2011 will likely usher in new homeless sex offender policy

Things are happening in downtown Riverhead. The Hyatt Place hotel at Atlantis Marine World is beginning to take shape; Dark Horse restaurant at the prominent corner of Peconic Avenue and East Main Street is lit up and alive at night; and a renovated Grangebel Park, complete with a new amphitheater and other amenities, is set to open in time for Christmas.

Here’s what’s not happening. The construction trailer that sleeps almost two dozen homeless sex offenders is still parked across Route 24 from Grangebel Park. For about 3 1/2 years, it has sat there, outside the Riverside jail. Not only does the trailer draw sex offenders to the area, it attracts negative attention — just what a beleaguered downtown Riverhead doesn’t need in otherwise promising times.

But this is the season of perpetual hope, so here are a few reasons to be hopeful the Riverhead area will get some relief in 2011:

• The trailers are illegal. A state administrative law judge, after hearing complaints from sex offenders about a lack of showers and toilets, ruled that the trailers must have such facilities. Southampton Town officials acquired a restraining order blocking the county from placing a larger trailer with running water next to an existing trailer for sex offenders in Westhampton. As for the trailers near the jail, they are in Southampton Town, too, but they’re also in the Riverhead sewer and water districts, so the Riverhead Town Board can reject any requests to hook up a trailer to provide water and toilets. The county hasn’t made such a request yet, but it has to do something to legalize the situation or it will be sued. Maybe soon it will finally face facts and remove the trailers.

• Some western Suffolk lawmakers appear ready to vote in favor of a plan to place homeless sex offenders across the county in several smaller shelters in industrial areas. That’s a good sign. Western legislators had seemed content to spend gobs of money forever to taxi sex offenders from as far west as Amityville to the East End trailers each night — no matter how impractical, inhumane and outright unfair that might be. Two Huntington lawmakers even proposed a bill to make the trailers in Riverside and Westhampton permanent.

Legislator Ed Romaine, whose district includes Riverhead, has sponsored a bill to contract with a vendor to operate shelters, no more than one per town or legislative district, that would have running water and house no more than six offenders. Mr. Romaine believes he has 10 votes, good for a majority of the Legislature’s 18 members.

• If for some reason the year ends and the county’s policy for housing homeless sex offenders remains in limbo, residents can trust their local civic advocates and elected leaders to keep pushing until the trailers are gone. It also helps that powerful lobbyist and Parents for Megan’s Law founder Laura Ahearn, who had previously been in favor of the trailers, is now calling for the smaller shelter system.

Riverhead area residents have said repeatedly, “Share the burden” and “We’ll take our own.” They recognize that sexual predators are a societal problem that will always exist here and everywhere, but they also recognize it’s inherently wrong to ship all the county’s homeless sex predators to one town. For those who disagree, just look to the words of then-deputy commissioner of social services Greg Blass, who in 2007, when the trailer system was launched, told The New York Times that the trailers would be rotated throughout the county, because sex offenders “have tended to locate permanently in places where they were placed in temporary shelters. This [rotating the trailer locations] lets us avoid making any one area a haven for sex offenders.”