Residents filled the Riverhead Town Hall meeting room Tuesday night, when the town board heard public comment on two controversial proposed codes. Photo: Alek Lewis

The Riverhead Town Board will likely revise a proposed amendment to the town code that aims to regulate the operation and placement of new firearm businesses, after hearing polarized opinions from more than 20 people last night.

During the sometimes contentious public hearing that lasted an hour and a half, many of the speakers were unable to separate the zoning and business regulations proposed in the amendment from both the national conversation surrounding gun violence and two gun shops currently seeking approval by town officials. Frustrated town officials attempted to keep the hearing on track.

Under the proposed code, firearm dealers and gunsmiths would be allowed only in the Business Center and Shopping Center zoning use districts, which are primarily located along the Route 58 commercial corridor. Firing ranges would be confined to the Commercial Residential Campus, Planned Industrial Park, Industrial C and Industrial B districts, which are mainly located off of Route 58, at the Enterprise Park in Calverton, and on West Main Street and Pulaski Street west of Sweezy Avenue. The proposed code would also ban the sale of guns at a firing range, making businesses that combine the retail and recreational use prohibited.

Among other regulations in the code is the prohibition of firearm businesses within 1,000-feet of any K-12 school, daycare center, preschool, child-care facility, college or university, public park or playground, place of worship, library, nursing home or existing firearm business. It also prohibits the businesses 150-feet from any property with residential use. Although the code also allows the board to grant a special permit skirting these proximity regulations if it finds the location is “sufficiently buffered by existing conditions” so that the firearms business would not adversely impact any of those uses.

At the start of the hearing, town board members distanced themselves from the proposed legislation.

“I just want to make a note that no one on this board created this resolution,“ Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said.

The first public conversation for a law regulating firearm businesses took place last month in a work session, when the board agreed with Town Attorney Erik Howard and Community Development Director Dawn Thomas that firearm businesses should not be allowed in downtown zoning districts, because they were thought to be incompatible with ongoing downtown revitalization efforts. A draft of the code was not yet available, Howard told board members during the work session. The final version of the proposed code was presented to the board on the day it voted to schedule last night’s public hearing.

[See prior coverage: Riverhead considering ban on firearms businesses downtown]

“A lot of the general ideas with the buffers and the special permit process was, I did explain that part, but the only thing that was outstanding were the zoning use districts,” Howard said at the start of the hearing. “So the zoning use districts that are set forth in here are reflective of discussions between myself and Dawn Thomas and the planning department. If they aren’t fully formed or if they could be revised, we’re certainly open to that. This is just what we came up with; it’s our first shot at it.”

Councilman Ken Rothwell said at the beginning of the hearing that while he would “always vote for a public hearing on basically any topic,” he could not support the law in its current form because he disagreed with its prohibition against gun shops and firing ranges in the same premises.

“I think that’s a major, major safety component, is having the two of them together, and so I won’t support legislation that’s going to separate both of them,” Rothwell said. “I would like to get lessons on the firearm right then and there and where the safety is on it and how to properly load it, how to discharge the weapon and how to put it back into the safety box…”

He said what was brought to his attention during the work session was the question of whether or not to have gun shops near the town square. He said two other gun ranges in the town, the Peconic Sportsman’s Club and Baits and Barrels, both operate outside of the zoning proposed within the amendment and “both of them do everything in an incredibly safe manner.”

“And I feel great confidence by both of them to think that this legislation — and I understand they’d be grandfathered in — but this legislation is actually saying that, ‘Oh, they’re not properly zoned, and we don’t think that they’re in the right zoning district,’” Rothwell said.

“I think that overall that we should leave gun regulations zoning up to the federal government for legislation. I don’t think it should be done here on a town level,” Rothwell said, though the zoning power is one traditionally reserved to state and local governments.

“I think part of this is an emotional thing that has happened on a nationwide level. And I think that there is absolutely a place to address and discuss. But I think it comes down to mental health and I think that should be what’s at our priority right now,” Rothwell said to groans from the crowd.

The public hearing room drew a larger than usual audience Tuesday evening, with three public hearings on the agenda. People came out from neighborhoods near where the two firearms businesses are proposed.

John Moran, a board member and resident of the Mill Pond Commons, which is located right down the road from the proposed Niosi Firearm Development site on Elton Street, said a survey of residents found 70% were “vehemently opposed” to the business moving to the area.

“This is where our children play. This is where our grandchildren play. This is not the place for this facility. And I cannot imagine that in all of Riverhead, there isn’t a more rural location where we can accommodate this gentleman,” Moran said.

The building at 680 Elton Street where Niosi Firearm Development proposes to open a shooting range and gun shop. Photo: Peter Blasl

Niosi Firearm Development, which previously operated a gun shop in a Westhampton Beach industrial park, was previously in front of the planning board for approval of a firearm training facility, shooting range and gun shop at 680 Elton Street. The area of the gun shop is zoned Commercial Residential Campus (CRC), which allows indoor recreation uses. Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree, the town’s zoning officer, ruled that a shooting range is an indoor recreation use. Niosi’s application was in front of the planning board.

[See prior coverage: High-tech firearms training facility planned for vacant factory building on Elton Street]

[See prior coverage: Elton St. firearms hearing tabled, intent for retail gun sales had not been disclosed & application to be amended, planner says; outcry from residents]

Karen Fedricks, who also lives in Mill Pond Commons, said a gun shop and shooting range do not fit with the theme of the CRC zoning use district, which includes schools, public office, museum and art galleries.

That was the same argument used others such as Kathy McGraw of Northville, who questioned why the town would allow a firing range in the zoning use district and whether it was added to accommodate Niosi’s application at Elton Street.

“I am in complete agreement with the move to exclude gun shops and firing ranges from downtown zones DC 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and in the railroad overlay district,” McGraw said. “What I don’t understand at all is why this proposed code amendment allows a firing range in the commercial residential campus district, the CRC.”

McGraw also called the code’s development “rushed and not well thought out.” 

Jamesport farmer Phil Barbato told the town board the proposed code needs more work. Photo: Alek Lewis

What most residents speaking on the code agreed on was that it needs more time. Phil Barbato said the proposed amendment is “a good start on some local legislation that we do really need.” He said the town should consider a moratorium on new applications for firearm businesses as the town possibly revises the code. He also said the buffer from certain other uses are too short. 

“We’re talking about guns here folks. We’re talking about bullets,” Barbato said. “I would suggest something more like if the proposed site is in a zone that is adjacent to a residential zone, it will not be permitted.”

Other residents had similar concerns, including former town board candidate Juan Micieli-Martinez of Riverhead, who said the buffers should be expanded, including a one mile buffer for schools. He also said firearm business should only be in the Planned Industrial Park zoning use district, which is located in the Enterprise Park at Calverton.

NAACP Eastern Branch President Lawrence Street said gun sales should be altogether banned in Riverhead. Photo: Alek Lewis

John McAuliff of Riverhead said the most “problematic” part of the legislation to him is the ability for the town board to waive the distance requirement for certain uses all together for the special permit.

He said he feels bad for someone who invested into a gun shop downtown, but believes they don’t belong there.

“I think it’s just not the moment in history in which we want to have a gun shop in the middle of what we’re trying to create downtown Riverhead,” McAuliff said.

Sarah Christ, a downtown resident, said she supports any changes to the zoning code to restrict firearm businesses. 

“The downtown seems to be once again on the verge of a renaissance. I’ve lived here for many years, and I’ve been waiting for that,” Christ said. “Now it’s a great time to ensure that this part of town moves in a positive direction. It said that there’s a time and place for everything. It seems to me that this is the right time in the nation’s history. And downtown is the right place to restrict the placement of gun businesses.”

Marilyn Banks-Winter of Riverhead said the town should minimize the areas that firearm businesses should be allowed in and suggested putting them at the Enterprise Park in Calverton.

“We need to look at it again and come up with a better plan. EPCAL has always been a place where activity and any type of you know activity like this should be, you know, if at all,” she said.

Banks-Winter and others also brought up issues related to gun violence throughout the country and the threats of gun violence by students at the Riverhead High School in the past month. She also brought up that Niosi Firearm Development was both burglarized and violated town law by operating without permission from the town, and said the business could not be trusted. 

Banks-Winter and East End NAACP President Lawrence Street also brought up Anthony Niosi, the principal of the business, in relation to him authoring a blog disparaging Jews, Black people and praising the founder of Proud Boys.

[See prior coverage: Firearms dealer looking to open in Riverhead is author of blog disparaging Jews, Black people and praising founder of Proud Boys hate group]

“Guns should not be in Riverhead. Period,” Street said to applause from the crowd. 

After bringing up Niosi and whether it is morally right to have a gun, Street was interrupted by board members, who said the comments weren’t appropriate for the public hearing on the code and invited him to speak later in the open comment period. 

Joseph Oliver, owner of JJ Armory, who wants to site a gun shop on West Main Street spoke in opposition to the proposed code.
Photo: Alek Lewis

Joseph Oliver of Riverhead, the owner of JJ Armory, an online firearms business pursuing a use permit to operate a gun store on West Main Street, urged the board not to adopt the new zoning. A local EMS volunteer, Oliver said he has conducted school shooting and gun violence response training within the community and gun violence “hits home for me.” 

“This is my town. I love this town. I don’t want to go anywhere else,” Oliver said. He said he’s already invested money in the downtown location and cannot afford the rent for a store on Route 58, where retail gun shops would be allowed if the zoning is approved. 

Daniel Smith of Calverton said he came to support Oliver. He said Oliver’s business is “out of the way,” doesn’t have a visible storefront and would not result in someone “walking down the street with a rifle or something.”

Smith also said that Riverhead is a rural community and many people grow up in the town with shooting sports. “So to say that a gun shop isn’t entirely family-friendly, doesn’t fit in with the history and the character of the community…But to say that you don’t want any youths to be exposed at a gun shop at all, like some kind of type of taboo thing, it just seems like cancel culture, trying to eliminate this component of our history, our community,” he said.

Some community members were against the regulations entirely. Bill Fitz of Wading River said other speakers don’t have the “history” and said that the Riverhead High School had a rifle range in the basement, and that children love to shoot. He objected to the code not allowing gun ranges and shops in the same place.

“Selling guns and being able to try them, I would love that,” said Fitz, who said he is a firearms instructor. “I’ve been licensed for a long time.” 

“Main Street, where it is, I don’t see a problem with it because it’s not a full-blown showroom.,” he said, referencing Oliver’s gun shop location.

When asked in an interview after the meeting about whether the code may go back to a work session, Aguiar said: “I’m not too sure… I’m not too sure where that’s gonna stand. You know, we have an entire town board and, you know, it may just die.”

In phone calls today, both Councilman Tim Hubbard and Councilman Bob Kern both said they do not support the code as is.

“I think from what we heard last night — and that’s the purpose of a public hearing — is we think it should be tweaked,” Hubbard said. “And I don’t believe that it should allow a shooting range in the CRC zoning district” because of the proximity to a residential area.

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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]