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Riverhead ZBA, Salvation Army work toward compromise to allow some donation bins to remain at East Main Street store

The Riverhead Zoning Board of Appeals adjourned its hearing Thursday with the Salvation Army until Jan. 27 as a compromise is sought to allow some of the drop-off bins at the East Main Street location to remain.

The Salvation Army, which is a religious corporation under state law, is seeking an interpretation from the ZBA that the store is a used as a church or place of worship, according to Alfred Lucia, the attorney for the Salvation Army.

The zoning in downtown Riverhead currently does not allow the drop-off bins. They are permitted only on land with a church or place of worship in the Downtown Center-1 zoning. Mr. Lucia said there is no definition of what a church or house of worship is under town or state law.

He said the Salvation Army store has been located on East Main Street since 1985, and has had a drop-off bins since that time where people can donate used clothing and other items.

Currently there are six bins behind the store and even if approved, the Salvation Army could have no more than two bins at the East Main Street location, under town code. 

The Salvation Army has recently moved the bins inside a fence on its property. In the past, the bins were by the road.

Mr. Lucia said the town issued a summons to the store on Jan. 14, 2019 in response to people dumping clothing outside the bins.

There were about three pages worth of documents pertaining to that case, but Mr. Lucia said there was only one violation, and the other documents were subsequent adjournments in anticipation of seeking the ZBA interpretation.

Mr. Lucia said the Salvation Army has prayer sessions inside the store, usually before it opens and after it closes. He said that prior to COVID-19, the prayer sessions would take place twice a month when Major Patrick O’Gara, an ordained minister who oversees the Salvation Army stores on Long Island, visits.

“So if I had people over my house and we prayed, would I get a tax exemption?” asked ZBA member Ralph Gazzillo. 

Mr. Lucia countered that Mr. Gazzillo is not a recognized religious organization and therefore would fall under a different set of circumstances.

Dawn Thomas, the attorney for the ZBA, asked what the East Main Street building’s primary use is. Mr. Lucia said it is a retail store that raises money to help the needy. 

Ms. Thomas asked if there is any record of the prayer services, if they take place regularly or if there published notice prior to when they take place.

Mr. Lucia said the prayer sessions are impromptu. He said there is one video, and for the most part do not take place regularly.

Ms. Thomas said there have been problems with the bins overflowing, causing blight issues. 

Major O’Gara said they have been unable to truck out to Riverhead to empty the bins seven days a week, but they have been able to empty them five or six days a week. 

“The mission of the Salvation Army is to help people who need help,” Mr. Lucia said. 

ZBA member Leroy Barnes said there may be ways to grant the exemptions for the bins without have to say it is a religious organization.

Board member Otto Wittmeier agreed and suggested adjourning the hearing to the Jan. 27 meeting, which starts at 7 p.m., which the board agreed to do.