Officials hope lifting the ban on drive-thru restaurants would expedite re-occupancy of the former McDonald's restaurant building that's been vacant since September 2020. Photo: Alek Lewis

A proposed code change that would allow restaurants, coffee shops and cafés in Wading River to offer drive-thru service is being considered by the Riverhead Town Board. 

The idea of amending the Business CR zoning use district, which is primarily located along areas of Route 25A, was triggered by Wading River residents expressing to board members their disappointment with the continuing vacancy at the former McDonald’s restaurant site on Route 25A and Wading River Manor Road. The vacant building has become an eyesore, officials said.

The Business CR zoning use district allows drive-thru windows for banks and pharmacies, but not restaurants or any other type of business. That was the recommendation of the Wading River Hamlet Study done in the late 1980s.

“So the residents were adamantly against drive-ins back in the day,” Councilman Tim Hubbard said at today’s town board work session. “Now I’ve heard chatter from people in the area that are like, well, you know what, we’d rather have a McDonald’s with a drive-thru than an empty building sitting there,” he said. “it looks horrible. It’s been, it’s been vacant for quite some time.” 

The McDonald’s franchise closed down in September 2020. The owner of the site told The Riverhead News-Review at the time that McDonald’s was not renewing leases on sites that did not have drive-thru windows due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Mattituck McDonald’s, which does not have a drive-thru window in compliance with Southold Town Code, continues in operation.

Town board members today agreed to call a public hearing on the proposed amendment to hear the community’s comments.

“I can tell you from myself living in Wading River, things have grown over the years,” Councilman Ken Rothwell said. “We now have a CVS drive-thru there, we have a Walgreens drive-thru, we’ve got multiple banks that have always had drive-thrus. It’s not a new concept to Wading River,” he said.

“And I will tell you firsthand from driving by that building 10 times every single day, it’s getting dilapidated,” said Rothwell, who owns a funeral home just west of the former McDonald’s. “It’s getting overgrown, and there’s not going to be any money invested in it should it remain.”

Rothwell said he has spoken to Wading River Civic Association president Sid Bail, who told him that the civic association remains opposed to drive-thru restaurants in Wading River. 

“But I’ve also reached out to many, many of my neighbors, co-workers, people living in the community. And the other side is that many advocate for it,” Rothwell said. He said he also had a phone call from a handicapped person who felt they were being unfairly treated by not having a drive-thru in the area for easy accessibility. “It’s a valid concern, and so I think we should take that into consideration as well,” Rothwell said.

“In reality — and I appreciate the work that civics do — but SId Bail and the Wading RIver Civic doesn’t represent Wading River,” Hubbard said. “It represents the people that belong to the Wading RIver Civic. And those people may have a common thought, but there are many others in the area that have thoughts and views and just because they’re not with the civic doesn’t mean the civic determines what is and isn’t going to happen,” Hubbard said.

Bail said in a phone interview after the work session the Wading River Civic Association remains opposed to drive-through restaurants in the Wading River hamlet. While not every Wading River resident is a member of the civic, Bail said he believes the organization has its finger on the pulse of the community. 

“I don’t know how everyone in Wading River thinks on all issues,” Bail said. “I’m not omniscient. But we follow issues more closely,” he said. “We’re frequently the canary in the coal mine — not only in the Town of Riverhead but also in Brookhaven.” The Wading River hamlet — and the civic — spans the town line. 

“We’re open to the public. We’ve been around since 1935,” Bail said.

“We’d like to see another business there,” he said of the former McDonald’s site. He brought up the flooding issues that affected the parking lot of the McDonald’s and the adjacent Walgreens, wondering if that issue has been resolved or if it factors into the continuing vacancy.

Bail said traffic congestion at the intersection of Route 25A and Wading River-Manor Road is another concern. A drive-thru use there would likely worsen congestion at an intersection already identified as troublesome by town planning consultants working on the comprehensive plan update, Bail said.

“Why make zoning changes like this while the comprehensive plan update is underway,” Bail asked. “Shouldn’t this be considered as part of the update?” Bail is a member of the town’s Central Advisory Committee formed to work with the planning consultants on the update. He said the proposed zoning change has never been brought up by the consultants, the advisory committee, or during community hamlet meetings.

Bail noted that Southland Corporation originally planned a 7-Eleven at that site, but the town adopted zoning — advocated by the civic — that bans 24-hour businesses. Southland sued the town and the case was ultimately decided in favor of the town by the state’s highest court, which ruled that the zoning was the result of a careful hamlet study and should be upheld. Would the town also consider removing the ban on 24-hour business operations, Bail asked.

The point of the hamlet study and the resulting zoning was to try to preserve the rural character of the hamlet, Bail said. A subsequent Wading River study, in 2011, focused on the Route 25A corridor and resulted in the reduction of areas zoned Business CR, because the community was concerned about an overabundance of retail zoning in the area.

Planner Greg Bergman told the town board today the zoning change would affect more than the McDonald’s site. There are vacant properties in Wading River zoned Business CR that could be developed with drive-through restaurants, coffee shops and cafés if the change is approved. The CR district also exists on Middle Country Road across from Fresh Pond Avenue in Calverton.

A hearing on the proposed amendment will likely be held next month. 

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: [email protected]