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Hearings set on pair of blighted West Main Street properties

During a special Town Board meeting last Thursday, Riverhead officials set separate public hearings for Sept. 4 on two properties deemed to be blighted under town code. 

The first property is 849-853 West Main St., once the location of the now-shuttered Danowski’s Fish Market.

That property was seized by the county after owner Ghulam Sarwar failed to pay taxes and is now the subject of litigation as he attempts to reclaim it.

The second property is an overgrown wooded parcel at 1501-1595 West Main St., near the corner of Forge Road, owned by former South Jamesport resident Larry Simms.

The county had been seeking to purchase that 16-acre parcel last year for preservation, but Riverhead Town officials disagreed on whether town funds should be spent to eventually develop it into a park. The county is currently having the property appraised, officials said.

Both properties were inspected by town code enforcement officers last September, shortly after the board approved a new chapter of town code that allows properties to be “scored” based on blighted conditions, such as overgrown grass and boarded up buildings.

If a property reaches 100 points, the Town Board can declare it blighted and require the owners to pay a registry fee of $2,500 for residential properties and $5,000 for commercial buildings, which is added to the property tax bill.

Before last Thursday’s meeting, the properties had been combined under one public hearing that was originally scheduled for March.

That hearing was postponed several times, until the Town Board agreed at last Tuesday’s regular meeting to split them up and deal with the parcels separately.

Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said the additional time would provide an opportunity for the board to gain some clarity on the relatively new code, such as when the fees can be imposed and what the public is asked to comment on.

The Simms property on West Main Street. (Credit: Tim Gannon)

Town attorney Bob Kozakiewicz explained that the public hearing and determination will allow the town to move forward in assessing costs and abating the property, and the fee isn’t dependent on the public hearing.

“Once we give notice to the property owners, they have 30 days to come in and tell us why we’re wrong and provide reasonable proof to establish why the property should not be considered blighted,” he said. “We’re able to proceed ahead and make a determination that it is blighted.”

In a letter to the Town Board dated Aug. 6, Mr. Simms indicated that he has been working with the building department and intends to sign a restoration agreement and bring his property into compliance.

“Deputy Town Attorney [Erik] Howard has told you we’ve ‘failed to reach an agreement’ on this matter, & that’s accurate,” he wrote. “It’s critical, however, that you understand the failure has nothing to do with substance. Pivotal details including the scope of the alleged ‘blight’ conditions to be addressed, the nature of the remediation & the timetable on which the work will be performed are settled.”

At last Thursday’s meeting, Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said taking action is overdue, noting that violations issued to Mr. Simms’ property date back to 2017.

“We have asked him to come in and cooperate, we have asked him to take down the buildings, or we were going to take down the buildings. He takes down the buildings and leaves a pile of rubble there — and it’s the entrance to our downtown, which we’re working so hard to try and fix up,” she said. “I don’t know why we’re extending such leniency to two property owners.”

With regard to the former fish market property, Ms. Giglio said she was “tired of waiting for litigation and judges.”

Mr. Howard said at last Tuesday’s meeting that the board should consider taking “premature” action on the fish market property.

“The property owner, supposing he’s successful [in court], he would have had a right to appear and remedy the conditions, enter into a restoration agreement. That’s something that is being deprived at this moment,” he said.

Both hearings, now separated, will be held at the 2 p.m. Town Board meeting on Sept. 4.

Top Caption: The site of the former Danowski’s Fish Market. (Credit: Tim Gannon)

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