Plans for the five-story, mixed use apartment building on the former site of the Sears, Roebuck store and three adjacent buildings have hit an unexpected snag, according to Supervisor Sean Walter.

Walter disclosed the issue last night at a candidates forum on environmental issues hosted by the New York League of Conservation Voters when he was asked if he’d support revisiting the idea of establishing a Main Road historic district — which was scuttled after opposition by property owners in the corridor.

“I’m not sure,” Walter answered. “We made our downtown … we worked with [Landmarks Preservation Commission chairman] Richard Wines to make our downtown a historic downtown and we just found out that SHPO [the State Historic Preservation Office] won’t let us take down the old Sears building. They think it’s historic,” he said.

“Everyone said it [the designation] wouldn’t have this effect,” the supervisor said, “and then we do it and now the last large block that’s vacant, we thought we could tear it down and were just told we can’t.”

But it isn’t the historic district itself that’s causing any sort of roadblock, Wines said in an interview this morning.

“Any project that involves state or federal funding will automatically be kicked to the State Historic Preservation Office for review,” Wines said. “Their criteria is whether it’s eligible to be on the National Register of Historic Places. Well, it already is. But even without the National Register designation, it would probably be found eligible anyway,” he said.

The long-vacant retail store was built in 1949, according to the state agency’s nomination document and is listed as a “contributing” property to the historic district.

With or without the historic district designation, if a property is found eligible to be listed on the National Register and its owner is seeking federal or state assistance for its development, SHPO gets involved, Wines said.

“I’ve advised everyone that probably the only thing the SHPO is likely to find eligible is the front facade,” Wines said. “That’s the only thing that has any historic significance, the first 20 feet or so of the building.”

“The existing facade is 1 1/2 stories tall. So you keep that and the new building, you set it back 15-20 feet. The first floor is retail and beyond that it’s four stories tall,” he said. Setbacks are “a standard way of accommodating historic preservation in new development,” Wines said.

“It must be compatible with surrounding structures and of course you have the two historic homes to its west,” he said, referring to the 19th Century Benjamin-Corwin houses. “So you wouldn’t want a four-story building built from lot-line to lot-line anyway,” Wines said. He said the town’s zoning code, which allows lot-line to lot-line development on Main Street, encourages “unimaginative” buildings.

Connie Lassandro, a consultant to the developer Georgica Green Ventures LLC, said the the setback would likely result in the loss of 40 to 45 units of the 160 workforce housing rental units planned for the site.

“We still think that it can work,” Lassandro said today. “We are thinking positive.”

The developer signed a contract to buy the site from Riverhead Enterprises in July, after a negotiations of more than a year.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.