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Editorial: At last, a new Justice Court plan is in place

As Councilman Tim Hubbard began to discuss Riverhead Town’s planned acquisition of a new Town Hall building last week, he immediately mentioned the late Justice Allen Smith. It was Mr. Smith, whose public service in Riverhead spanned decades before he died two years ago, who consistently waved the flag trying to raise awareness of the cramped and dangerous conditions at Riverhead Town Justice Court.

“As you all know, this has been a work in progress for some time,” Mr. Hubbard said. “If the Honorable Allen Smith was around, he’d say you’re way too late. But better late than never.”

The Justice Court has been a focus of concern for several years, and the hope now is that problems there can finally be alleviated by moving most of its operation to the Robert Entenmann Campus on West Second Street, owned by the Peconic Bay Medical Center Foundation. The Town Board approved three resolutions Tuesday to begin the process of purchasing that property at a cost of $20 million — plus an additional $1.5 million for renovations. That acquisition will allow the Justice Court to move into the current Town Hall building, freeing up space for the Riverhead Town Police Department to expand in its current location.

After all the proposals that never materialized to fix the Justice Court, hope is finally on the way.

In 2017, the News-Review didn’t mince words in an editorial that described the current Justice Court as a “tragedy waiting to happen.” Defense attorneys quoted at the time cited the lack of privacy among their chief concerns. One Legal Aid Society lawyer mentioned that there was no jury room, so the jury would remain in the courtroom during deliberations, forcing everyone else to leave.

At the time, Mr. Smith and current Justice Lori Hulse recommended converting the Route 58 Armory building into a police and justice court building. That plan, just as in prior discussions, never advanced due to costs.

And so the wait continued.

“If you’ve had a chance to be in Justice Court, you’ll see boxes stacked to the ceiling,” Mr. Hubbard said. “It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Mr. Hubbard said the path the town is pursuing now to acquire the PBMC property gets the Justice Court a new space “faster than any other method we could do.”

As recently as late May, the Town Board discussed plans to build a new stand-alone Town Hall, stand-alone court building, and a new police department building, as well as a combination of the three. The cost of a new standalone court, while updating the police department and expanding Town Hall, was estimated at $31.8 million. Another option was to build second-floor additions to the current buildings, estimated at $34.6 million. A third plan, which came in at $30.8 million, would have moved Town Hall to a new building.

At the time, Mr. Hubbard said the Armory building, which was given to the town more than a decade ago with a requirement that it be used for law enforcement or recreation, “probably needs to be bulldozed.” 

It’s long overdue, but the Riverhead Justice Court appears to finally have found an adequate home.