Residents show support for Suffolk Theater’s green room proposal

Suffolk Theater owner Bob Castaldi was joined by more than 20 residents at Wednesday night’s Riverhead Town Board meeting to express support for an expedited approval of his green room proposal.

During the public hearing to discuss his site plan for fencing and the addition of a temporary trailer for a green room, Mr. Castaldi said the adjacent Esseks, Heftner, Angel, DiTalia and Pasca law firm has initiated eviction proceedings against the theater. The theater’s current green room — a space where performers can wait before going on stage — is located in one of the law firm’s offices.

“We are waiting for the ax to fall,” Mr. Castaldi said. “The second we get thrown out of there, that’s officially the end. I’ve got days, not a week or a month.”

Supervisor Sean Walter said the Town Board couldn’t approve the plans Wednesday because the application needs both preliminary and final site plan approval. The Town Board also needs time to review comments made at the hearing.

The supervisor added: “We’re not letting the theater shut down.”

Board members have also said they can’t vote without first seeing the temporary trailer, which Mr. Castaldi hasn’t received yet.

The dispute between the theater and the law office began a few months ago when Mr. Castaldi fenced off a section of his property that the law firm has used for parking for more than 50 years because he hopes to hold outdoor events such as weddings there. About 16 parking spaces were taking up by the fencing.

For the past four years, the theater has been leasing space at the law office for a green room. The law firm moved to evict the theater from that space once the parking was fenced off.

Mr. Castaldi said without a green room, there will be no performers at the theater and, therefore, the theater will shut down.

Suffolk Theater general manager Dan Binderman said the theater employees about 70 people and has attracted acts like Mavis Staples, Arlo Guthrie, Judy Collins and Gilbert Gottfried. He said there has been investment in downtown Riverhead because of the theater, and they’ve received letters from people saying it is “crucial to the development of the community.”

After receiving an eviction notice, the theater submitted a site plan application for a 576-square-foot temporary trailer to use as a green room and a 192-square-foot shed and an eight-foot high stockade fence around the property.

The property behind the theater is owned by Mr. Castaldi, who also has an exclusive easement agreement with the town parking district from 2006 that also gives him use of the property just north of the property, which would have a four-foot-high split-rail fence around it.

Lisa Ross, an attorney from Esseks, Heftner, Angel, DiTalia and Pasca, said they have a “prescriptive easement” that allows them to park on the property fenced off by the theater because they’ve done so for more than 50 years.

She said the timing of the actual eviction is up to the sheriff’s department, but she doesn’t believe it will happen in the next 30 days.

Mr. Walter asked her to hold off on the eviction proceedings for another 30 days, but Ms. Ross, after calling her office, said she was not authorized to give more time.

She said the law firm is not opposed to Mr.Castaldi’s proposed temporary trailer. However, she said they have safety concerns over his proposed eight-foot-high fence since they believe it will create a long, dark alleyway.

An employee of the law firm said Wednesday that she  was “almost attacked” by a man behind First Congregational Church last winter.

The Rev. Dr. Sean Murray of First Congregational Church said, “We have long loved the theater” but also raised concerns about it holding outdoor events where alcohol is served, since the church helps drug addicts or alcoholics.

As pastor, he said, he will have to bring the issue to his congregation, adding, “I don’t think I am going to have overwhelming support.”

Pat Snyder, executive director of East End Arts, said that “when towns begin to revitalize, typically, it’s because the arts are at the core of it.”

Former Councilman Vic Prusinowski recalled when the theater was vacant and falling apart before it was bought by Mr. Castaldi. The town had bought the theater, but voters rejected a referendum to spend additional town money on it. Mr. Castaldi spent his own money to save the theater, Mr. Prusinowski added.

When Mr. Walter asked the audience for a show of hands of how many people supported the theater’s proposal, more than 20 people raised their hands.

Mr. Walter said after the meeting that he believes the earliest Mr. Castaldi’s site plan could be approved would be at the Town Board’s Sept. 19 meeting.

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Photo: Residents raise their hands during Wednesday’s Town Board meeting in support of the Suffolk Theater’s proposal. (Credit: Tim Gannon)