need for windows on the building or a solution to traffic stacking on Harrison Avenue. The lot on which the restaurant is proposed is between Taco Bell and Harrison Avenue.
“You’re alleging some type of prejudice or bias when all they’ve only talked about are site plan issues,” Mr. Duffy said.
Pressed by Mr. Duffy as to whether he was saying the board was prejudiced because of his race, Mr. Chockalingam replied, “I don’t want to.”
Mr. Chockalingam said he felt the board’s vote was pre-determined.
The vote on the application, formally issued by Guddha LLC, was delayed or deadlocked for several months because the board failed to have all five members present for the past four meetings. The outcome was not unexpected, since all of the board members had previously voted, at least once, the same way they voted Thursday at a prior meeting, but those votes never led to a decision because the board lacked five members and never got a three-vote majority one way or the other.
Mr. Chockalingam, who acquired the lot from the county in a tax default, said the county Department of Public Works did not oppose the project and only one person opposed the project at the public hearing, and that was Richard Israel, who owns the adjacent property that contained a Taco Bell and an office building.
Town planner Rick Hanley said Mr. Chockalingam’s application failed to meet several parking guidelines which the board has the discretion to waive, but has not done so.
And Planning Board member Lyle Wells said his vote was based on the fact that the lot was too small and was teardrop-shaped.
“I think you’re asking for an over-intensification of the lot,” Mr. Wells said.
Mr. Densieski said Mr. Chockalingam spoke with him about the application several times.
“I think I treated you with utmost respect. I don’t think I biased you in any way,” Mr. Densieski said.
Mr. Carey defended his vote, saying the lot is very small and oddly shaped.
“You’re trying to make a building fit on that piece of property that in my opinion, is going to give the appearance of being out of character for this area,” he said. He also cited the fact that the application doesn’t meet all of the parking guidelines.
Officially, Thursday’s vote constitutes a “no action,” rather than a denial, since it failed to garner three votes on a resolution to approve the application, according to Mr. Duffy.
In order to officially reject the application, the board will have to take up a separate resolution to reject the project, and then approve that resolution, he said.
The Planning Board will likely do that at its next meeting, but in the interim, the applicant also can make changes to try and meet the concerns of the board.