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Community members in Riverside rebuke Southampton Town as absentee property owner

A rusted and twisted chain-link fence, host to a real estate sign advertising a sale long completed, bends to the weeds, offering entrance to 308 Riverleigh Ave. in Riverside. Not that many would accept the offer to step into the garbage-strewn clearing, or walk across a dirt-packed path and back into the tall weeds and woods at the rear of a parcel.

Don’t go in there alone, neighbors warn. Don’t go in there without tick spray, either.

For years, the property has been a neighborhood nuisance, a nighttime nexus for sex workers and their customers, and drug dealers and their customers, according to neighbors. It’s been a crime-infested blight, neighbors say — one its absentee owner hasn’t cleaned up, despite repeated requests from community groups and residents.

The absentee owner is the Town of Southampton.

Town officials said last week that they plan to clean up the property, hopefully, by the end of the month, and were held back in doing so by a request from the Southampton Town Police Department, which was conducting an investigation into illegal narcotics distribution in the area.

Just last month, Vince Taldone, president of the Flanders, Riverside, Northampton Community Association, contacted officials, sending an email he’s sent numerous times before. “It’s become an annual thing,” he said — a revolting rite of spring: The weather gets warm, and sex workers and drug dealers emerge.

Writing to Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki, Supervisor Jay Schneiderman and his deputy, Frank Zappone, Mr. Taldone said the Riverleigh Avenue property has been busy with drug and prostitution activity. “Two area FRNCA members witnessed the drop-off of several sex workers in the afternoon around 4 p.m. I am told that this happens now every afternoon. The drug and sex dealers work the street by Marta’s [Deli] using the town-owned property next door and behind as a staging and activity area. Also, the workers do their thing along Pine Street by Riverleigh, though I can’t say for sure if they are using a dwelling or taking rides in cars.”

The town is supposed to clear the lot that serves the illegal activity well, Mr. Taldone reported, “but that hasn’t happened.” The wild overgrowth makes it difficult for police to get into the site without getting covered with ticks, he said, “but the place is a mess and is home to this recurring problem. When the town purchased the lot 10 years ago, it was completely cleared, which made this activity difficult to hide. I think that is what we need, at the least, to discourage the activity.”

A highly touted drug bust, heralded on April 23 by Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini as a multi-agency effort that he said took down major drug traffickers selling cocaine in Riverhead, hasn’t seemed to slow action at the site so far, Mr. Taldone said.

Since FRNCA’s president has been sending emails of activity at the site to police and town officials, community activist Billy Shaw acknowledged there have been more patrols in the area, but “it’s not satisfactory.” Problems persist, he said.

Christened the unofficial “Mayor of Riverside,” Mr. Shaw is the president of the Riverside Revitalization Community Corporation, and he can detail a litany of blighted areas and pockets of crime in the hamlet. Focusing in on the town-owned lot at 308 Riverleigh, he explained, “Next to the deli, there’s a lot and there’s prostitution, and the Town of Southampton owns the lot, and it’s going on six years and they refuse to clean it up. Why?”

There’s a dirt road alongside the deli property and, following that back, Mr. Shaw explained, “There’s a big grass circle that’s overgrown, with tire ruts. You can drive back there, and all the undesirables go there, all the bums sit back there. That’s all town property.”

The T-shaped lot was out to bid for a cleanup years ago, he said. “Well, it went out to bid, the 10th of never,” Mr. Shaw said, “There’s garbage, there’s furniture, they’re pulling their pants down, their rear ends are sticking out, the women are going to the bathroom.”

He said officials drove over the fence to investigate possible contamination several years ago and “that opened up the doorway … They never took the ‘for sale’ sign down — it’s been there for 10 years.”

Called alternately Pine Street or Private Road, the dirt path at one time opened up onto Pine Street proper, which intersects to the south with Riverleigh Avenue. The town put up a guardrail post up about 10 years ago so you can’t drive through, Mr. Shaw recalled.

Twenty, 30 years ago, there was a trailer park on the back parcels, Mr. Shaw said. “And the town bought it up and they put all the trailers in the dumpster and they cleared it back then, because it was a blighted s—hole.”

“I don’t make a point of going back there, because of who you might run into. Last spring, they removed a body from back there. I think it was a homeless guy, he died of natural causes,” Mr. Shaw said.

His group participated in community meetings about Riverside revitalization throughout the years, and Mr. Shaw rebuked town officials for their failure to follow through on plans to improve the area.

Indeed, an urban renewal plan targeting the area from the Riverside traffic circle and bounded by Riverleigh Avenue, Old Quogue Road, Flanders Road and Ludlam Avenue, was crafted in 2009, its recommendations for the demolition of abandoned and dilapidated houses, zone changes and road improvements never sated, forgotten or superceded by the next plan to arise. Six years later, in 2015, the Riverside Revitalization Action plan was adopted. It, too, seems to be stuck, the creation of a sewer district necessary to support its urban renewal recommendations a hurdle.

The lot at 308 Riverleigh was bought by the town in 2009 with Community Development Block Grant money for affordable housing and possibly a daycare center, Mr. Taldone recalled. “I know because I was a volunteer at the time working with the town’s housing authority. The town bought the lot, which was completely clear of vegetation, and has since permitted it to become a real nightmare for the community.”

According to town records, Southampton acquired the lot from Goodale Enterprises LLC for $155,000.

“The most annoying part of this is that the town created a ‘blight mitigation fund’ to raise money to pay for cleanup efforts,” Mr. Taldone continued. “That account is funded by a surcharge on Justice Court fines. Thus, the cleanup would not cost the taxpayers a dime.”

“We have the money, yes,” Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said, reached for comment on May 3. “We’ll take care of it,” he added.

“We knew it was getting overgrown and there were things going on,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “The police asked us not to disturb the site until their investigation was done,” he said, referring to the April drug arrests. “They just gave us the green light.

“I’ve made it a top priority,” the supervisor continued. “We’re going to try to get it done by Memorial Day. As soon as we can execute a contract, we’ll get it done.”

While the property was purchased through a federal grant for affordable housing, the supervisor has a different vision for the parcel. With plans for a full-blown sewer district as part of the Riverside revitalization plan continuing to move at glacial speed, Mr. Schneiderman most recently considered using town property near the traffic circle for a sewage treatment plant to serve just several properties in the area. The parcel at 308 Riverleigh Avenue could be home to the treatment plant.

“We’re working to make this happen,” the supervisor said of the revitalization promise. “There’s a lot of moving parts.”

This story was published in conjunction with The Southampton Press.