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09/23/15 3:38pm
09/23/2015 3:38 PM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Mason Haas in his office in Town Hall.

A state Supreme Court Judge dismissed a lawsuit last week filed by Town Assessor Mason Haas, which sought to overturn a town law enacted earlier this summer that prevented a political party chairman from also holding elective office.  READ

09/23/14 3:37pm
09/23/2014 3:37 PM
(Credit: Carrie Miller)

(Credit: Carrie Miller)

Update (6:30 p.m.):  The “suspicious package” prompting an evacuation of the state Supreme Court buildings near downtown Riverhead Tuesday afternoon turned out to be an attorney’s briefcase, Riverhead Town police said.

Detective Timothy Hubbard said an attorney contacted police notifying them that he had forgotten to retrieve the bag, after putting it down to drop off something at the courts.

“He came back to pick it up and all was in order,” Det. Hubbard said.

Police cleared the scene about 3:40 p.m., allowing people back inside, he said.

Original Story: The state Supreme Court buildings near downtown Riverhead were evacuated Tuesday after reports of a “suspicious package” on the second floor of one of the buildings, New York State court officers said.

As of 3:30 p.m., a Suffolk County Police Department bomb squad unit was on the scene near the complex’s Court Street entrance.

A man reporting for jury duty at the time of the report said a police officer asked everyone inside to evacuate.

“He said it in a calm manner, but didn’t say if it was for a drill or an emergency,” said the man, Gregory Merz. “Right away I didn’t feel a sense of urgency, but I realized when they said a bomb squad was coming to investigate that it was not a drill.”

Mr. Merz said he was asked to leave the building about 2 p.m.

It was not clear what, exactly, was found in the building or if the bomb squad had made any determination as to whether it was dangerous.

06/18/14 3:30pm
06/18/2014 3:30 PM
A state judge said a lawsuit filed by Riverhead Town will be put on hold until the Planning Board rules on Gershow Recycling's site plan. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch photo)

A state judge said a lawsuit filed by Riverhead Town will be put on hold until the Planning Board rules on Gershow Recycling’s site plan. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch photo)

Riverhead Town’s lawsuit in state Supreme Court against Gershow Recycling is going back to the town Planning Board for the moment.

Town Attorney Bob Kozakiewicz said at Tuesday’s Town Board meeting that the courts have adjourned the case until the Planning Board makes a decision as to whether Gershow is a different use from the Fred J. Gallo junkyard that had been operating at the Hubbard Avenue site before them.  (more…)

01/15/14 3:00pm
01/15/2014 3:00 PM
PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | This property on Hamilton Avenue was raided by town code enforcement officials Friday morning.

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | This property on Hamilton Avenue was raided by town code enforcement officials Friday morning. 18 people were living in side, town officials said.

Riverhead town has “received assurances” in court that the owner of an allegedly overcrowded house on Hamilton Avenue will begin fixing fire and town code violations within 30 days, town officials said Wednesday.

Deputy town attorney Bill Duffy appeared in state Supreme Court Tuesday morning and said the attorney for Rickey Taylor — the landlord of the property — agreed to take steps to fix the “numerous” town code violations inside the house at 331 Hamilton Avenue.

Town officials say at least 18 men were living in the two-story single-family house, which was targeted in a code enforcement raid last week.

In the raid, authorities allegedly found some of the occupants had been living in an unfinished cellar that had been divided into makeshift living spaces. The men living in the basement had been sleeping on beds close to exposed wiring, insulation and heating and boiler equipment, authorities said.

There was also evidence that an unheated garage was being used for housing, town officials said.

Town officials said the search also revealed blocked egress, exposed wiring, “excessive” littering, a shortage of smoke detectors and evidence that living areas had been created without building permits or certificates of occupancy, according to the town.

The property was one of four targeted by the Town Board for legal action last March. Mr. Taylor had told town officials last year that he was going to bring the home into compliance, town attorney Robert Kozakiewicz said Wednesday.

But that never seems to have happened, he said.

“We had a sense he was going to do the right thing and come into compliance,” he said. “But then we got an indication from neighbors at 331 Hamilton that things weren’t going the way they should.”

Mr. Taylor couldn’t be reached for comment this week. However his lawyer, David Gilmartin, Jr., said on Thursday afternoon that “Mr. Taylor is cooperating fully with the town, and promises to ensure the properties will be consistent with the requirements of town code.”

In court Tuesday, Mr. Gilmartin assured the town that those living in unsafe areas had been moved out, Mr. Duffy said. Residents will continue to live in the home while the violations are addressed, he said.

“We didn’t want people being thrown out onto the streets,” Mr. Duffy said. “That’s the tightrope we’re having to walk.”

Mr. Duffy said Mr. Taylor must bring in a licensed electrician by Friday to being to fix the electrical violations in the property and immediately remove objects blocking the exit paths from the house. Mr. Taylor also must apply for building permits to fix the other code violations within 30 days.

Mr. Duffy said town will inspect the house periodically to make sure work is getting done. The court will also be watching to make sure Mr. Taylor keeps his promises, Mr. Duffy said.

“The judge is going to be on top of this,” he said, adding that the town will seek sanctions against Mr. Taylor should he fail to comply.

The town plans to pursue fines against Mr. Taylor for the alleged violations, Mr. Duffy said.

“These are the emergency steps,” he said. “Any stipulation to settle [the violations] will include fines.”

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04/02/13 12:49pm
04/02/2013 12:49 PM
NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | Larry Oxman lost his property on Route 58 to foreclosure as it got tied up in litigation. A Christmas Tree Shops is now planned for the site.

NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | Larry Oxman lost his property on Route 58 to foreclosure as it got tied up in litigation.

A $10 million federal lawsuit claiming Riverhead Town officials violated the civil rights of realtor Larry Oxman and Riverhead Park Corp was dismissed last week in a case that dates back to 2004 after the town filed illegal clearing charges against Mr. Oxman.

The 2007 lawsuit was dismissed on the grounds that Mr. Oxman and RPC never filed a lawsuit or sought a zoning board of appeals decision challenging the stop work order issued against them in 2004.

But Mr. Oxman filed another $10 million federal lawsuit Monday, claiming the town engaged in “malicious prosecution” in the case against him, according to the new lawsuit.

United States District Court Judge Arthur Spatt’s March 28 decision states that Mr. Oxman and RPC “have failed to exhaust available administrative remedies” before taking the case to federal court.

Judge Spatt’s decision also ruled that the officials named in the suit, which included former Supervisor Phil Cardinale and other council members, could not be sued personally because they were acting in an official capacity at the time.

“The town brought 52 court proceedings against Mr. Oxman and this was the first time in the tortured history of this case that they won,” said Andrew Campanelli, Mr. Oxman’s attorney. “The town’s record  is 1 and 51 at this point, and this was dismissed not on the merits of the case but for procedural reasons.”

He predicted the town’s victory will be short lived.

Mr. Oxman also filed a notice of claim last year against the town, this time claiming malicious prosecution and seeking $10 million in damages. That claim became a full fledged lawsuit on Monday, Mr. Campanelli said.

“The town has never proven that Mr. Oxman has done anything wrong yet in this case, and yet they continue to appeal it,” Mr. Campanelli said, claiming that the town has spent more than $200,000 fighting the case.

Mr. Oxman received documentation a few years ago that the town spent at least $150,000 on the case, Mr. Campanelli said.

“I’ve never seen such a complete and utter waste of taxpayer resources in my life,” Mr. Campanelli said.

The lawsuit was filed by Riverhead Park Corp, its late president Stanley Blumenstein and Mr. Oxman. Mr. Oxman and Mr. Blumenstein were partners in RPC, which owned a 13-acre property on Route 58, just east of Riverhead Raceway. In 2004 they began clearing the land for proposed agricultural use, days before the town was scheduled to rezone that property to a zone that would allow less-intense development.

The town issued a stop work order and issued 51 building code violations, including charges that RPC filled in a wetland.

While Mr. Oxman lost the federal lawsuit, he has come out on top so far in the lawsuits filed in state Supreme Court.

The town took RPC to state Supreme Court in 2004, and in an extended legal case, the town’s case was thrown out in October 2011 by state Supreme Court Justice Joseph Farneti. The case was thrown out because the town failed to submit papers in opposition to a 2010 ruling dismissing the case because the Town Board never passed a resolution to authorize the lawsuit.

The town has since appealed the 2011 ruling.

The 51 building code violations also were dismissed last year in Southampton Town Justice Court, which got the case because Riverhead’s two judges recused themselves.

Over the course of the nine-year litigation, Mr. Oxman eventually lost the property to foreclosure and Riverhead Park Corp filed for bankrupcy. Its new owner, Saber Riverhead LLC, has begun worked on a 122,000-square-foot shopping center that will have a Dick’s Sporting Goods and a Christmas Tree Shop store there, among others.

One of the uses Mr. Oxman originally claimed to be clearing the site for in 2004 was a Christmas tree farm.

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03/14/13 8:00am
03/14/2013 8:00 AM
Sean Walter of Riverhead

NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | Supervisor Sean Walter (right) is saying he won’t let the town — especially the downtown area, in light of recent advances — lose ground to slumlords.

The Riverhead Town Board voted last week to proceed with civil action against the owner of four Polish Town properties, claiming his rental houses are overcrowded and unsafe. While fines can be pursued in Justice Court, state Supreme Court enables the town to not only impose fines but also use the sheriff’s office to force residents from a home the court has deemed unsafe.

The property owner in this case says his houses are not overcrowded or unsafe, and he’s threatening to countersue the town.

While the particulars of any lawsuit are not yet known — the Town Board has only voted to move forward in filing a suit — it’s heartening to see Supervisor Sean Walter describe this measure as part of a larger and more vocal effort to stem the tide of illegal and overcrowded housing, a problem that has plagued downtown and other Riverhead neighborhoods for years.

While police and code enforcement officials in neighboring Southampton Town are apt to kick down doors during the early morning hours and issue criminal charges as well as code violations — followed by press releases with landlords’ names — Riverhead has taken a softer approach in the past.

Town officials have said they work on a case-by-case basis and are always writing tickets, even if they’re not making a big production of it. But the problem has not only persisted, it’s gotten worse.

It seems Mr. Walter and the town are now ready to put on a show. And that’s to be applauded.

“I will not let this town backslide; we’ve made too many strides,” Mr. Walter told the News-Review this week when asked if the Supreme Court action is part of a larger plan to crack down on allegedly illegal housing. “We’re on the cusp of something great here [with downtown revitalization efforts] and if we’re not vigilant we can lose ground. And as long as I’m supervisor I will not let that happen,” he said.

Code violation fines are taken in stride by slumlords as simply the cost of doing business — and this could be a lucrative business, as they often collect multiple checks from individuals or families living in one- or two-family homes. Landlords can make much more money by charging five unrelated individuals rent than they can get from a family of five, never mind the cars that end up packing the driveways and spilling into streets.

These are quality-of-life issues that impact neighbors and neighborhoods, raising safety concerns and diminishing property values. Even with occasional violation fees, cost-benefit analyses find more money is to be made by packing these houses with unrelated tenants.

But often, these occupants run extension cords from room to room and use electric heaters — even ovens or barbecues — for warmth, while landlords ignore or neglect routine repairs and maintenance, such as making sure smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are operable.

These are conditions that create not only neighborhood eyesores but safety hazards for the adults and children who live there.

Issuing code violations, search warrants and press releases and filing civil suits are just some tools that can make these landlords more accountable. Meanwhile, people who suspect a home is overcrowded should be relentless in calling officials with complaints that can lead to such actions.

01/15/13 8:50am
01/15/2013 8:50 AM

BARBARBAELLEN KOCH PHOTO |  A Taste of Country in Northville may receive a settlement from Riverhead Town. A vote on the resolution is expected tonight.

The Riverhead Town Board is expected to vote tonight on a resolution authorizing a settlement in a case where the town claimed a local farm stand was being illegally operated as a restaurant or deli.

The Town Board meeting starts at 7 p.m. The Riverhead News-Review will be live blogging from the meeting.

The town last fall was on the winning end of a state Supreme Court justice ruling regarding the town’s lawsuit against the owners of A Taste of Country on Sound Avenue in Northville.

Riverhead Town took the business to court in 2010, claiming that its certificate of occupancy was only for a farm stand, and that it was operating more as a deli or take-out restaurant.

Judge Elizabeth Emerson agreed, and ruled that A Taste of Country could not operate a deli or takeout restaurant, and could not prepare or sell hot food, cold short-order foods such as sandwiches, or cooked-to-order food or catered foods, on the premises.

A Taste of Country had planned to appeal the verdict.

The property is owned by John Reeve Jr. and his wife, Renee, who rented the property to a tenant, who ran the store.

Town Attorney Bob Kozakiewicz and Councilman Jim Wooten said the proposed settlement calls for a $10,000 fine and bars the site from being operated as anything other than a farm stand. It also calls for the Reeves to drop their appeal of the case.

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10/03/12 8:00am
10/03/2012 8:00 AM
Northville, Riverhead

BARBARBAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | A lawyer for A Taste of Country in Northville said his client will appeal a judge’s decision barring them certain food offerings.

A state Supreme Court judge last week ruled the owners of A Taste of Country in Northville cannot operate a deli or takeout restaurant on their Sound Avenue property.

More specifically, they can’t prepare or sell hot food, cold short-order foods such as sandwiches, or cooked-to-order food or catered foods.

Riverhead Town took the business to court in 2010, claiming that it’s certificate of occupancy is for a farm stand, and that the above mentioned uses are not permitted but were being done on the site.

The property is owned by John Reeve Jr. and his wife, Renee, and is located on 1.8 acres on the north side of Sound Avenue. The Reeves rent the property to a tenant, who runs the store.

Mr. Reeve’s father is the town’s longtime sanitation supervisor.

The town code allows farms to sell homemade or homegrown products on a parcel of land that’s at least seven acres, and allows farmsteads to sell “supporting farm products or products not grown by the farmer,” so long as these products make up less than 40 percent of the merchandising area.

“It is not being operated as a farm stand, but as a restaurant in violation of the Riverhead Town Code,” the Sept. 20 ruling by state Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Emerson states.

While the judge issued what’s called a summary judgement — meaning no trial was required — ruling on the farm stand issue, she declined to do so on a second issue the town challenged the Reeves on that deals with a farm workers’ house that’s also on the property in question. That issue will go to trial.

The property is located in a zone that allows minimum two-acre residential lots, as well as agricultural and other uses.

The town, which had granted a permit for the farm stand in 2002, claims the building was initially operated as a farm stand selling homemade baked goods, farm-raised fruits and vegetables and cooked foods such as eggs when Renee Reeve operated the store prior to 2009, but since it has been leased to a tenant, it has operated as a delicatessen and then as a Mexican restaurant and no longer sells farm products.

“It’s not a final determination, there’s still a trial to be had on some of the issues,” said John Ciarelli, an attorney for Taste of Country. “We’re going to comply with the court order (in the interim), But there’s a trial coming up and we’re going to vigorously defend our rights.

“The town ordinance is ambiguous. The Reeves also have some pre-existing rights, and there are other people serving hot food in the other areas along Sound Avenue. I don’t think there’s a different between what other farmsteads are selling and what Taste of Country is selling.”

He said his client will appeal the ruling on the farm stand.

The farm worker house was permitted by the Zoning Board of Appeals in 2005 on the condition that the Reeves actively farm at least five acres within three miles of the property and that they submit proof of that to the ZBA annually. The town claimed the Reeves failed to do so on an annual basis and had a relative living in the house instead of a farm worker at one point.

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