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‘Politics & dogs don’t mix;’ RMTAS closing up after four years

Riverhead Move the Animal Shelter volunteers (from left) Richie Cox, Fred McLaughlin, Denise Lucas and Lindsay Reeve at Stotzky Park's Duke Dog Park Friday. They're holding tickets to the group's three-year anniversary benefit at Suffolk Theater planned for November. (Credit: Carrie Miller, file)

Four years and 50 fundraisers later, Riverhead Move the Animal Shelter is calling off the dogs.

Denise Lucas, who founded the nonprofit with the mission of moving the municipal shelter from Youngs Avenue to a new home, announced on Sunday night that “politics and dogs don’t mix,” and RMTAS would be closing.

The nonprofit has raised close to $200,000 since Ms. Lucas founded the organization in the fall of 2011 “to raise the funds necessary to build a new home for Riverhead’s abandoned dogs and cats and to build dog parks for the community to enjoy.”

At the time, the town’s shelter was still run under the auspices of the town’s police department and mired in controversy over the state of its operations. It’s since been privatized and is currently run by the North Fork Animal Welfare League, which last week announced the beginning of a capital campaign to raise $1 million for a new 21-pen shelter next to the town’s Henry Pfeifer Community Center in Calverton. The standing building will be converted to a cattery with six pens used for rehabilitating dogs.

RMTAS was left out of the press event — NFAWL later apologized “for making them feel slighted by not including them” — though Ms. Lucas said that her decision to shut down the nonprofit she started is not sour grapes, and there are no hard feelings with NFAWL.

“I originally said I was gonna give it two years of my best shot,” said Ms. Lucas, who has worked at Otis Ford for the past 24 years. “Then I gave it four years of my best shot … I don’t have another two years to give to this.”

Both Ms. Lucas and fellow RMTAS board member Fred McLaughlin expressed frustration at the fact that four years after the group started its efforts, no shovels have been put in the ground.

In addition to about $80,000 the group has in the bank, Ms. Lucas also secured agreements from local unions — plumbers, carpenters — as well as local companies such as Revco, offering discounted and donated materials toward the new shelter.

“There’s only so much you can do when you’re fighting city hall by yourself,” said Ms. Lucas, who was named the News-Review’s Person of the Year in 2012.

Mr. McLaughlin expressed disappointment at the speed the wheels of government have been churning as well.

“Any time you deal with government, it’s frustrating, time consuming … and frustrating,” he said. “Just when you think you have everything together — Denise got everything done for free by all the unions — it kept being put off by the town.”

Councilman Jim Wooten has taken the lead in town hall improving conditions at the shelter. While he said he was “dismayed” and “upset” to hear the news that RMTAS is closing its doors — and even suggested naming part of the new shelter in Calverton after RMTAS for its efforts — he defended the pace at which change has been made.

“We’re not stalling, or trying to create a Nov. 2 press release on this. It just takes time,” he said.

Mr. Wooten pointed to the fact that the town’s Recreation Department used the building over the summer for a camp, and Riverhead needs state approval to use the Pfeifer building as an animal shelter. Prior to that, the Town Board needed to agree to do it — which was no sure thing. Councilwoman Jodi Giglio initially opposed the move, though the effort eventually passed 4-1 last summer, with Councilman George Gabrielsen voting against the measure.

According to Mr. Wooten, representatives with the state Department of Environmental Conservation took test samples last month to determine if the Calverton spot would be safe for animals. He said they expect a permit to move forward “very soon,” at which point a site plan for the shelter and building permits would be needed for work to get underway.

In addition to the animal shelter effort, Ms. Lucas also added to her list this year an effort to run for Town Board. Though she was ultimately passed up for Neil Krupnick and Laura Jens-Smith, Ms. Lucas didn’t express any further interest in politics. Her husband Robert Lucas — known as “Mr. Luke” to many who knew him as a longtime Phillips Avenue School janitor — recently retired, and her political aspirations have since waned.

“This was my four-year political career,” she said.

The group’s final fundraiser will take place at Polish Hall on Nov. 3 — on Election Day.

Photo Caption: Move the Animal Shelter volunteers (from left) Richie Cox, Fred McLaughlin, Denise Lucas and Lindsay Reeve at Stotzky Park’s Duke Dog Park in 2014. (Credit: Carrie Miller, file)

Correction: An earlier version of this article noted that RMTAS had raised over $250,000. It has raised close to $200,000.