Filler: Longing for a cheeseburger in the Land of No

Long Island?s only Sonic location opened in 2011 Long Island’s only Sonic location opened in 2011 in Deer Park, creating traffic problems on Deer Park Road for weeks. Photo Credit: AP / Sue Ogrocki

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Lane Filler Portrait of Newsday editorial board member Lane Filler

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board. He came to Long Island in 2010 ...

If you can't put a Sonic fast-food restaurant across from Smith Haven Mall in Nesconset, it's time to shut down the entire 3,500-location company. If a drive-in won't fit there, it won't fit anywhere.

The Nesconset parcel is at Middle Country Road and Alexander Avenue facing the new Bahama Breeze restaurant, built adjacent to the mall.

I live in Smithtown. Sometimes, when my wife and daughter trick me into shopping with (broken) promises of judgment-free meals at Bobby's Burger Palace and The Cheesecake Factory, I drive there. And claiming a Sonic would worsen traffic, safety and the quality of life in that area is kind of like saying you make the Atlantic Ocean bigger if you spit in it.

And until someone presents any evidence to the contrary (beyond really, really strong feelings), a State Supreme Court judge is backing me up.

In 2012 the Smithtown Board of Zoning Appeals rejected special-exception requests from the property owner and the company that wants to operate the Sonic. The exceptions were mostly about more and bigger signs, and 22 loudspeakers that would be used to order food at the restaurant.

Residents in the neighborhood behind the 5-acre parcel fought the exceptions. They did not, however, present studies or evidence to show how they would be affected. The judge concluded the board "improperly bowed to community pressure over traffic, safety and quality-of-life issues," and vacated the denial. The zoning board plans to appeal.

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The restaurant's plan calls for the location of the loudspeakers and restaurant canopy to be more than 100 feet from the property line, separated from residences by a 60-foot buffer of woods and two rows of evergreen trees.

If you walk the property, which I did, and you've spent much time at Sonic, which, shamefully, I have, it's hard to imagine the business would have much, if any, impact on those who live nearby. Except, perhaps, on their waistlines.

But Long Island is the Land of No, and Smithtown often seems to be the center of the "No" code, or one of them. It might not defeat Oyster Bay or Hempstead (which also fought off a proposed Sonic) in a NIMBY war, but it might.

Area residents are currently fighting to stop:

A gas station and convenience store at Veterans Memorial Highway and Jericho Turnpike in Commack.

A 260-unit apartment complex on Middle Country Road in Smithtown that would replace a concrete plant.

A 136-bed assisted-living facility on 25A in Smithtown.

In each case, the use and location seem appropriate, the services and businesses would be utilized, and the projects would increase the tax base and provide jobs.

There are many things to like about Smithtown, but the tendency of residents to fight all change isn't one of them. Our tax burden Islandwide is stifling, and fighting businesses and residential development makes it worse. People need places to eat and work and live.

There are areas of great natural beauty and tranquillity on Long Island, and their character should be maintained as much as possible. But to do that while growing the economy and providing amenities, we must put the growth where it fits in and will not have a significant negative impact.

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That means residents need to stop protesting negative impacts where they don't exist, and local officials need to stop bowing to those imaginary horrors when they are raised.

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