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Should drive-throughs be allowed in Wading River? Residents weigh in at public hearing

A proposal to reverse a long-standing code restriction in Wading River that prohibits drive-through windows for restaurants drew mostly backlash at a public hearing Tuesday evening as residents argued the change would increase traffic and have a detrimental impact on the small hamlet’s character.

The proposed change would alter a section of Chapter 301 of Riverhead Town’s zoning code and apply only to the Business CR Zoning District, which is the main business stretch of Route 25A and totals about 47 acres, covering about 23 properties. The change would allow drive-through windows for coffee shops, cafes or ice cream shops in addition to restaurants. Current code allows for a drive-through at a bank or pharmacy.

The Town Board heard from more than a dozen residents during the public hearing, and several more letters were sent to the board, nearly all in opposition to the change. One letter in favor of the change was sent by the Long Island Builders Institute’s chief executive officer.

The proposal stems largely from the now vacant McDonald’s at the corner of Route 25A and Wading River-Manor Road. The fast food restaurant, which opened in 2002, closed in September 2020 — seven months into the pandemic — and the property became overgrown over the next two years. The property owners at the time cited a lack of the drive-through as key factor in low sales and the business closing.

Sid Bail, the president of the Wading River Civic Association, argues against drive-throughs. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

Sid Bail, president of the Wading River Civic Association, said drive-through windows are “potent traffic generators.” He cited the Mattituck McDonald’s that does not have a drive-through window as a example that the business can succeed without it.

He said if the code change is adopted, it’s likely other businesses in addition to the vacant McDonald’s would seek to add a drive-through window.

Cindy Clifford, a co-founder of the new downtown civic association, Heart of Riverhead Civic Association, said the change could lead to a different landscape in Wading River with wider roads and more traffic lights that becomes a “shorter replica of Route 58 or even worse, Route 25 farther west.”

“I would ask the Town Board to weigh whatever gains this would appear to provide against what we would lose forever,” she said, adding that the revision would go against the Wading River Hamlet Study that dates back three decades.

Town Board members got defensive at one point during the hearing, saying the proposed change only came about due to feedback from community members. Councilman Tim Hubbard it would be inaccurate to say the board has already decided it’s in favor of drive-through windows.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “This came up simply from Wading River residents that had contacted the building and planning department and said, ‘Look, years ago I was totally against this drive-through thing, but I’d rather have it now than have an abandoned building sitting there.”

Robert Steinberg, a co-owner of the McDonald’s property, said his group pays $40,000 a year in taxes. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

He said the conversation grew from there, which led the board to bring the topic to a public hearing.

“It’s not a decision we’ve already made,” Mr. Hubbard said.

Robert Steinberg, one of the six owners of the former McDonald’s property, said the building is in the “crosshairs of the commercial part of Wading River” and said the focus on any restrictions should be reserved for the hamlet’s historic district located about 1/2-mile to the north.

“The world has changed,” he said. “People are much more concerned in the present generation with convenience than they ever were previously. That’s what people want. People want a drive-through. I would feel any community should provide a service that people in the community want.”

He said the property owners pay $40,000 in taxes and it is the highest taxed property that they have in Suffolk County.

“We need an increased sales volume to justify our tenant paying taxes,” he said.

Several residents backed the proposed change, citing the convenience for senior citizens or pregnant women who may not want to exit their vehicle as an example, as well as the desire to see a business return to the vacant building.

Councilman Ken Rothwell, a resident of Wading River, said it’s been difficult to see a vacant building in that location. If anything were to move forward, he said water mitigation would need to be studied since the property consistently floods during rainstorms.

The public hearing will remain open for written comment until 4 p.m. July 1.