Photo: Adobe Stock

Residents turned out Tuesday night in opposition to a town code amendment that would allow drive-through windows at restaurants and coffee shops in the Business CR (“Rural Neighborhood Business”) zoning use district.

The zoning district exists primarily along Route 25A in Wading River and in a small portion of Middle Country Road opposite Fresh Pond Avenue.

The ban on drive-through windows in the Business CR district has been in place since at least the 1990s and came about as a result of advocacy by Wading River residents who sought to limit commercial uses such as fast-food restaurants and 24-hour convenience stores in the north shore hamlet. Drive-through windows are allowed at banks and pharmacies in the Business CR district.

Then and now, it’s a matter of preserving the rural, small-town character of the hamlet, residents say.

The ban on restaurant drive-through windows is why a McDonald’s restaurant was built in 2002 without that feature on the corner of Route 25A and Wading River-Manor Road. The property had originally been slated for a 7-Eleven store, but the town adopted zoning that prohibited 24-hour business operations. Southland Corporation, which owns 7-Eleven stores and franchises, sued Riverhead Town in 1991. The town won the court case and Southland pulled out. The property owner, River Triangle LLC, then signed a lease with McDonald’s Corporation.

The McDonald’s restaurant there operated until fall of 2020, when it shut its doors, advising River Triangle LLC that it would not renew its lease because the building had no drive-through window, according to River Triangle principal Bob Steinberg.

Steinberg spoke at Tuesday’s public hearing in support of the code change.

Town board members said they put the change up for a public hearing because local residents reached out to them and other town officials to say they’d rather have a restaurant there with a drive-through window, than the vacant former McDonald’s site, which officials said residents called an “eyesore.”

“This came up because Wading River residents contacted the planning department to say they had been opposed to drive-throughs but said they’d rather have a drive-through than a vacant eyesore,” Councilman Tim Hubbard said Tuesday night.

“We put it up [for a public hearing] because we wanted to hear from the community,” he said.

Wading River Civic Association President Sid Bail renewed the civic group’s opposition to Drive-through restaurants on Route 25A in Wading River. Photo: Alek Lewis.

Board members at Tuesday’s hearing acknowledged they heard more negative than positive feedback about the code change, including a majority of the letters sent to the town clerk prior to the hearing. A majority of those who spoke at the hearing also opposed changing the code to allow drive-through restaurants and coffee shops.

Jenn Hartnagel of Group for the East End urged the board not to act on the proposed code change.

“The town is in the middle of a comprehensive plan update that ideally will examine the need, the purpose, the impacts of proposed code changes, such as this one, and incorporate community feedback,” Harnagel said Tuesday. “To pass this ahead of that process, and without any clear idea of the overall impact, is putting the cart before the horse in our view,” she said. Its adoption, Hartnagel said, would undermine the town’s planning process, prior planning studies and adopted zoning.

Steinberg, partner in the entity that owns the site, urged the board to act, despite residents’ opposition.

“I understand where you people are coming from. It’s a beautiful hamlet and we want to preserve it as well. But this is in the crosshairs of the commercial part of Wading River,” Steinberg said. “Your beautiful historic district is about a half a mile to the north of here. That’s where you should focus,” he said. “This is a site for convenience retail. The world has changed. People are much more concerned in the present generation with convenience than they ever were previously. That’s what people want,” he said. “People want a drive-through… You should provide the services that the people in the community want.”

Steinberg said McDonald’s told him they were closing all their stores without a drive-through. When members of the audience objected, pointing to the Mattituck McDonald’s that continues to operate without a drive-through, Steinberg replied, “Mattituck is a different market.” He said Mattituck likely has higher traffic counts.

Southold Town prohibits drive-through windows at restaurants town-wide.

Some Wading River residents expressed support of drive-through restaurants.

Shawn Notaro said she loves McDonald’s and loves access to drive-through service there.

Robert Scalzo, who said he has lived in Wading River for 24 years, also supported allowing drive-through restaurants.

“Based on discussion with my neighbors, they would much rather see a drive-through at that location if it increases the potential for future tenants at that location,” Scalzo said.

Nick DiPirro of Wading River said a drive-through window “would serve people who can’t get out of their car for a variety of reasons.” Traffic at the intersection of Route 25A and Wading River-Manorville Road is bad because of residential development off Wading River-Manorville Road south of 25A, DiPirro said.

Wading River Civic Association President Sid Bail said residents in the hamlet remain opposed to drive-through restaurants, for all the same reasons cited back in the late 1980s when the town did a hamlet study for Wading River. Drive-through uses change traffic patterns, increase congestion, increase litter and change the character of the area, Bail said.

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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.