Rendering of proposed development at 205 Osborn Avenue, Riverhead.
Image: G2G Group website.

Nine zoning variances sought by a Huntington developer for a proposed five-story building on the corner of Osborn Avenue and Court Street drew opposition during a public hearing before the Riverhead Zoning Board of Appeals Thursday night.

Developer G2D Group, which is currently building a four-story mixed use building on East Main Street, wants to construct a 50-foot-tall, five-story building providing 39 rental apartments above ground-floor office and conference space uses on the half-acre parcel at 205 Osborn Avenue, the site of a long-vacant building formerly used as a medical imaging center.

The project is the first proposed development in the Railroad Avenue Urban Renewal Area since the town board in January adopted an overlay district aimed at incentivizing development in the area with new uses and increased development densities.

Christopher Kent, attorney for the developer, told ZBA members the requested variances won’t produce an “undesirable impact” on adjacent properties or the neighborhood. In fact, he said, the proposed project substantially conforms with the town’s transit-oriented development study and its adopted strategic plan for the Railroad Avenue Urban Renewal area.

The developer is seeking the following relief from the requirements of the zoning code, including some sections of the new overlay district:

  • a proposed front yard depth of 0.4 feet where the minimum required is 5 feet;
  • a proposed side yard depth facing a side street of 2.3 feet where the minimum required is 10 feet;
  • a proposed rear yard depth of 4.6 feet where the minimum required is 10 feet;
  • off-street parking located less than 1 foot from a property line where the minimum required is 15 feet;
  • parking stall size of 9 feet by 20 feet where the minimum required is 10 feet by 20 feet;
  • a vegetative buffer between parking is 4 feet where the minimum required is 5 feet;
  • perimeter plantings only where “orchard” plantings of one tree per 10 off-street spaces throughout the parking lot are required;
  • accent lighting with an up-lighting component where all exterior lighting is required to be directed downward under the town’s “dark skies” ordinance;
  • and accent lighting at heights of 25 and 41 feet, 8-inches above grade where maximum height for exterior lighting is 16 feet above grade.

“The objective of the adopted study is to encourage a mix of uses and increased density needed to reinvest and reinvent as part of downtown that will attract private investment from the development community,” Kent said.

“The concept is to extend the zoning regulations adopted in the DC one zoning district to the Railroad Avenue corridor,” he said. “The town is committed to redeveloping the area into a walkable, mixed use neighborhood to complement their revitalization efforts already underway just to the south on Main Street.”

The overall plan for this site is in substantial compliance with the dimensional requirements and development and design standards of the Railroad Avenue overlay district, Kent told the board.

But two nearby property owners and a number of residents disagreed.

The executive director of the Suffolk County Historical Society, located on the opposite side of Court Street, submitted a letter voicing the organizations “strong objections” to the proposal, which she characterized as “gross overdevelopment” that is not in keeping with the scale and character of the historic district.

The National Historic Preservation Act requires consideration of the impact of development on historic structures and historic districts and compels the town to seek ways to “avoid, minimize, or mitigate” any adverse effects on historic properties or historic districts, wrote Suffolk County Historical Society Executive Director Victoria Berger.

“The deep earth excavating/construction vibrations place our building at risk for cracks, damage, and vibration damage to precious fragile artifacts housed within our landmark museum,” Berger wrote.

She also objected to an “insufficient parking” for the number of residential units propose, which she said will adversely impact the business operations of the museum.

Berger questioned whether the town has studied the impact of the proposed development on the Riverhead Water District, which she said already has low water pressure in the downtown area.

The traffic study for the area was conducted on March 12, 13 and 14 of 2020, during the “sharp escalation” of COVID-19 pandemic, Berger wrote. “My own visitation records during these dates indicate an abrupt drop in visitation and, likewise, traffic in the area” she wrote, noting, “We shut down our business operations 4 days later, due to Covid 19.” A traffic study during that time does not fully reflect the typical traffic conditions on Court Street, Berger said. Typically, traffic backs up heavily between Main Street and Osborn Avenue during standard business hours, she said. A traffic study should be conducted outside of the period of “pandemic impact,” at a time that better represents typical business day traffic in the area, Berger wrote.

“The size and scale of this new structure will dwarf, shadow, and dominate over our historic structures, with no respect to the character and landmark distinction of the historic structures within the historic district,” Berger wrote. The proposed variances from the zoning code’s planting and lighting requirements will contribute to the degradation of the historic district, she said.

Janet O’Hare, president of the Riverhead Free Library Board of Trustees, said the library, which adjoins the site of the proposed development on two sides is “very concerned” about the proposal.

It would be nice to replace the existing blighted building, O’Hare said — “but not such a large building.” A five-story building would shadow the library’s property, O’Hare said. She also expressed concern that building tenants and guests would use the library’s adjoining parking lot. The library asks the ZBA to deny the variances, O’Hare said.

Downtown Riverhead resident Steven Kramer said, “This is a 10-pound building on a five-pound parcel.” He took particular exception to the developer seeing approval of a front yard depth of 4.8 inches instead of the required minimum of 5 feet.

Kramer said it is “painfully obvious,” based on the scale of the proposed building and the variances being sought, that the applicant has “no interest in being a good neighbor” to nearby property owners and residents, the neighborhood, or downtown as a whole.

Juan Micielli-Martinez, also a downtown resident, objected to the size of the building, an insufficient number of parking spaces, and the dark skies variances sought. He also questioned whether the Riverehad Water District can supply the new building not only with water for residents’ use but also for firefighting purposes.

Former Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith of Laurel raised similar objections. Granting the variances sought would “set a dangerous precedent for all future projects that would negate the substance of the recently enacted Railroad Avenue Urban Renewal Overlay District zoning,” she said.

Former councilwoman and longtime planning board member Barbara Blass, a Jamesport resident, took particular issue with the applicant’s statements that the application is exactly what was envisioned by the town. That may be true conceptually, she allowed. “However, if it takes no less than nine variances to achieve that, something is wrong — either the dimensional regulations are unrealistic, or the building is just too large for the site,” Blass said.

“If there isn’t enough room to plant the required trees in the parking lot, if there isn’t enough room to fit the required size parking stalls, if there isn’t enough room to provide for adequate vegetative buffers, if there isn’t enough room to site the buildings such that it will be just under five inches from the property line, you tell me — are the requirements of the district unrealistic? Or is this building too large for the site?”

“Finally, as previously stated, this is the first application made pursuant to the RA overlay district. While this is not a policymaking board, your decisions on these variances will be precedent-setting for the other 25 developable parcels in the district,” Blass said. “Those who supported the adoption of this district supported the dimensional requirements and performance standards as part of their approval.”

Blass reminded board members that their decisions in the variances will affect the final site plan and that the need for the variances all result from the applicant’s “self-created hardships.”

The applicant’s attorney responded to some of the comments while saying that some of the points made at the hearing did not pertain to variances but “were more site plan issues than variance issues.”

The existing building on the site is “right on the property line along Osborn Avenue,” Kent said. “It’s right up against the sidewalk… So we’re not proposing something different than what’s already existing,” he said. Also, the building was moved “as close to the corner as possible to maintain a large step back away from the library,” Kent said. “The idea is to keep it close to the sidewalk so that it creates kind of the view of a downtown downtown streetscape where you have a building located directly adjacent to the parking lot, to the sidewalk and not set back. That way you can have parking behind the building so that you don’t see the cars in the parking area in front of the building,” he said.

“As far as water — and I don’t know if that’s a real issue for the for the Zoning Board of Appeals — but we did have a flow test that was just conducted and completed. We have a map and plan proposed by H2M, the consulting engineer to the Riverhead Water District. So that’s moving forward,” Kent said.

The vacant building currently on the site is a detriment to the area, not a benefit, Kent said. “By removing that building, demolishing it and replacing with the building we’re proposing will be impressive to the Town of Riverhead, not something that’s a detriment to the town,” he said.

While the applicant is not seeking a variance for the number of parking spaces required by code, Kent responded to that criticism, saying that the developer is providing what the code requires for the residential uses and is seeking to have the site added to the Riverhead Parking District and will utilize public parking for its commercial uses.

“Most of the units are studio and one-bedroom apartments, he said. “There will only be eight two bedroom apartments at this property. And for the most part, these people are going to have one car, maybe there’ll be some people with two, but predominantly,” he said, “I think you’re going to have single people living in this — maybe couples,” Kent said.

The zoning allows 60% lot coverage and the proposal is for 43% lot coverage, Kent told the board, disputing “this whole idea that we’re stuffing this gigantic building on our site that’s too small.”

The record of the public hearing was held open for a 10-day public comment period ending at 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 5. Written comments may be submitted to the Zoning Board of Appeals by email to the town clerk or by postal mail addressed to the Riverhead Zoning Board of Appeals c/o Riverhead Town Clerk, 200 Howell Avenue, Riverhead New York 11901.

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