Supe: Town plans to sue plaza owner for tree cutting

A stop-work order was issued at the Route 58 BJ's and KMart shopping center in June. (Credit: Tim Gannon)
A stop-work order was issued at the Route 58 BJ’s and KMart shopping center in June. (Credit: Tim Gannon)

A month after issuing a stop-work order at the BJ’s and KMart shopping center for cutting down several trees without proper permits, Riverhead Town plants to authorize legal action against the shops’ owners, according to Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter. 

The Town Board discussed the issue in executive session after last Thursday’s Town Board work session, and while no formal vote has been taken yet, both Mr. Walter and Councilman Jim Wooten said afterward that the board does plan to take the developer to court.

Mr. Wooten said he doesn’t think the clearing done at BJ’s was “obscene,” though it was still done without permits.

“I guess with the competition from Costco down the road, I can almost understand why they would do this,” he said. “But they should have come and got the permits. They did violate the site plan so they are going to have to pay the price.”

The discussion came nearly a year after clear-cutting at the Costco site drew the ire of many in town — most notably, the plaza’s neighbors — for what they perceived as clearing too much land on the Route 58 plot. Mr. Walter said in a July 6 article that he hoped to draw up certain restrictions to preserve trees in town.

East End Commons — the BJ’s and KMart shopping center — was built in the mid-1990s and the buildings were deliberately kept back off the road and buffered by trees, according to Jim Stark, who was a town councilman at the time.

“This was when Joe Janoski was supervisor and I was on the board,” Mr. Stark said in an interview. “We required two things. We required a buffer on Oliver Street that was set back 150 feet, and on Route 58 they weren’t supposed to touch anything from the first 100 to 125 feet from the road. It was at least 100 feet, and that was covered in the site plan approval. So any destruction of vegetation in that area is a violation of the site plan.”

Mr. Stark said the property had a different owner at the time, but the current owners still have to abide by that site plan.

“Everybody already knew where Kmart and BJ’s were,” Mr. Stark said. “They didn’t have to be wide open like these other shopping centers the Planning Board has approved. It’s an insult to the town.  Back then, the Town Board had site plan approval, which I think they should have the final say on site plan approval again.”

The town switched site plan approval from the Town Board to the Planning Board in 2006, with the exception of projects in EPCAL or downtown, where the Town Board retained site plan approval.

In the past few years, there have been a number of large shopping centers approved on Route 58 in which much of the land has been cleared, particularly the Costco/Shops at Riverhead development, where the Town Board and Planning Board allowed the developer to clear-cut the entire site, even it it wasn’t planning to immediately develop the entire site.

Mr. Stark said the requirement that the trees on Route 58 in front of BJ’s remain untouched was a site plan requirement and it was set forth in a covenant. Mr. Walter said the town now thinks the covenant was never applied, although it was supposed to be.

He said it was a site plan requirement.

The town issued a stop-work order to the tree clearing on June 6. The clearing is not on the same scale as what was done at the Costco site, and some trees still remain at the entrance to the BJ’s site.

Mr. Wooten said the town will likely bypass filing charges in town justice court and go straight to state supreme court, which allows steeper fines. 

He said it was unclear if the town will ultimately require East End Commons to replant the trees that were cleared or if they will seek an amended site plan approval to legalize them.

Mr. Walter said he can’t speak to whether or not the developer will seek an amended site plan.

The property is owned by East End Commons Associates, a limited liability organization, and their tax bills are handled by the Feil Organization in Manhattan.

A message left with the Feil Organization seeking comment on the clearing issue was not immediately returned.