They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
Quoting Joni Mitchell and pleading passionately, residents turned out in force on Tuesday night to weigh in on both sides of a proposal to rezone five parcels in Wading River.
After two hours at the public hearing, members of the public were still filing up to the podium to discuss aplan that would rezone the land on Route 25A.
The proposal, prepared by New York-based BFJ Planning, states that recently proposed commercial development applications have expanded outside of the existing hamlet commercial district, with the potential of threatening the character of Route 25A and surrounding open space, farmland and residential communities.
Highlights of the plan include a "more compact" retail zone in Wading River that would allow for less commercial development and more residential growth, BFJ Principal Frank Fish said.
Goals, said Fish, are to contain strip retail growth to the existing Wading River commercial district while preserving property rights and development options for private property owners. After community discussion, "The primary message was to try and contain strip commercial growth," Fish said. "We think this does that - it contains it to the basic envelope of the hamlet."
Currently, most businesses along Route 25A are zoned rural neighborhood business, (BUS CR) with multifmaily residential professional office (MRP) located in the middle of two commercial areas on the north side of Route 25A, the report indicates.
A presentation was given by Fish explaining that the proposal is to amend the town's comprehensive plan in Wading River, and to remap and rezone the five parcels; in addition, some text changes are proposed. The remapping would shift the focus of development from retail to professional offices and housing. A total of 16.4 acres is proposed for rezoning.
The rezoning would result in less retail and encourage aquisition of open space and agricultural lands. Other tenets of the plan call for the possible creation of an access driveway behind the parcels that front Route 25A to provide access.
Other issues include parking, and changing the maximum building coverage to 15 percent; currently the maxiumum coverage is 17 percent. Also proposed is a minimum open space requirement of 20 percent. Agricultural and accessory use would also be permitted under the rezoning.
Residents stood for hours, waiting patiently for their turn to speak. Scores spoke out for the need to preserve the character of the community and denounced the creation of additional retail and restaurants. Others said while the idea of townhouses was amenable, multi-family homes could lead to rentals, something the community did not embrace.
"We feel very strongly about this," said Sid Bail, president of the Wading River Civic Association. "We're not trying to hurt anyone."
Riverhead attorney Peter Danowski spoke for residents whose property would be affected. "If you adopt this zoning nothing will get built," he said.
Dominique Mendez, president of the Riverhead Neighborhood Preservation Coalition, said while the proposal was a first step toward cutting back on retail development, more can be done. The plan as proposed, she said, "falls short of doing enough to prevent excessive retail and to preserve the small town charm of Wading River. We ask the town board to take more steps."
The Wading River community, she said, does not want retail uses to support those driving through the community. "New retail would hurt our local economy and disregard our vision for Wading River," she said. Retail in Wading River, Mendez said, should be focused on providing daily services for residents. "The community has said, over and over, that it does not want to become a shopping destination."
The demand for retail, Mendez said, would not sustain the possible 245,000 square feet of retail that could stil be developed should the master plan changes be adopted. Should new retail uses proliferate, Mendez said, "We think local merchants will go out of business, and we will see blight from empy storefronts -- forever changing the character of Wading River. We're relying on you to save our town from blight."
Ellen McWilliams of Wading River disagreed, standing up to support Ken Barra, owner of Inn at Eastwind, whose planned commercial project, which, she said, would be affected by the rezoning, would boost a struggling economy. "Our economy is in dire straits," she said. "We need jobs. It's nice to live in Disney World and have all this vacant land - but I can't afford to live here anymore."
Diane Sadowy of Wading River, meanwhile, quoted Joni Mitchell's famous song. "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot," she said. "Please be careful as you pave our paradise -- leave us trees and please, leave us a very small parking lot."
Others advocated the rights of property owners.
Barra blasted the board, in what he said would be his last public appearance at the podium. "This is ridiculous," he said. "My father fought for this country, " he said. Barra said he is not a developer; he lives in the community and his children are attending school in Riverhead. "This is my livelihood. My father's turning over in his grave; what he fought for is for me to have the right to buy something."
Barra added that the master plan was adopted and now, "Nine years later, you want to change it again? You've got to be kidding me. You people have no idea how hard small business people work."
Dick Amper, executive director of the Pine Barrens Society, said he lives near the area in question and was speaking in a personal, not professional capacity. His voice breaking with tears, Amper said he has worked for years to protect the environment and quality of life of the East End and other areas. "It would be really heartbreaking to not be able to do it in my hometown."
Pascal Lewis, who recently moved to the area, said no one would travel to Wading River for "cookie cutter" uses and stores they could find anywhere. "You have something unique here," he said. "Do you want something that looks like the west? This is a gateway -- and you are the gatekeepers. It is the beauty of this place we are paying for. Make the place a destination."
Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter closed the public hearing but left the written comment period open.