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Proposal to restrict firearm businesses in Riverhead leads to wide debate at contentious public hearing

The public hearing boiled down to a proposed zoning change. But to many inside a packed Riverhead Town Hall Tuesday evening, the topic at hand represented a much larger issue that has proven to be one of the most divisive in America.

The Riverhead Town Board heard from more than 20 people during a sometimes contentious and animated hearing related to a proposed code change that would establish regulations for where a firearm business can operate within the town.

Town attorney Erik Howard and board members often reminded residents that the hearing related specifically to the proposed zoning change, but the public comments still often veered into wider discussions on firearms and safety issues, as well as to a proposal for a firearms training facility on Elton Street that hovered over much of the night’s discussion. The proposed code change first became public shortly after the most recent mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas that have propelled gun control measures back into the national forefront.

There’s currently no part of the code that specifically addresses firearm facilities. The proposal aims to establish the zoning districts where a retail firearm business or firing range can operate, specifically excluding the downtown area as the town seeks to continue revitalization efforts that make the area more family-friendly, including the new Town Square project. Firearm dealers and gunsmiths would be permitted within the Business Center and Shopping Center, while firing ranges would be allowed in four of the 13 town zoning districts: Commercial Residential Campus, Planned Industrial Park, Industrial C and Industrial B zones. A special permit would also be required.

Several speakers in support of gun businesses objected to how firing ranges were separated from the dealers and gunsmiths, which they said would effectively limit a store that sells guns to also have a firing range where customers could test weapons.

Larry Street, president of the Eastern Long Island branch of the NAACP, spoke adamantly against guns and said Riverhead should not make it easier for guns to be purchased. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

Councilman Ken Rothwell, speaking at the beginning of the one hour and 40 minute hearing, said he would not support legislation that separates those zoning definitions and called it a “major concern.” He went on to say gun regulations should be left up to the federal government for legislation.

“I think part of this is an emotional thing that has happened on a nationwide level and I think there is absolutely a place to address and discuss, but I think it comes down to mental health,” he said, drawing a collective groan from the audience.

Several speakers applauded the Town Board for undertaking the process and provided suggestions such as expanding the definition that says a firearm business cannot operate within 150 feet from any residential property and to make that a greater distance. The proposal restricts firearm business uses within 1,000 feet of schools, day care centers, public parks, playgrounds and other facilities. Some speakers urged the Town Board to place a moratorium on firearm businesses until the code can be changed.

Sarah Christ, a downtown resident, said she supports any changes to the zoning code that would restrict where a firearm business can be located.

“It is said there is a time and place for everything,” she said. “It seems to me that this is the right time in the nation’s history and downtown is the right place to restrict the placement of gun businesses.”

Residents line up in the background waiting to address the Town Board Tuesday. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

Joseph Oliver of Riverhead, who said he has lived in the town for 33 years and has been a member of the Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance Corps for 18 years, is currently seeking to open a storefront for his gun business, JJ Armory. He said the proposed change would eliminate his ability to open a storefront right off Main Street, a process he started in January.

“To put this change in effect, it would definitely mess me up pretty badly,” he said. “I know a lot of people here don’t believe in guns and they think there’s a bad taboo. But I know that in my house, my daughter who’s here, she shoots a gun. My business partner just came back from a trip and he was shooting a gun with his little son.”

He said he aims to model his business to be similar to Baits & Barrels, which operates on West Main Street. He said he wants to open his business in the town where he lives, but that rent is too expensive for open storefronts on Route 58.

“I’m doing everything solely myself, I don’t have outside investors,” he said. “I’m just asking the town not to change anything.”

JJ Armory’s website currently says it’s an online store only with its retail location opening in Riverhead in 2022.

Daniel Smith of Calverton supported Mr. Oliver’s proposal and said it “seems like it came out of left field.”

“The way this legislation came out almost seemed like it was aimed at a blanket ban on firearm businesses opening in the town,” he said. “It was meant to deter anyone from opening a business and that just didn’t seem fair.”

Charles Sclafani of Wading River, speaking over Zoom, said he is retired law enforcement and a gun owner. He tried to address concerns related to noise and air quality, and noted the firing range facilities have air filtration systems. He also said retail gun shops and firing ranges should not be separated.

“It’s like making a cake without icing,” he said.

Town attorney Erik Howard, foreground, and Town Board members Bob Kern, Yvette Aguiar and Ken Rothwell listen to a speaker. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

Kathleen McGraw of Northville said she agrees with restricting firearm businesses for downtown zones, but said she has “serious reservations” of how the process evolved, calling it “rushed” and “not well thought out.”

She questioned why the code would allow a firing range in the CRC zoning district, where the proposed facility by Niosi Firearms Development LLC on Elton Street is proposed. An original draft published did not include that zoning district. Mr. Howard said the draft was replaced online because the wrong version was first posted and that the CRC district was always intended to be part of the code change.

“I’m here to argue firearm ranges are not appropriate and should not be permitted in a CRC district,” she said.

Cindy Clifford, a co-founder of the new downtown civic association, Heart of Riverhead Civic Association, said restricting gun businesses to industrial areas would “bolster our ongoing efforts to make Riverhead a welcoming, family-friendly community and destination.”

The all-Republican board tried to distance itself from the resolution right from the start, as Supervisor Yvette Aguiar opened the hearing by saying “it was not any member of this board that put it forward.”

John McAuliff of Riverhead later quipped, “I didn’t know legislation could sort of appear from the sky and drop down onto your agenda.”