Scrutinized food processing plant holds open house

TIM GANNON PHOTO | John King, left, and Long Island Farm Bureau president Joe Gergela at Tuesday's open house.

J. Kings Food Service Professionals hosted an open house at the company’s proposed “Grapes and Greens agricultural enterprise terminal” on Sound Avenue in Calverton, which had run into opposition when a neighbor filed a lawsuit claiming it is not permitted by zoning.

The proposed facility is located in the former Blackman’s Plumbing building on 2711 Sound Avenue in Calverton, an area sometimes called Baiting Hollow.

Whether or not it meets zoning is the subject of a Riverhead Zoning Board of Appeals hearing on Thursday night at 7:15 p.m.

Company owner John King said he is in contract to buy the 108,000-square-foot building for use as a vegetable processing plant as well as for storing wine and cases of produce.

The storage area will will occupy only 8,630 square feet of the building but will enable farmers to get more value for their product, he said.

Currently, J. Kings does these functions at a facility in Bay Shore, among other things. The entire vegetable processing operation is proposed to be moved to the Calverton site in order to be nearer to local farms.

Mr. King said he doesn’t buy any farm produce from Long Island farms through the Bay Shore plant as of now, because Long Island farms lack the proper cooling and processing facilities to extend the life of the produce.

Properly cooled vegetables can extend their shelf lives by three times, he said.

This enables farmers to get more value for the products, said Joe Gergela, the executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, which supports the proposed facility.

“This is about trying to keep this industry alive on Long Island and here on the East End,” Mr. Gergela said. “It is very difficult to farm on Long Island. We want to see profits on the farms.”

Mr. King said he employs 400 people in the Bay Shore plant and has a weekly payroll of $360,000.

“That’s not [at] Kmart salaries,” he said, emphasizing the fact that his company would be bringing well-paying jobs to the East End, should the project be approved.

Work on opening the proposed plant was set back when a neighbor challenged the town building department’s issuance of a building permit for the plant, claiming it is not permitted by zoning. Neighbor Austin Warner, who owns the property next door, went to court and forced a town Zoning Board of Appeals ruling on the issue.

Councilman John Dunleavy also addressed the crowd of mostly farmers at Tuesday’s open house.

“This is going to help our economy,” he said. “We have to get behind these businesses and not try to stop them.”

Riverhead Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, who had raised questions about the project, said she spoke with Paulette Satur of Satur Farms in Cutchogue — at the open house event — and was told Ms. Satur wanted to run an agricultural processing plant at the Blackman Plumbing building a year earlier and was told she needed to go to the ZBA.

“I think fair process should apply across the board for everybody,” Ms. Giglio said, adding that she thinks the processing plant is a “great use” for the building.

Ms. Satur said afterwards that she didn’t say exactly what Ms. Giglio said she did. She said she was not told outright she had to go to the ZBA, and that she never really got that far into the process, because she wanted to rent the building and Blackman wanted to sell.

Mr. King said the zoning permits farming, and he believes that includes processing agriculture.

Mr. Gergela said the state definition of agriculture includes marketing.

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