North Fork Smoked Fish earns ZBA approval, also gets ticketed

North Fork Smoked Fish Co. owner Phil Karlin outside the business's First Street headquarters. (Credit: Michael White)
North Fork Smoked Fish Co. owner Phil Karlin outside the business’s First Street headquarters. (Credit: Michael White)

North Fork Smoked Fish Co., which opened in Greenport Village last year without proper approvals and has since been embroiled in controversy, cleared one of two critical hurdles this week.

The village Zoning Board of Appeals gave it an area variance Wednesday night by a 5-0 vote.

But it also received a summons from the village “for operating without an approval,” said village administrator Paul Pallas.

“I know there’s a court date and it will be before a judge,” Mr. Pallas said Friday. “Whatever fines, if any, are at the discretion of the judge, ultimately.”

North Fork Smoked Fish Co. owner Phil Karlin said he was pleased the ZBA saw value in the business and hoped to get his Planning Board approvals late next month and move forward.

“I think this will become a non-issue” if all the approvals are issued, he said of the summons. “I’m not a judge, though. I don’t know.”

He said he had been operating on a limited basis through the winter.

North Fork Smoked Fish Co. opened on First Street in Greenport in the summer of 2014. Company representatives then spent several months debating with the Planning Board and ZBA about whether the production of smoked fish could be allowed at that location.

The business is renting space from K & M Properties, of which Village Board member Mary Bess Phillips is secretary/treasurer and her husband, Mark, is president. Ms. Phillips herself had gone before both the ZBA and the Planning Board on Mr. Karlin’s behalf to get the necessary use permits for his business, which they initially said should be counted as a retail store because of online sales.

That was all before the business modified its plans to include retail space, then applied for a ZBA area variance, which was needed before getting Planning Board approval.

Retail sales “is a requirement in the retail district,” Greenport ZBA chairman Doug Moore explained in an interview. “In the case of smoked [fish], the product would have to be available for in-store retail sales. The smoked fish company was dealing with wholesale and online, mail-order sales, but not selling things out of the front of the building. So they modified their plans.”

Under village code, a retail operation’s production area can’t exceed 20 percent of the total space.

“The whole purpose of that area of the code is to maintain a retail environment, even if you are producing something,” from coffee to baked goods, Mr. Moore said.

The revised business plan allocates about 55 percent of the space to production and 45 percent to retail sales, he explained, so the owner needed the variance to continue operating.

“These are done on a case-by-case business and we thought with the [configuration] of the store and the type of business Mr. Karlin was operating that they would have a valid retail business and we could allow that type of production space,” Mr. Moore said

“They felt that it was a very suitable business for the village and approved it, despite some negative comments,” said Amy Martin, a permit agent for the Fairweather-Brown firm in Greenport, who spoke on behalf of the business. “They were very understanding and put a lot of thought into their reasons for approving it. You come to them and they’re there to determine whether it’s a detriment or a positive thing for the village and they thought it was a positive thing. It’s a fishing village by heritage.”

The business next goes before the Planning Board for site plan evaluation.

One resident who spoke at the ZBA meeting, John Saladino, later said in an interview that he has no problem with Mr. Karlin or smoked fish.

“I think the concept is great; it’s a perfect fit. But for nine months, he’s been operating without permits,” Mr. Saladino said. “And people’s perception is, since the landlord [Ms. Phillips] is in a position of authority in Greenport, is that why everything was getting overlooked? She has influence over the building inspector and code enforcement office.”

The approvals should have been acquired beforehand, Mr. Saladino said, criticizing the village for allowing people to skirt the rules.

“It’s the old saying: It’s easier to apologize then ask permission,” he said.

For his part, Mr. Karlin admitted to making “mistakes.”

“I needed a place to operate and when I was offered this particular situation, I didn’t know what I was stepping into,” he said. “I‘ve made some mistakes, but I’m just glad that the zoning board — and I think the general opinion is — the business is a good fit for Greenport.”

Mr. Karlin also believes a retail operation in Greenport, which will also sell some fresh fish from Alice’s Fish Market on Altantic Avenue, will only help his business moving forward.

“We really did need the retail sales,” he said. “Manufacturing and wholesale is nice; It’s a great way to move your product around for availability. But it’s great to have that central location in the traditional fishing village of Greenport. Smoked fish is such a tradition on the North Fork, and it used to be when you went up and down Sound Avenue, everybody had a smokehouse. You could buy smoked eels from a farm stand back in the day and, for me, it’s something that I love. I love smoked fish and, coming from a commercial fishing family, it seemed like a good fit.

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