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Six months after residents spoke for and against proposed regulations for firearm businesses in the town during a contentious public hearing, Council Member Tim Hubbard has yet to bring a new code to the Riverhead Town Board to regulate the uses, after the board rejected the initial proposal.

Following the June public hearing, Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said all Town Board members did not support the code in its current form, with Hubbard promising that he would work personally on a new draft by himself to bring to the town’s code revision committee.

Hubbard said in an interview this week that the law was reviewed by the code revision committee on Wednesday, but was still in “the early stages.” Hubbard said the committee talked specifically about whether to separate shooting ranges from other indoor recreational facilities — a term he said was “very vague” — and make firearm uses allowed by special permit of the Town Board, not as-of-right.

Hubbard said that the town is also looking into creating an overlay district for the downtown area that will help make the area “more family friendly.” He said that can include zoning restrictions for firearm businesses. 

Following the board’s decision not to bring the original code to a vote, there has been almost no talk from town officials in public meetings about a new version of the law, although some community members brought up the code in the months after the public hearing. At an Aug. 8 Town Board meeting, Phil Barbato of Jamesport, president of the Riverhead Neighborhood Preservation Coalition, stressed the support that the public had given aspects of the code and said he was glad the code was being worked on.

Cindy Clifford of Riverhead, a co-founder of the Heart of Riverhead Civic Association, said in an interview that she was “relieved and pleased to hear that it is still possibly in the works.” She and several other residents of Riverhead hamlet spoke during the June public hearing in support of restrictions for firearm businesses, urging the board to put them in zoning districts away from residential areas. 

“I was taken aback by the amount of focus and attention the town paid to cannabis regulations and zoning, and then when it came to firearms, that didn’t seem to pose any concern to them, in spite of the fact that there seemed to be a lot of concern among the residents,” she said, referring to the yearlong public input process to craft zoning code specifically to regulate adult-use marijuana businesses.

Last year, a proposal to renovate an Elton Street building near a residential area for a retail gun shop and firing range caused downtown residents, including Clifford, to organize in opposition. Eventually, the site plan for the building was approved for renovations only for a firing range, after the retail gun store component was removed because it did not comply with the town’s zoning.

The original code rejected by the board, which was drafted by the town attorney’s office, proposed allowing firearm dealers and gunsmiths to be primarily located along the Route 58 commercial corridor, while firing ranges would be primarily confined to industrial locations. The code would have also also banned the sale of guns at a firing range, making businesses that combine retail and recreational uses prohibited. The code would have also prohibited the businesses in locations too close to certain uses like schools and playgrounds.

The code was originally introduced to board members as a ban on firearm businesses in the downtown area, something all board members seemed to support. The code’s introduction during a work session also came during the height of the national conversation on gun violence last year, sparking comments during the public hearing against guns in general. 

Since the code was abandoned by the majority of board members, a gun store has opened up on Main Street in Riverhead. JJ Armory, owned by local Joseph Oliver, operates on the bottom floor of a commercial building accessible from the municipal parking lot between Griffing Avenue and Roanoke Avenue. Oliver was pursuing a permit from the town to open when the public hearing occurred, and he urged the board not to adopt the code. Oliver did not immediately return a call requesting comment for this article.

When asked if the code would be “too little, too late” due to Oliver already having opened— since the original intent of the code was to keep gun shops out of the downtown area — Hubbard said there might be places gun shops could be allowed downtown. Oliver, has “done a pretty good job there,” Hubbard said. He said he is not aware of any issues.

“We have to keep that in mind, too, that if retail is allowed somewhere, well, a gun shop is retail,” Hubbard said. “How much does Big Brother want to get involved in saying what can and can’t go in certain areas? But when we’re trying to create a nice, vibrant, family friendly downtown, I’m not sure if a gun shop fits that mold or not. I mean, there’s a lot of families that enjoy shooting,” he said.

“The gun shops aren’t where the guns are coming from that are being used out on the street,” added Hubbard, a retired Riverhead Police detective. “You got a lot of ghost guns, and a lot of guns coming from down south, that are just illegal guns.”

Hubbard likened the outcry against the firearm businesses to that of the outcry against medical marijuana in 2015, when Columbia Care came to town and community members warned that allowing it in Riverhead could lead to more drug abuse. The Town Board considered at that time adopting a moratorium, and also limiting the use to Route 58 retail zones. It eventually rejected residents’ objections, and Columbia Care opened a medical marijuana dispensary in an office building on Upper East Main Street.

“That place, you don’t even know it exists, and neither do the police because there have been no incidents,” Hubbard said. “And I’ve said this before, it’s the most benign operation of a retail establishment I’ve ever seen. Yet, the public was up in arms about this because it was new, and it was different and it was change, and I understand that. But sometimes you have to think beyond a little bit, and see what things can be.”

Although the words “firearm business” might not be appearing in a zoning amendment any time soon, zoning code changes the Town Board have recently adopted or are considering may also affect where those businesses can operate. The Town Board adopted a zoning code change for the Calverton Enterprise Park this week that allows indoor and outdoor sports and recreational uses and facilities as-of-right, instead of by special permit, in the Planned Industrial Park district. The amendment also removed restrictions on retail sales as an accessory use. This could allow a business owner to bring a gun shop and shooting range into a building in the industrial park. Hubbard said that factored into his decision to support the zoning change in the industrial park.

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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: alek@riverheadlocal.com