It’s been five years since the town board last took up the issue of Riverhead’s inadequate justice court and police facilities. Since then, the situation at 210 Howell Avenue has only gotten worse, according to frustrated town justices, the police chief and staff who work there.

By all accounts, the police and court building next to Riverhead Town Hall has been bursting at the seams for two decades. Some town officials maintain that the building was outmoded soon after it was built in 1985.

Lack of space means only one judge can work at a time. There is no jury room, so deliberations must take place in the courtroom. There is no adequate attorney-client conference space. The court’s clerical staff and court files are crammed into one small room. See 2014 video, below.

But the court’s space problems go beyond overcrowding. There are serious safety concerns — everything from a lack of a secure area for bringing prisoners into the building to having to walk prisoners through crowded public hallways to get them into the courtroom. 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.

Successive town boards have explored various remedies for the situation, commissioning architects and engineers to draw up plans to expand the building, or expand town hall and move the court officers next door. The town even successfully sought the transfer of the state armory site on Route 58 for use as a new police and court complex. That 5.7-acre site, improved with a 32,000-square-foot building built in the 1950s, was transferred to the town by the state in 2011.

In 2013, the town board hired an architect and engineering firm to draw up plans — at a cost of $87,000 — for redeveloping the armory but in 2014, when confronted with a price tag nearing $13 million, balked.

The town board today viewed a presentation on options for addressing space and security concerns at the existing police and justice court building. Photo: Peter Blasl

Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith asked the town engineering department to evaluate prior plans for dealing with the police department/justice court situation and update cost estimates. Today deputy town engineer Ernesto Rosini presented the town board with an overview of three options.

Option one — utilizing plans devised by H2M in 2003 — would be to expand the existing police and court building with a second-story and two first-floor additions — roughly doubling its usable floor area — at an estimated cost of just over $8.5 million.

Option two — based on plans drawn by architect Martin Sendlewski in 2009 — would be to expand the existing town hall building by about 32 percent, allowing the justice court to move into the town hall building and the police department to occupy the whole 210 Howell Avenue building. This option would cost an estimated $6.13 million.

A third option would be to renovate the armory building according to plans developed by architect Ehasz Giacalone in 2014. That would provide the most space and the most flexibility for future expansion. It would cost an estimated $12 million, according to Rosini.

Jens-Smith said she’d like the board to have a better handle on the actual space needs of the court, the police department and the offices housed in town hall — both current needs and looking 10 or 20 years out.

“That will really impact our decision,” she said. “Let’s take the locations out of the equation.”

The work done by Giacalone five years ago includes a detailed needs analysis, said Judge Allen Smith, who attended the town board work session with Judge Lori Hulse and Police Chief David Hegermiller. The plan was designed to accommodate needs for the next 20 or 30 years, he said.

“We need to know what the square footage needs are going forward,” Jens-Smith said. “I ask for you to sit down with engineering.”

“The town board hired these architects. They are the best in the business — not some civl servant,” Smith said. “We did a lot of work, put in a lot of time…I suggest the engineers reach out to Mr. Giacalone and review it with him.”

The town hall building, a former supermarket, “was built on a swamp,” Smith said. The water table has made the basement of the building uninhabitable because of mold, he said.

Trying to shoehorn the facilities into the existing buildings on Howell Avenue, even with the contemplated expansion, is “putting lipstick on a pig,” Smith said.

Jens-Smith said the board is committed to moving forward.

With the town heavily burdened by debt, prior town boards weren’t willing to increase the debt burden to undertake any of the options on the table.

“We’re now in a much better position,” Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said.

Deputy Supervisor Catherine Kent said she “really didn’t understand the problem” before being elected to the town board. But she has had a tour with the chief clerk and sees it is a “crisis situation,” she said. “It has moved way up to the top of my priority list. We have to get it done and we have to get it right.”

Giglio spoke again of her idea to seek a private entity to develop a multi-story building on the site of the parking field between the State Supreme Court building and the railroad station.

“We could go to six or eight stories,” Giglio said. “You could have justice court and police on the first floor, town hall on the second floor and parking and apartments on the upper floors.” Giglio said she wanted the town to issue a request for expressions of interest to solicit proposals from prospective developers.

She also said she “always thought about the armory for a YMCA.”

Smith said after the meeting he’s concerned the current discussions will have the same result as discussions held in 2003, 2009 and 2014 — and the court will continue to operate in a dangerously outmoded facility.

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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.