After two years of debate, Riverhead's town board voted 4-0 Tuesday to rezone 16.4 acres along Route 25A in Wading River from commercial to multifamily residential use, effectively halving commercial development in the community and eliminating thousands of square feet of retail space.
Local civic groups had been lobbying for an update of the town's 2003 master plan to reduce commercial development for years, saying that the existing stores along Route 25A were already changing the character of the community in a way they did not like.
"I think we've changed the character of the north side of Route 25A to make it flow better," said Supervisor Sean Walter, noting that -- unlike the south side of the road, where several large stores and shopping centers have already been built -- the north side is still mostly farmland and residential homes.
Civic groups have been demanding changes in the local zoning for years, and Walter said the vote reflects a divided town board, which has been wrestling with the rezoning issue for two years.
"Some people wanted more change, some wanted less," he said. "This was the best I could get. I didn't want to lose it."
The board members did not publicly discuss their vote.
Walter said there is no consensus on further zoning changes to restrict commercial development, and -- talking about how difficult it has been to stay within the state's 2 percent tax cap -- he said some new commercial construction will be needed to meet future needs as the town grows, as well as to deal with ever-growing holes in the budget.
"The only way out of this is to grow our way out," he said.
Dominique Mendez, president of the Riverhead Neighborhood Preservation Coalition, which seeks to preserve the rural character of Wading River, was disappointed in the board's action.
"You're leaving over 200,000 square feet of space for retail . . . it's the Brookhaven-ization of Wading River," she said.
Actually, the undeveloped land on the Brookhaven side of the community -- part of the hamlet is in each town, and Wading River itself is the dividing line between the two towns -- has been zoned exclusively for residential development.
Owners of the rezoned properties could not be reached for comment, but Walter said he expects one or more of them to challenge the board's action.
"The first lawsuit is probably on its way," he said.