Riverhead Town officials executed a search warrant Friday evening to inspect all 32 rooms at the Wading River Motel, which hosts homeless families, citing months of complaints from area residents.
The warrant, signed by Riverhead Town Justice Richard Ehlers last Thursday, was executed at the Route 25 motel about 5:30 p.m.
All the motel’s residents, mostly single mothers and their children placed there by the county, were pulled from their rooms, questioned and had their identifications inspected.
No code citations have yet been issued, though one woman was arrested on an outstanding bench warrant on an unrelated traffic law violation.
Deputy town attorney Bill Duffy said inspectors searched the premises to investigate complaints the town has received about building, fire and occupancy code violations.
Several families waited outside their doorways as a police officer and inspectors entered each room.
Equea Robinson, who was placed at the motel Friday along with her boyfriend, Omar, and their two toddlers, had just arrived from Huntington when town officials arrived on the scene.
“We’re just shocked,” Ms. Robinson said, adding that the family hadn’t even unpacked. “We haven’t even moved in yet and they are asking us for identification.”
The owner of the motel, Anthony Marino, has been in a dispute with the town over whether or not he can renew the rental permit, which was secured by the previous owner. Town officials contend that town code does not allow the motel to operate as a shelter, a matter that will likely be decided in court.
Mr. Marino said he was outraged to discover the officials inspecting the rooms, since he’s been working with the town since he took over the facility earlier this year.
County Department of Social Services commissioner Greg Blass very publicly blasted the town this week, saying rounding up the motel’s residents, who have already experienced the trauma of homelessness, was intimidating and uncalled for.
“I consider it a disgrace,” he said of the raid. “This is about nothing less than politics and bigotry.”
In an opinion piece published online and in the Aug. 18 Riverhead News-Review, Mr. Blass hinted that some members of the police department were unhappy that the shelter was operating near officers’ homes. Reports indicate that officers were called to the location 37 times between Jan. 1 and June 14 compared with just seven calls in the previous six-month period when it was vacant.
Mr. Blass said that homeless families in the Riverhead and Longwood school district are placed there, as to not disrupt the studies of the children.
Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter had a different take on the raid, explaining Tuesday that the town was just trying to protect its residents since the officials suspected the motel violated fire and other codes.
“The bottom line is it’s not me that’s putting these people at risk,” he said. “I’m in charge of protecting the health and safety of town residents. We’re not the bad guys.”
When asked, he declined to reveal what the probable cause was that prompted the raid. Though no citations were issued Friday, Mr. Walter said some charges could be filed after the investigation is completed. He said the town has 10 days after the execution of a search warrant to file charges.
The Wading River Motel is the only site in Riverhead Town where families are now being placed, Mr. Blass said. The county began using motels to house its overflow homeless population after the economy collapsed in 2009 and Suffolk’s 52 permanent shelters filled to capacity.
Town senior code enforcement investigator Kevin Maccabee has said the motel’s owner, listed as Wading River Development LLC, was issued a summons for operating without a rental permit on May 25. He said that the motel’s previous owner, listed as Dave Enterprises, did have a rental permit, but that paperwork needed to be updated when the property changed hands.
Attorney John Zukowski, who represents the motel’s owner, said the tenants weren’t allowed back until shortly after 9 p.m. Friday night.
“Seems to me that all of the rooms are fine,” Mr. Zukowski said after the raid.
Mr. Walter said the town will take the matter to state Supreme Court if needed to prove that the motel is out of code.
“I want to facility brought into compliance,” Mr. Walter said. “Having people housed in hotels is a bad idea.”
Additional reporting by Vera Chinese