Despite more than two and a half hours of community comment in opposition to a proposed new commercial development on Main Road in Jamesport, the Riverhead Town Board Tuesday afternoon voted unanimously to approve two resolutions granting special permits to Jul-Bet Enterprises LLC to build 42,000 square feet of retail, professional office and “bistro” uses.
Opponents of the plan filled the Town Hall meeting room, carrying brightly colored signs bearing one word in bold capital letters: DENY.
They made impassioned arguments against the plan, asking the board to at least delay action on the permit resolutions. But it was not to be. With Councilwoman Jodi Giglio absent due to illness, the board voted 4-0 to approve both — one pertaining to the “bistro” uses and the other to professional offices. Both resolutions were amended on the floor to include a requirement that the developer offer the town a cross-access easement intended to eventually allow shops in the hamlet access to a future parking lot. Additionally, the bistro resolution was amended to stipulate that the two proposed restaurants would have table service by wait staff. That amendment was made to prevent the developer from building fast-food restaurants on the site.
Jamesport-South Jamesport Civic Association president Georgette Keller, who is adamantly opposed to the project and had implored the board to postpone any action at today’s meeting, wiped tears from her eyes after the vote.
Her husband Robert, seated next to her in the audience, spoke his thoughts out loud: “Corruption. Corruption,” he said from his seat. He then took the podium and questioned the board’s motivation for doing business with someone he called “mob-connected.” He said board members were “either in his pocket or you’re afraid of him.”
“I have no reason to think that he that he’s mob-connected,” Councilman John Dunleavy responded.
“What happened years ago, happened years ago,” he said, referring to Jul-Bet principal Julius Klein’s past record of criminal convictions. His record includes a 1969 first-degree murder conviction, for which he served 25 years in state prison.
Councilman George Gabrielsen also took issue with Keller’s assertion. “I just want to repeat again. Councilman Gabrielsen isn’t scared of anybody — except the Lord or my wife,” he said after the vote.
“I spent 20 years on the police department not being scared of anybody, and I’ll never be a-scared of anybody,” Dunleavy said. “And I think you’re out of line with those accusations,” he told Keller.
Klein was not present for the contentious meeting, though the attorney for Jul-Bet Enterprises, Riverhead lawyer Charles Cuddy, attended.
Cuddy said after the meeting Klein is one of three partners in Jul-Bet Enterprises. In his dealings with the applicant, Cuddy said, he has never seen anything to support the idea that Klein is in any way connected to organized crime.
Cuddy also dismissed the idea put forward by some residents that the property had been accorded special treatment even before Klein bought it, because the land was owned by a “town hall insider.” The property, fallow farmland, was sold to Jul-Bet by the Froelich family. Muriel Froelich was a longtime employee in the town clerk’s office. She retired in 2010.
Critics question whether the commercial zone on the 43-acre site is deeper than neighboring properties because of Froelich’s employment with the town. Along Main Road in the surrounding area, the commercial zone runs 500 feet deep from the road. On the Jul-Bet site, it stretches back more than 1,000 feet. The rest of the site is zoned residential.
The line of the commercial zone was established by the Town Board in 1987, when the land was owned by Froelich, then a clerk-typist in the town clerk’s office. Cuddy said there’s no way her employment as “an assistant clerk” resulted in special treatment for the property on the town zoning map.
Cuddy said he represented the Froelich family in the sale of the land to Jul-Bet Enterprises, and was later hired by Jul-Bet to work on the development application after the company lost a lawsuit against Riverhead Town challenging the 2004 master plan rezoning of the property.
Jul-Bet originally sought to build 160 condominiums and an an 80,000 square-foot retail/office center on the site. Jul-Bet filed an application for the commercial portion of that project in July 2003, a few months before the town adopted its comprehensive plan. Jul-Bet, then represented by Riverhead lawyer Peter Danowski, filed a special permit petition for the condo project in April 2004, while the town was working on new zoning codes to implement the master plan. After the town in 2005 refused to accept Jul-Bet’s draft environmental impact statement, Jul-Bet took the town to court. The town won the case, with the court ruling that Jul-Bet had no vested right to develop the property under the old zoning. Jul-Bet appealed the ruling, but the appellate court affirmed.
Jul-Bet filed the applications for the bistro and professional office special permits, granted by the Town Board Tuesday, in 2007. It prepared a draft environmental impact statement, on which the Town Board held a public hearing in Oct. 2009. It filed the final environmental impact statement with the town in July 2011, which was formally accepted by the Town Board in December. The board on March 6 adopted the “findings statement” required by the state environmental quality review act, representing the board’s final conclusions about the proposed project’s environmental impacts and how such impacts might be mitigated.
The development plans consist of 17,000 square feet of professional office space and 8,000 square feet of bistro space along with 17,000 square feet of retail space — the use permitted as of right by current zoning — on a 9.7-acre parcel of vacant land on Main Road in Jamesport, just west of the hamlet center. The plan consists of 10 mixed-use commercial buildings of 5,000 square feet or less, with a total gross floor area of 42,000 square feet, according to the SEQRA findings statement.
There is no application yet filed with respect to Jul-Bet’s remaining 33 acres, where current zoning is Hamlet Residential, which allows, as of right, for the construction of detached or attached single-family homes at a density of one dwelling unit per every two acres.
In comments during the meeting, the three councilmen and town supervisor all said the mixed-use development was preferable to the as-of-right use, which would allow 42,000 square feet of retail uses. But members of the community disagreed. One by one, they went to the podium during the open comment period and railed against impacts of the development that they warned would forever change the historic hamlet.
Riverhead Neighborhood Preservation Coalition cofounder Phil Barbato said the application was a sand mine operation in disguise, because the site plan contemplates the removal of 65,000 cubic yards from the site.
“This will be an ugly scar at the western entrance to Jamesport, whether it’s actually built or not,” Barbato said. “Acknowledge the public trust we have placed in you and deny this application,” he said.
Neighboring property owner Tom Kowalsick said he is concerned about odors and noise that might emanate from the bistros, which could include live entertainment or fast food restaurants. He also expressed concern about the regrading of the site, which presently has an elevation that’s 15 feet higher than the road, he said.
“What will happen to my land because of that?” Kowalsick asked.
Kowalsick and others complained about the adequacy of the environmental review of the plan.
Larry Simms, of New York City and South Jamesport, parroting Supervisor Sean Walter’s characterization of the town’s master plan, said the applicant’s final environmental impact statement is “a load of crap.” Simms said it was nonresponsive to public comments made on the draft EIS. Among other things, he said, the FEIS simply responded to many comments with “comment noted.”
Simms, Georgette Keller, Richard Wines and Nancy Gilbert all criticized the board for lack of transparency in its review of the FEIS. They said they didn’t know it had been submitted last July until they read a newspaper report that the board had adopted the SEQRA findings statement in March.
Keller went a step further. “In May, you told me this project wasn’t going anywhere,” she said to the supervisor. “I was in your office again in August and you didn’t even mention it had been submitted,” she said.
“I’m madder than a queen bee in a hornet’s nest,” Keller said.
The supervisor said in an interview Thursday morning the town adhered to the letter of the law in the process it followed to review the permit application. While the EIS was never a work session agenda item prior to the board’s acceptance of the final EIS in December — an action that was reported by RiverheadLocal — that was not an effort to shield it from public scrutiny, he said.
“When you follow the law, you protect the private property rights of the owner as well as the rights of the community,” Walter said. “That’s exactly what we did. I think the public had a tremendous amount of input and I think we listened to the public on this,” he said, noting that the resolutions were amended on the floor to incorporate changes suggested by the public at the meeting.
In all, 18 people spoke out against the special permits. Simms delivered a petition containing 225 signatures asking the board not to grant the special permits.
Walter and the councilmen all said they believe very strongly the mixed-use development will be better for Jamesport than the retail-only center the owner can develop there without the special permits.
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