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Riverhead tackles ‘zombie’ homes with state funds

Riverhead Town  has ramped up actions against vacant and abandoned homes since receiving $100,000 through the New York State Attorney General’s office in October, the town announced Thursday.

The Community Development Department received the funds last year as part of the state attorney general’s office to address “zombie” homes created by the recent foreclosures crisis.

“This funding allowed the Town to hire a prosecuting attorney and a Spanish speaking Code Enforcement Officer, as well as to purchase code violation tracking software that assists in preparing court paperwork and tracking code violations,” community development director Dawn Thomas said in a town press release. 

The town attorney’s code enforcement division has also used the grant money and efforts have been “tremedously effective,” Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter said in the press release. 

“It is my strong belief that this action will assure the safety and well-being of those residing in our town and will potentially save lives by addressing dangerous conditions before a disaster such as a house fire occurs,” the supervisor said.

Town attorney Robert Kozakiewicz said his office began state Supreme Court actions to enforce the code, using the funding to pay for legal enforcement of local town codes.

This year, the town office commenced 11 separate actions in Supreme Court and has obtained five separate injunctions, as well as contempt of court applications for violations of the town’s rental law and other housing violations.

Property owners who ignore laws and continue to violate town code and Supreme Court orders face heavy fines and, in some cases, jail time, the town advised. Two property owners settled cases with the town in July, resulting in $12,000 in fines payable to the town, according to the press release. There are additional pending actions that could result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, according to Mr. Kozakiewicz. 

“Utilizing its power to enforce matters in Supreme Court enables the Town to obtain injunctive relief which precludes property owners from utilizing property in violation of the Town Code and also allows the Town to collect much larger fines than the $1,500.00 maximum allowed per violation in Justice Court,” Mr.Kozakiewicz said in the press release. 

Code enforcement’s efforts also led to the demolition of two long-standing zombie homes along Route 58 near the intersection of East Main Street.

“The Town of Riverhead will continue to aggressively pursue those property owners who refuse to be in compliance of town codes and regulations,” Mr. Walter said. “The safety of our residents is of utmost importance and we will not stop our efforts to protect them.”

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Photo credit: Riverhead News Review