Riverhead Town Justice Allen Smith addresses the town board at the Nov. 21 meeting as Justice Lori Hulse looks on. Photo: Denise Civiletti

The two sitting judges on Riverhead’s town court have again asked the town board to move ahead with the conversion of the former state armory building to a new police/court complex.

Justices Allen Smith and Lori Hulse stepped up to the podium at Tuesday night’s town board meeting to ask the board to take action before the end of the year, when the terms of Supervisor Sean Walter and longtime Councilman John Dunleavy will expire.

“Quite frankly we don’t want to start over again,” Smith said, directing his comments to Walter and Dunleavy in particular.

He asked the board to adopt a bond resolution before year-end, authorizing the borrowing of the funds needed to complete the renovation — a cost estimated at about $13 million in 2014. The next town board will have to decide whether to actually borrow the money and move forward with the project, he said.

“We are asking that the town board obtain an updated construction estimate as soon as possible,” Smith said.

Rendering of the former state armory building by architects Ehasz Giacalone
Architect’s rendering of the renovated and repurposed armory building on Route 58.

The town board in the fall of 2013 retained an architectural and engineering consulting firm to assess the current police-justice court facility, built in 1985, and to design plans to repurpose the former armory as a new police headquarters and court complex.

The board spent $87,500 on the assessment and design but balked at moving forward with the project because of the estimated cost.

Smith, a former town supervisor who was elected to the town bench in 2000, ticked off a list of the existing facility’s inadequacies: a space long ago outgrown; serious shortcomings in security, lack of a jury deliberation room and lack of among them. The engineering consultants hired by the town found the existing facility, located adjacent to town hall, “grossly inadequate,” Smith said. See story and video, “‘Woefully inadequate’ facilities: the case for replacing Riverhead Justice Court,” March 12, 2014.

A prisoner is brought before Riverhead Town Justice Allen Smith in March 2014. File photo: Denise Civiletti

“Since 2014 the existing conditions of the police-court complex have gotten progressively worse,” according to the judge. The size of the police force has grown, as has the daily caseload in the court, Smith said.

The facility’s numerous security deficiencies were documented in 2006 by the N.Y. Unified Court System’s public safety department, which completed a security assessment of the court.

The 32,000-square-foot former armory building, constructed by the state in the 1950s on a 5.7-acre site on Route 58 that had been transferred to the state by the Riverhead Water District, has been vacant since 2011, when the N.Y. Army National Guard’s 133rd Quartermaster Company was relocated.

When the state decided to retire the Riverhead armory, town officials and local state lawmakers agreed to seek a conveyance to the town. A bill authorizing the transfer was approved in June 2011 and signed into law by the governor that September.

The law requires the town to improve the structures on the site “for use by the police department, justice court, public safety and recreational programs developed and operated by the Town of Riverhead Police Department.” The land would revert to the state “upon termination of such use,” the law says.

The town was required by the law to petition the state office of general services to convey the site. The town board voted unanimously to submit that request on Sept. 20, 2011.

Two years later, the board unanimously approved an $87,500 contract with EG Architects/Cashin Associates to undertake the assessment and design services specified in a request for proposals issued in April 2013.

But once the plans were drawn, only the supervisor and Councilman James Wooten favored moving ahead with the armory renovation. See prior story. Council members John Dunleavy, George Gabrielsen and Jodi Giglio said they wanted an analysis done on whether the town could more cost efficiently put other municipal properties to use.

With the election of retired Riverhead Police detective Tim Hubbard as councilman in 2015, the town board got a third vote for the armory plan — but took no action.

Hubbard said today he believes the armory is the answer to the town’s problem. It’s an “ideal location,” he said. “It will be expensive to repurpose, yes. And I don’t like to bond it, but this is a perfect example of when you have to go out and bond something,” he said.

“Interest rates are extremely low. It is the right time to look at this. We seriously need to address the problem. I am in favor of it,” Hubbard said.

Walter, who supported the armory renovation in 2014, said today, “It has to get done at some point — I don’t think anyone can argue with that. It’s overcrowded and unsafe.” But, he said, “The town will be in tough shape to go out to bond for the armory without the sale of EPCAL.”

In any case, he said, the current town board won’t be able to vote on a bond resolution by the end of the year. “There has to be a public hearing first,” he said. “So the best we could do is set the public hearing for January,”

Giglio said today the cost of renovating the armory for a police-court complex is more than the town can afford.

The councilwoman said in an interview today she believes the cost of the project now will be much more than the $13 million estimate given in 2014. “I’d imagine it’s $18 million now if not more,” she said.

“I know the police department and justice court need modifications,” she said. “You can’t ignore it and look the other way. We have to do something about the situation in the justice court.” Giglio suggested “holding people more accountable for their fines.” She also thinks the town should look into leasing courtroom space from the county in one of the buildings on Griffing Avenue.

In 2014 Giglio said she wanted to move town hall offices into the former firehouse on Second Street, which the town then owned but has since sold, freeing up town hall for use as a court facility.

As for the armory building, Giglio then and now said she’d like to see it used as a YMCA, which would require approval by the state legislature.

In a May 2014 interview, State Senator Ken LaValle said he’d support an amendment to have the YMCA use the facility. “I would do that in a heartbeat,” LaValle said “The original idea all along was to do a recreational facility.” The Riverhead Town Board asked for the police/court complex use, he said.

“If we have to amend the law, it’s not a big thing,” the senator said.

Town board members listen to Town Justice Allen Smith Tuesday night. Photo: Denise Civiletti

After the judge spoke at Tuesday night’s meeting, Dunleavy acknowledged that the police and court functions need more space. “They do need it, that I know,” he said. He didn’t say whether he would agree to move forward with a bond resolution and could not be reached for comment today. During his campaign for town supervisor this year, he advocated selling the armory site — which would also require the approval of the state legislature. It is not clear that such a plan would garner state lawmakers’ support.

Smith stressed that current bond market is more favorable than anything he’s ever seen in 50 years of practicing municipal law; the town could sell bonds at 3 percent, Smith said.

At this point, the proposal’s fate will rest with a new town board after Jan. 1.

Supervisor-elect Laura Jens-Smith said in an interview today she understands that “the court is an issue” and there are safety concerns.

But Jens-Smith said she hasn’t made up her mind about the best way to proceed to address that issue. She said it has to be looked at in the broader context of the town’s overall infrastructure. The town lacks a capital program, she said.

“We need to do an assessment of our infrastructure to look at the big picture,” she said. “That is definitely on my agenda — see what needs to be tended to right away, what needs to be repaired and also what’s working well, what’s good. There’s a lot of infrastructure that’s been left unattended to.”

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.