State officials have changed the protected status of the Peconic River in downtown Riverhead, opening the door to new development along West Main Street.
The river had been part of the state's "Wild, Scenic and Recreational" river systems, waterways where almost nothing could be built within a half-mile of their banks.
Now, it has been taken from the recreational category and designated as a less-strict "Community River."
The town has been working to get the restrictions eased since 1994.
"This is fantastic news," Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said.
Because of the change, Walter said, the town now expects to pass new zoning ordinances in the next month or two to allow Blackman Plumbing Supply Co. on West Main Street to rebuild and expand.
That expansion could mean 60 jobs for the community, according to state Sen. Kenneth P. LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), who has been working to get the designation changed.
Walter said he hoped that status change could lead to other downtown development as well.
The change in status does not apply to the 3,000-acre Enterprise Park at Calverton, an industrial park area owned by the town. The southern part of that property is within a half-mile of the Peconic River, and Walter said he was hoping to make some adjustments in that line as well.
Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, said the change along West Main Street "makes sense because of the pre-existing use. It is not likely to impair the river quality in other areas . . . this shows that environmental law is flexible and can accommodate community needs."
But, Amper said he would object to extending the change to the Calverton property. "Give them an inch, and they want a mile," he said. "Now they're talking about the headwaters of the Peconic River and a globally rare habitat which does need the full protection of the act."
LaValle said that the river was first put into protected status in 1994, when then-town Supervisor Joseph Janoski talked him into getting into a canoe and paddling its length. "I said 'This is a gem. It should be preserved. Absolutely,' " LaValle said.
LaValle said the change of designation would not only apply to the Riverhead side of the Peconic, but also to the Southampton side.