Sound Avenue ‘agritourism’ pitch faces opposition

Riverhead Town officials are going back to the drawing board on a controversial proposal to rezone land on the Sound Avenue corridor to allow for “agritourism” resorts — abruptly canceling a public hearing on the issue originally scheduled for this week. 

The proposal as written would allow for “agritourism inns and resorts” on minimum 100-acre plots of unpreserved land north of Sound Avenue — provided that 70% of the acreage be preserved for agricultural use in perpetuity with a maximum of 30% used for the resort and amenities such as restaurants or spas. 

The plan also included a requirement that the developed portions of the parcels not be visible from Sound Avenue — meaning those commercial uses would likely end up on the waterfront overlooking Long Island Sound. 

Last fall at a Riverhead Town Board meeting, Deputy Town Attorney Annemarie Prudenti told the board she estimates there are roughly 7,000 acres of unpreserved land in Riverhead, and that there are seven properties that meet the proposed requirements.

At a work session last week, Riverhead Town Supervisor Tim Hubbard said that the proposed zoning code changes would be redrafted after concerns were expressed by Sound Avenue farmers and the Long Island Farm Bureau.

“I think if you look at the part of the code that deals with what the farmers can and can’t do, it appears to be a little too restrictive on the farmers’ end, against the farmers, if you will,” the supervisor said. “So we want to open it up a little bit more, so the farmers will have more leeway to do more things farming-like.” 

Residents of the Willow Ponds on the Sound condominium complex have been expressing for months their opposition to a proposed development next door, which is advertised by Alfred Weissman Real Estate as a 105-acre site with more than 600 linear feet of coastline and a 70-acre organic farm. 

“AWRE is looking to build a 5-star resort” on the property that would offer “an organic farm to table experience,” according to the real estate firm’s website. 

Some of the opposition to the proposed legislation has been notably pointed. Southold Town officials used unusually blunt language in describing the potential impacts of the zoning change on the rest of the North Fork at a Feb. 13 Southold Town Board work session. 

“When you’re on a peninsula that juts out between two national estuaries, regional planning matters,” Southold Town principal planner Mark Terry told the board.

Mr. Terry contended that “in short, [the original proposal] would allow a 100-room commercial resort on 100 acres” of unpreserved land, and “if you have 200 acres to start with, you could have a 200-room, commercial hotel resort on Sound Avenue.

“Farmers out here have been frustrated because by the time people turn from Edwards [Avenue] onto Sound Avenue, people had already been in traffic so long they were exhausted,” Mr. Terry added. “It’s an economic issue, a traffic safety issue, a safety issue and an environmental issue … The woodlands along the Sound are preserved because the farmers preserved them by not farming them.” 

Southold Town Councilman Greg Doroski called the proposal “an absolute nightmare,” adding, “I think there’s nothing they could do that would disturb that historic corridor more than this … as we look at our traffic problems, as we look at that bottleneck that’s created [at the intersection of Edwards and Sound avenues] — this is going to amplify it by 100.”

“Riverhead doesn’t have an LWRP [Local Waterfront Revitalization Program],” Mr. Terry said. “If they did, they would realize they could gain more money to preserve agricultural lands through grants.” 

In the course of his comments, Mr. Terry said that he lives on Sound Avenue.

Mr. Doroski said it was important to convey Southold’s concerns to Riverhead officials.

“As much as it may be inappropriate for us to weigh in on another municipality, there are some tangible impacts that it will have on Southold Town.” 

The board agreed to draft a letter to Riverhead officials outlining their concerns, but Southold Town Supervisor Al Krupski said this week that Southold officials will wait to see the updated proposal before registering any complaints. 

“We’ll have to let Riverhead develop that [proposal] and have a public hearing on the zone change,” Mr. Krupski said in an email Tuesday. “We would certainly weigh in if we felt it was either beneficial or would have a negative impact on Southold.”

In his own email to the Suffolk Times, Mr. Hubbard addressed both the reason for canceling the Feb. 21 public hearing and the criticism from Southold officials.

“The main purpose for canceling the meeting was to address the input from the farming community and the Agricultural Advisory Committee,” he wrote. “Having said that, all matters of opinion regardless of where they come from are taken into consideration.”

When the Riverhead Town Board discussed the proposed rezoning last fall, council members seemed supportive and laid out their reasoning behind the legislation. Councilman Kenneth Rothwell noted the board was “kind of excited to introduce this.” 

Riverhead officials contended that the proposed rezoning wouldn’t impact local schools, would grow the tax base and have a low environmental impact — and was preferable to creating more subdivisions north of Sound Avenue. Mr. Rothwell also described the plan as a business opportunity for Sound Avenue farmers, and calling  it preservation through tourism.

Acknowledging that harvest season already brings “an enormous amount of cars” to the Sound Avenue corridor, Mr. Rothwell said “the concept is to give additional opportunity to something different, as opposed to every farmer competing against each other for the pumpkin pick and the hay bales and so forth.” 

Mr. Rothwell said that “there’s a national movement of ideas where people just simply want to immerse themselves in a type of lifestyle. 

“So it’s not just about like, for example, going to a brewery and having a beer. But what if you go to a brewery, and you actually want to see how it’s made, and you want to see the crops and you want to eat, and you want to understand the whole concept?”

Mr. Rothwell envisioned a “chef from New York City” holding cooking classes at the agritourism resorts, and walking students through the process of picking, preparing and cooking local, farm-to-table food. 

At a December meeting, in response to a resident’s concerns, Riverhead Councilman Bob Kern noted that “the north side of Sound Avenue, as of right [now], the way it’s zoned now, you could build some subdivisions with houses … we’re more interested in preserving the land over there than seeing subdivisions over there. That is a big part of the intent here.” 

Mr. Rothwell concurred, telling wary Sound Avenue residents that “if the concern is that you’re going to see a Marriott Marquis, you know, a five-story building hotel up there, you’re not. That’s not going to happen. That’s not what this is about.”