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Revived plans for a Sonic in Riverhead set for upcoming public hearing

The Riverhead Town Board plans to set a public hearing on a special permit application for a development on Route 58 that could see a Sonic Drive-In come to fruition after all.

Sonic’s interest in Riverhead dates back to 2014, at which point the fast food restaurant chain had only one location on Long Island. Now there are four, with a fifth on the way in Shirley, which would be the closest to the East End.

Plans for a Riverhead location formally surfaced in 2015 and began to undergo different levels of review before stalling. Now the project appears to be resurrected.

The Town Board discussed the application at Thursday’s work session, where board members expressed several concerns related to traffic flow.

The development at the corner of Route 58 and Osborn Avenue, across from Apple Honda, would include the 2,759-square-foot drive-in restaurant and a 5,000-square-foot retail building. The site plan has been reviewed by the Planning Board, as well as a number of other agencies such as the Department of Environmental Conservation due to the proximity to wetlands near the site. Planning administrator Jeff Murphree said earlier this year that part of the holdup was for Sonic to get the sewer hookup across Route 58.

Attorney Sean Walter, who was town supervisor when the development was first pitched, represented the applicant at Thursday’s meeting. While the application specifically refers to a Sonic, Mr. Walter said the company is actually no longer part of the application.

“We’re doing our best to bring them back,” he said, acknowledging he would soon be transferring duties on the application to attorney Kimberly Judd after his victory in Tuesday’s election for Town Justice.

Mr. Walter said Sonic felt Riverhead was dragging its feet and it “was a little bit of an anti-business climate.” He said the property owner approached him about a year ago to help revive the project. He said they would have been further along by this point if not for the pandemic.

“We stripped the Sonic name off everything trying to get the approval and then if the Town Board allows this to happen along with the Zoning Board and Planning Board, we will then try to attract Sonic back,” he said.

Planning aide Greg Bergman noted the plans as they are currently drawn, with the covered drive-in stalls where customers have their food brought to them, are specific for a Sonic. It would be unlikely any other establishment would use that same type of facility. So if Sonic was not part of the proposal, a new site plan application would be required for any changes.

Mr. Walter acknowledged that without Sonic, the applicant would not build the restaurant.

“What they would try to then is concentrate on the 5,000-square foot retail building and try to get a tenant for that,” he said. “That would become Phase 1 and the Sonic would probably disappear.”

The concerns discussed at length Thursday in terms of traffic related largely to the exit onto Osborn Avenue, which is in close proximity to the Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance Corps headquarters. An RVAC representative raised similar concerns as far back as 2016 before the Planning Board.

“I’m concerned about the traffic from the entire site exiting onto Osborn Avenue, because the traffic backs up that for now,” said Councilwoman Jodi Giglio.

The board considered discussing changes at a future work session prior to scheduling a public hearing. Mr. Walter pushed for the public hearing so a redesign can incorporate at once both the changes from the Town Board and public.

“It’s just a lot of extra work for the applicant and money,” Mr. Walter said.

Mr. Bergman said he would prepare a resolution to schedule the public hearing at the next meeting, likely for December.