After the Riverhead Planning Board made public its plan to reschedule a public hearing on a site plan application for 680 Elton Street, where a firearms dealer is planning to open a gun shop and indoor shooting range, Supervisor Yvette Aguiar stepped in to stop the hearing from going forward.
Aguiar said in an interview this afternoon she directed the Planning Board not to hold a public hearing on the application yet and Planning Board Chairperson Joann Waski agreed.
“It’s off the agenda,” Aguiar said.
Aguiar said the proposed code revision is going to the code revision committee “where it belongs,” and when it’s revised, “there will be a public hearing.”
Waski could not be reached for comment.
The Planning Board agenda posted on the town website listed a resolution scheduling a public hearing on the 680 Elton Street site plan, though the packet of draft resolutions also posted on the town website did not include the resolution listed on the agenda.
A June 2 hearing on the site plan was adjourned because planning staff said the town was not initially made aware that a tenant planned to operate a retail gun shop there. The site is located in the Commercial Residential Campus (CRC) zoning use district, which does not allow retail uses, except as “customarily incidental” to a use allowed by the code.
Anthony Niosi, a principal in Niosi Firearms Development, a tenant at the Elton Street site, confirmed today his proposed uses there have not changed.
Though Riverhead Planner Greg Bergman said at the June 2 meeting the town was not aware of the gun shop component of the plan, Niosi had actually disclosed to the Planning board during a presentation in April that his company would offer firearm sales at the site. Bergman said on June 2 the applicant would have to submit a new application.
“It’s kind of funny,” Niosi said in a phone interview this afternoon, “because if you think about it, I wasn’t moving a range seven miles so I can add a store. I was moving a store seven miles so I can add a range.” Niosi Firearms had a retail shop in the Hampton Business District near Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach. “So to say you didn’t know, there’s going to be gun sales there, I mean, you know, how do you miss that?”
Nevertheless, Niosi said, the landlord Signature Partners is pursuing the site plan application and a change of use for the building, which would also house an HVAC warehouse and office space.
There is a separate, but related battle of sorts being waged in Town Hall between the Town Board and residents over a proposed town code amendment introduced after the 680 Elton Street application was discussed by the Planning Board. A first draft of the code amendment, intended to regulate firearm businesses within the town was authored by Town Attorney Erik Howard and Community Development Director Dawn Thomas. It would have allowed firearm businesses to operate only by special permit of the Town Board, and would have prohibited the businesses within specified distances from certain uses.
It would have also made shooting ranges and firearm dealers two seperate uses allowed in different zoning use districts, and would have prohibited combining gun shops and shooting ranges on the same site. Under that draft of the code, gun shops would be prohibited in the CRC zoning use district, where Niosi’s facility is proposed.
The public’s opinion on the code was split during the hour-and-a-half-long town board public hearing on June 22. A majority of board members said after the hearing that the proposal would not go forward as introduced.
Many of the residents who expressed support for the proposal have continued to address the board throughout the last month. At the July 19 Town Board meeting, Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said the code had no board member support, and board members agreed that the code went “too far” in restricting gun businesses within the town. During the discussion, prompted by a resident’s question, Councilman Tim Hubbard said he would work on the code further and take it to meetings of the town’s code revision committee.
During today’s Town Board meeting, residents again spoke in support of changes to the zoning code to address firearm business uses. An open letter to the board, signed by the Heart of Riverhead Civic Association, the Wading River Civic Association, the Greater Jamesport Civic Association, the Board of Trustees of the Northville Beach Civic Association and other residents, urges the town to adopt a moratorium on firearms businesses in the town and establish a Firearms Advisory Committee of local residents to have input in revising the code. The letter was read aloud to the board during the meeting by Heart of Riverhead Civic member Peter Guardino.
Aguiar said in an interview after the meeting that she would be open to creating an advisory committee of residents to help draft the code. ”Let’s look at the legal component and then after that, you know, I can appoint an advisory committee on it. Yeah. So that’s definitely an avenue that we might take,” she said.
Phil Barbato, the president of the Riverhead Neighborhood Preservation Coalition, said the organization’s members are also concerned about the revision and thanked Hubbard for his continued work on the code, and Howard for writing the first draft.
“We need to decide on specific zoning requirements in order to protect our neighborhoods, hamlets and property, while keeping Riverhead a family-friendly town for residents and visitors,” Barbato said.
“I think that it’s important to note that this is not a Second Amendment issue,” Barbato said. “This is a community safety issue. It’s easy to get guns, anyone can get guns. With or without a license. With or without an ID. So we don’t need to make it any easier, we need to make our neighborhood safe. And I’m glad you’re working in that direction.”
During the meeting, Aguiar also said she has asked Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree to address firearm businesses in the update of the town’s comprehensive plan.
Barbara Blass, a former council member and Planning Board member, said she was happy the code is being revised for consideration by the board, but was worried that addressing the firearms business code in the comprehensive plan update could prolong the process of regulating firearm businesses for more than a year. She noted the town does not currently have a consultant for the update, as the board terminated the town’s contract with its previous consultant, AKRF, last month after town officials became “increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of progress and shallow depth of study put forth by” the firm.
Aguiar said after the meeting that “we don’t necessarily have to wait for” the plan and that the “most logical” step is to adopt a code before the update is finished.
In the midst of the apparent confusion and controversy over the site plan application, Niosi was charged by the Riverhead Code Enforcement Division with the unlawful operation and occupation of the premises without permits and approvals.
Last month, Niosi pleaded guilty and paid a $1,500 fine.
The 680 Elton Street building was also burglarized in early June while Niosi occupied the premises and stored weapons and other merchandise on the property, resulting in the theft of two handguns. (The guns were later recovered by town police and three men were charged in connection with the incident.)
Niosi said today his issues with code enforcement were the result of a misunderstanding between himself and his landlord. He said he did not understand that he could not occupy or conduct any commercial transactions there prior to site plan approvals. He thought he was prohibited only from selling guns there, which he said he was not doing. He said he was simply occupying the premises to accept deliveries of guns shipped to his company, a licensed firearms dealer, from gun shops out of state or online enterprises. They are required by federal law to ship guns only to a licensed firearms dealer, who is then responsible for making sure the transaction complies with New York law, Niosi said.
“If permitted to be in business there, I’ll be in business there. But as of right now, I have nothing in it. Not a notepad,” Niosi said.
He said he is paying to store his firearms inventory offsite at a location approved by the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau. He is also storing his fixtures and furnishings at a separate off-site location, at an additional cost.
“So it’s not just like I’m treading water here. I’m actually going backwards,” Niosi said, adding that he didn’t mean to sound like he was throwing a “pity party” for himself. “I had no idea when I signed this lease, very nearly a year ago… that this gauntlet would have to be run to get the permissions I’d need and it would take this much time,” he said.
Residents also spoke out against the business after a RiverheadLOCAL investigation found Niosi authored a blog containing disparaging comments about Jews and Black people, as well as praise for the founder of the Proud Boys hate group.
In a June 23 letter to the Town Board, Niosi complained that RiverheadLOCAL’s coverage of him and its portrayal of his blog was unfair and an example of “cancel culture” in an age where “it’s not unusual to see media outlets, large or small, utilize their right to advocate by ad hominem destroying those with whom they disagree.”
Niosi did not complain to RiverheadLOCAL about the article in question nor did he submit a letter to the editor about it.
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