Officials at Wednesday night's meeting: Steve Shauger, Riverhead BID president, left, Andreas Sofoklis, Riverhead's chief building inspector, Council Member Ken Rothwell, Jason Blizzard, principal engineering aide and Annemarie Prudenti, deputy town attorney. Photo: Alek Lewis

A proposed amendment to Riverhead’s zoning code governing cannabis businesses in town would allow retail marijuana shops in more locations than the code in its current form. But the true impact of the proposal — and whether it would be effective in bringing the businesses to town — remains to be seen.  

Council Member Ken Rothwell and town staff have proposed amending the cannabis zoning to allow retail marijuana shops and lounges within 1,000 feet of residential uses if the proposed sites are zoned commercially and have frontage on and access from one of the town’s commercial corridors.

The amendment would allow only one marijuana business in each of four commercial corridors: Route 25A in Wading River, Middle Country Road in Calverton, Main Road in Aquebogue and Main Road in Jamesport. Minimum distances from schools, houses of worship, parks and community facilities would remain in effect, limiting the number of eligible sites.

The Route 58 commercial corridor could have more than one marijuana business, as long as they are at least 2,500 feet apart from each other.

Marijuana shops and lounges would remain prohibited in downtown Riverhead.

“We’re looking to fairly distribute it evenly throughout the town,” Rothwell said.

Under the current zoning, adopted by the Town Board in 2022, only four properties are eligible sites for cannabis businesses, according to town officials.

The amended zoning would allow marijuana businesses at 144 properties — 62 of which would be along Route 58, Rothwell said. A list of eligible sites was not made available prior to publication.

Marijuana businesses would still need to meet other distance-based restrictions in the code — including those prohibiting them 1,000 feet from schools, 500 feet from town parks and 500 feet from places of worship. Those restrictions, measured from the lot-line of the properties, prohibit the businesses in almost all of the major shopping centers on both sides of Route 58, according to the maps provided by town officials. 

MORE COVERAGE: Two recreational pot shops in Riverhead have town’s OK, but zoning remains barrier for others

Rothwell discussed the proposed zoning amendment Wednesday night during a public meeting focused on cannabis attended by both residents and business people looking to enter the emerging adult-use industry. While those business people applauded the zoning proposal as a step in the right direction, they said the remaining restrictions — along with the current real estate market on Route 58 — does not leave many opportunities for dispensaries in the town.

Gahrey Ovalle, president of the Long Island Cannabis Coalition, a cannabis industry trade group, said he hopes the town continues to ease its zoning restrictions, in compliance with state requirements that local zoning not be “unreasonably impracticable.” Photo: Alek Lewis

“Clearly, you’ve taken some steps in the right direction, which is exactly what needs to happen. And that’s exactly what everybody in this room was hoping to hear,” said Gahrey Ovalle, president of the Long Island Cannabis Coalition, a cannabis industry trade group. “We certainly heard it. For some of us, it’s definitely not far enough. Right? And for others, they want to move even slower.”

Ovalle said that although the town may be opening up more sites with the code amendment, the sites still might not be viable and might not result in a significant number of businesses in Riverhead. He said he hopes the town continues to ease the restrictions, in compliance with state requirements that local zoning not be “unreasonably impracticable.” 

Whether a local zoning code is “unreasonably impracticable” would be determined by the Cannabis Control Board — the governing body of the state Office of Cannabis Management — if an appeal is made. The opinion could be used in court to challenge the validity of zoning restrictions.The state law and regulations do not give the Office of Cannabis Management power to annul a local law.  

Riverhead was one of four municipalities on Long Island that did not pass a law banning retail marijuana sales. After an effort to opt-out of retail sales led by Rothwell and Supervisor Yvette Aguiar failed in a 2-3 vote, Aguiar appointed Rothwell to chair the committee charged with creating the town zoning code for marijuana businesses. Town officials began revising the zoning earlier in the year after the 1,000 foot restriction from residential uses — an aspect of the law which was not originally analyzed by town officials — was found to have banned almost every property in the town.

“Those things ultimately, here on Long Island, affect us, the actual business owner,” Ovalle said.

A key objection articulated by Ovalle and other cannabis business people during the meeting was how the distance restrictions in the law are measured. Currently the distance requirements are measured from property lot-lines, rather than from the entrance of a building. Since most potential stores for rent on Route 58 are in shopping centers located on one large lot, the restrictions eliminate more shopping centers as an option. That includes Roanoke Plaza, whose property line fronting Route 58 is within 1,000 feet of school district property despite its main commercial buildings being outside of the boundary, as well as Riverhead Centre, whose southeast property line is just barely within 500 feet of the Stotzky Park property.

Brian Stark, a cannabis licensee, said the town should eliminate zoning code restrictions that measure distances from lot-line to lot-line. Photo: Alek Lewis

“I feel that from what research I did, with the available real estate that is available currently, if you eliminated the lot-line to lot-line and went door-to-door — even if you kept 1,000 feet —there is available real estate that will be available on [Route] 58,” Brian Stark, an adult-use cannabis licensee, said to town officials during the meeting. “Right now, the way that it looks on that map, there won’t be any available real estate.” 

Rothwell and Deputy Town Attorney Annemarie Prudenti did not take to the suggestions of the prospective marijuana business owners.

“We’re showing you… 144 parcels. Town of Riverhead, population of 36,000 [people], and you don’t think the opportunity of 144 parcels is sufficient?” Prudenti said to Stark. 

“If there’s nothing available,” Stark answered. “There are probably about 12 buildings for sale in all of Riverhead and you’re lucky if maybe one of those 144 is gonna fall in that.” 

“The Town of Riverhead doesn’t control the sale [or] lease of properties,” Prudenti said.

“I understand that. I’m just making a suggestion to make it where some of the available real estate falls within this map or within a new map that you might make if you remove certain restrictions,” Stark said. If none of the properties are available for businesses, the town will be in the same situation it is now, Stark said.

Prudenti said during the discussion that the town does not zone property based on what properties are available. “We’re following our code where retail is permitted, we’re not like other municipalities, where we put you in one zoning district in a corner,” Prudenti said. “We didn’t do that. And we’ve applied the rules equally with respect to the setbacks all throughout the entire town. Here, we’ve opened up the commercial corridors.”

At least two recreational marijuana dispensaries have the town’s OK under the current zoning. According to documents received through a Freedom of Information Law request earlier this month, a dispensary is looking to move into a vacant commercial site at 1871 Old County Road, and Columbia Care, the medical marijuana dispensary that opened in 2016 at 1333 East Main Street, is seeking to offer recreational products. The town, citing its zoning, objected to seven other licensees who sent notices to the town, according to the documents.

Town officials said this week that it has now received a total of 12 notices from prospective adult-use cannabis businesses looking to do business in the town. 

Brian Lachow, a Manorville resident, said the town should consider allowing adult-use microbusinesses — which can both cultivate and sell cannabis products — within the town. He said the town’s agricultural lands make it a prime spot for a microbusiness. “The right people could really pull it off to make cannabis display like a super top notch, vineyard style business,” he said.

Some people in attendance at the meeting expressed support for the proposed amendment. Isabella Marcucci, the coalition coordinator for the Riverhead Community Awareness Program (CAP), said the new code would be fair for both businesses coming into the town and its residents.

“[W]e don’t want Riverhead to have to burden all the licenses that are available in New York State. There are still opportunities for all the other municipalities on Long Island to opt in. So I think that this measure is very fair as of now,” Marcucci said. “And like [Prudenti] said: start small and grow. We started very small and we’re growing more. And we don’t want these codes to be so loose that in 10 years it overruns the town.”

Mike Foley of Riverhead, who has participated in the public meetings surrounding marijuana and is himself a smoker, said he thinks the proposed code “conforms to the desires” of Riverhead residents.

“[I]f you don’t think you’re going to be able to find a space here, I guarantee you, there’s going to be a half dozen places,” he said.

Rothwell said at the conclusion of the meeting that he did not hear a “great negativity” towards the proposal, and it would move forward as written. He said the town could fix the zoning in six months if no parcels were available. He said amending the legislation right now would delay the implementation of the changes proposed.

Rothwell said the Town Board could discuss the proposal during a work session in the New Year, when the new supervisor and two new council members begin their tenure on the Town Board. 

How the proposed code amendment works:

The code amendment removing restrictions from residential uses would apply to properties on the length of five “commercial corridors” designated by the code. The commercial corridors are:

  • Commercial Corridor One: Along New York State Route 25A beginning at the Brookhaven and Riverhead Town line and ending at the intersection of Route 25 and Route 25A. 
  • Commercial Corridor Two: Along New York State Route 25 from the intersection of Route 25A to the intersection of Manor Road.
  • Commercial Corridor Three: Along Suffolk County Route 58 from the intersection of Kromer Avenue to the intersection of East Main Street. 
  • Commercial Corridor Four: Along New York State Route 25 from the intersection of Suffolk County Route 105 to the intersection of Tuthills Lane in Aquebogue.
  • Commercial Corridor Five:  Along New York State Route 25 from the intersection of Tuthills Lane in Aquebogue to the Riverhead and Southold Town line.

Only one cannabis business would be allowed on each corridor, other than in Commercial Corridor Three (Route 58), which has no such restriction other than cannabis businesses needing to be 2,500 feet from each other.

The properties exempted from the 1,000-foot restriction within the corridors are only those “with frontage and vehicular access along the commercial corridor. There are several commercial properties located off of Route 58 that don’t fit this criteria, such as the buildings off of Commerce Drive, The Shops at Riverhead (Costco, HomeGoods), and a former bank branch building on Ostrander Avenue — a property that two licensees have already looked at as a potential location. 

The town’s other major commercial district — downtown Riverhead — would not be affected by the proposed code. Marijuana shops would remain effectively banned there. Another zoning restriction, the Downtown Riverfront Overlay District, also prohibits smoke shops from opening downtown.

Commercial Corridor One, located in Wading River, has one realistic location: The Shoppes at East Wind. The other commercial properties along Route 25A, located further west, are restricted due to their proximity to the Wading River School and a church in the area, the maps show.

Commercial Corridor Two, located in Calverton, has several locations zoned Hamlet Center, which allows retail along Middle Country Road (Route 25) near the Calverton Commons and J and R’s Steakhouse. Other commercially zoned land further east, located near the intersection of Edwards Avenue, is prohibited by distance restrictions from other uses, including the Riverhead Charter School. 

Commercial Corridors Four and Five are located along Main Road (New York State Route 25) in Aquebogue and Jamesport. Stretches of land on that road are zoned Rural Corridor, a zoning district that allows retail. The portion of the Jamesport hamlet zoned Village Center and Hamlet Center are restricted by its proximity to a town park and town community center.

Prudenti said the town intends to make the maps presented at the meeting and a list of the 144 parcels eligible under the proposed regulations available online. As of Thursday, those have not been provided to a reporter.

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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