TIM GANNON PHOTO | Suffolk County is still using the Wading River Motel to house homeless families. Town officials say police are called often to the property.
In August 2011, officials from the Riverhead Police Department and the town’s code enforcement office launched a surprise raid at the Wading River Motel, a raid one Town Board member said was more akin to something that would have happened in the Soviet Union — not a small town like Riverhead.
JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Authorities photographed motel residents’ IDs and checked for warrants.
The incident also sparked a flurry of criticism from the then-commissioner of the county’s Department of Social Services, who wrote in a News-Review opinion piece that “the checks and balances system of the judicial branch of government fell flat on its face” with the warrant issued for the town’s search of the motel, which he believed was illegal.
At the time, Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said the motel was not only a safety concern that had building code violations, but was operating illegally as a homeless shelter for Suffolk County — not as a motel, which is the property’s approved use.
Mr. Walter vowed to take the motel’s owners to court on that issue.
But the town never went to court to challenge the use of the motel and never filed any building violations in Riverhead Justice Court following the raid. A rental permit violation that had been filed several months before the raid was later dismissed.
What the town did instead was issue a 24-page “order to remedy” to the motel’s owners, giving them the opportunity to bring the motel into compliance before fines and violations were issued. Officials say the motel is now slowly coming into compliance.
Mr. Walter said in a recent interview that the town dropped its plans to challenge the use of the motel as a homeless shelter, figuring the town would probably lose that battle against Suffolk County.
“As much as we don’t want that facility there, and the residents of Wading River don’t want that facility there, it’s not a battle the town will probably be successful with,” Mr. Walter said.
“Southampton Town is currently undertaking that battle with the county and we will see if they are ever successful,” he said, referring to Southampton’s litigation with the county’s Department of Social Services over the use of a Hampton Bays motel as a homeless shelter.
“They’ve been fighting that battle for a long time and, so far, they have not been successful,” Mr. Walter continued. “My philosophy at this point is to bring them into compliance, because I don’t want any catastrophic problems that could result in death because of things like faulty electrical wires or building violations. And they seem to be coming into compliance.”
The supervisor — who days after the raid showed reporters pictures of damaged smoke detectors, exposed wires, and electric stove tops littered with clothing, cereal boxes and canned foods — said last week that bringing the motel into compliance with building and safety codes was always part of the town’s goal.
“It was always about compliance,” he said. “I don’t think it meets the definition of a motel, but the county position is that they supersede town zoning because they are acting as state function to house the homeless. And until somebody shows me how to get around that, it doesn’t seem like a wise use of resources to sue the county.”
Greg Blass, the county’s social services commissioner at the time, criticized the raid in an opinion piece that ran in the News-Review Aug. 16, 2011, saying “convoys of vans, probably intended to be used as paddy wagons, as well as marked and unmarked cars containing about 15 police, code enforcement, fire marshal and town attorney staff, arrived unannounced at the motel, sending fearful residents heading to their rooms.”
Mr. Blass wrote that police, armed with a search warrant issued by town Justice Richard Ehlers, took pictures of the identification of each homeless resident there and checked for warrants, going through rooms and closets, “all in the name of building code violations.”
The article said the warrant was “vague” and never identified who should be searched. Mr. Blass noted that one motel resident was arrested during the raid on an outstanding warrant for an unrelated traffic violation.
Mr. Blass, who has since retired, and Justice Ehlers both declined to comment for this story.
READ PRIOR COVERAGE
Mr. Blass’ successor, acting social services commissioner John O’Neill, said it’s “unfortunate that the 2011 raid of the Wading River Motel took place. However, the Department of Social Services is pleased to see that the Town of Riverhead has not taken legal action against the operator of the motel.
“Since 2011 the operator of the Wading River Motel has expressed to our department that the Town of Riverhead has been cooperative and is working with the motel owners to ensure the building is up to code,” Mr. O’Neill said. “Furthermore, the operator has installed 32 state-of-the-art cameras in addition to around-the-clock supervision. Lastly, the operator of the motel pays for taxi cabs for non-emergencies thus reducing the calls for ambulances and police activity.”
Riverhead Councilman George Gabrielsen had been critical of the raid in the days that followed, even suggesting town officials should apologize to the people living at the motel.
“This stuff happened in the Soviet Union. It shouldn’t happen in my town,” he said at the time.
In a recent interview, Mr. Gabrielsen said, “Now, we’re trying to work with them instead of being so aggressively over the top. We’re not looking to throw them in court or anything and, hopefully, we can resolve this.
“I think as a town we learned a lesson,” he said. “The way we went about it was all wrong. It was way too aggressive and we were violating the civil rights of these people. Some people who were already suffering weren’t being treated right, but I think moving forward, we’re going to work it out with them.”
Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said he still believes the raid was warranted.
“I think we handled it appropriately,” the chief said. “We were getting a lot of complaints there, and I think there were dangerous building conditions there as well.” While Chief Hegermiller said he wasn’t aware of any problems at the shelter now, he noted that police statistics show there still are a lot of calls for police services there.
Riverhead Police Department statistics show that police were called to the Wading River Motel 52 times between March 15 and Dec. 31, 2012, and have been called there five more times in 2013.
Seventeen of these calls were for aided cases, such as a health issue. Among the other calls were five calls for alarms, three for emotionally disturbed person, two for suspicious persons, two calls for town police to assist other authorities, two harassment calls, two civil disputes, two for miscellaneous service, two missing person reports, two for lost or stolen property and one each for assault, larceny and domestic dispute, the stats show.
“I would say that’s a lot of calls for one location,” Chief Hegermiller said.
The motel is owned by a corporation called Wading River Development LLC, headed by Anthony Marino. He is paid a per day per room stipend by social services to house homeless people there.
Mr. Marino did not respond to a message left at the motel seeking comment.
Town attorney Bob Kozakiewicz and town code enforcement officer Richard Downs said the order to remedy was first issued Sept. 29, 2011, and was revised Dec. 22, 2011.
Mr. Downs said that while working with the motel’s previous owner, they discovered that 16 efficiency units with kitchenettes were added to the motel years back, without town permits.
Those kitchen units have since been removed by the motel’s current motel owners, he said.
Mr. Marino told the News-Review in 2011 that the stove tops in the rooms were all turned off and inoperable. County officials also said they made sure power to the stoves was cut off at the breaker during health inspections, which the motel passed.
“We only did repairs on what was pre-existing,” he said at the time, while insisting the kitchen areas in each of the rooms had existed before he and his company took over the building. “We did not do any new construction.”
Mr. Marino said in 2011 that he had proof the sinks and stoves existed prior to his buying the motel, including old business cards that list the Wading River Motel’s rooms as having efficiencies.
Asked how far along the motel owners are toward being in full code compliance, Mr. Downs said, “About three-quarters of the way.”
The two biggest remaining items involve a laundry room that was illegally converted to an efficiency apartment and a building that was an office with a residence that had been converted without permits to an office and two residences, Mr. Downs said.
The motel owners have applied for building permits to bring these items into compliance, he said, but the owners have not received the permits because they haven’t paid the permit fees yet.
Both Mr. Kozakiewicz and Mr. Downs said the motel owners are working cooperatively with the town.