File photo: Denise Civiletti

(Updated, Sept. 26; editor’s note appended)

Riverhead school district’s $100 million capital construction proposal continues to spark intense debate.

Town officials are reacting to district’s plan — and to criticism aimed at the town by community members and some school board members, complaining of insufficient code enforcement, which they say has contributed to increased student enrollment in Riverhead.

Town assessor Mason Haas took the podium at the school board meeting last night to tell the board they share responsibility for overcrowded schools and said the district needs to do a better job verifying residency before enrolling students.

He said everyone is quick to point a finger at the town, but the school district needs to “do its due diligence.”

Haas, who is running for re-election this fall, said in his door-to-door campaigning, he’s heard lots of complaints about overcrowded schools and the cost of the proposed expansion.

“When I say irate — it’s irate,” he said.

“You guys got like two-thirds of the bill,” Haas said, referring to the proportion of the local real property tax bill attributable to school taxes.

School board member Christopher Dorr pushed back. “We’ve been charged with educating children,” Dorr said. “The problem of code enforcement is the town’s responsibility, not the school’s,” he said.

“I’m going to argue with you on that because you’re also charged with the tax dollars, fiscal responsibility same as I am,” Haas replied. “If you are having a problem then maybe you need to step up on your end what you’re doing. You have to work on this, too.”

Haas urged the district to collaborate with the town to identify overcrowded housing so the town can take action. He said the Hampton Bays school district collaborates with Southampton Town. “Sit with Hampton Bays… and see what they are doing, because they are doing it and it’s working with them,” Haas said.

Republican supervisor candidate Yvette Aguiar also took the podium last night to urge collaboration on the overcrowded housing issue between the school district and the town.

“We have a crisis,” Aguiar said. “Keep the lines of communications open. This is a very complicated problem,” she said.

“The town needs to do more,” she said.

Yvette Aguiar at the Sept. 24 school board meeting. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Today, Aguiar came out in opposition to the school bond proposal in a press release issued this afternoon.

She blamed incumbent Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith for failing “to address illegal, overcrowded housing and the lack of code enforcement officers, both of which have resulted in a crisis in the Riverhead School District, severely impacting the school district’s ability to provide students with a quality education,” the candidate said in the press release.

“This has not been a priority for the current administration,” Aguiar said. She criticized as too small the size of the code enforcement staff and the incumbent for failing to increase it.

“Since taking office almost two years ago, Ms. Jens-Smith hasn’t initiated a single Supreme Court action against a homeowner or landlord for supporting illegal overcrowding.”

While the town must initiate action in State Supreme Court to obtain an injunction against an illegal use, town code violations — such as renting a house or apartment without a permit or prosecuting owners who maintain overcrowded housing — are litigated in Riverhead Justice Court.

So far this year, there have been 85 dockets for no rental permits, according to Riverhead Town Justice Court data. Some dockets have multiple violations for multiple locations owned by the same landlord.

Since January 2018, when the town launched an online portal for complaints about overcrowded housing, the town has received 87 community complaints. Fifteen of those are currently under investigation, according to a Code Enforcement Division report provided by Councilwoman Jodi Giglio. Fifteen other complaints have resulted in violation notices that are currently pending in Riverhead Justice Court. Four cases have resulted in fines being paid. The bulk of the complaints were either determined to be unfounded or resulted in compliance by the property owner.

Aguiar today called for establishing a task force, enhancing the permit and violation tracking system, increasing penalties for code violations and hiring additional code enforcement personnel.

Riverhead Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith as she delivered her ‘State of the Town’ address in April. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Jens-Smith said the town is already doing the things her opponent is calling for.

“We’ve been working to correct past failures of the prior administration,” Jens-Smith said in a phone interview today.

“We have a working task force. We meet every week, bringing together people from several departments to address these issues,” Jens-Smith said.

“I’ve put forward one budget so far and it included additional code enforcement staff,” said Jens-Smith, who took office in January 2018. Her 2020 operating budget, due to be released by Sept. 30, will also include additional code enforcement personnel, Jens-Smith said. “We’ve already updated our tracking system. We’re looking for legal remedies through the DA’s office.”

Jens-Smith said tomorrow’s work session agenda already includes a discussion of a town code amendment she’s proposing that would implement much stiffer penalties for landlords who maintain overcrowded and unsafe housing.

The new penalties will range from $2,500 to $10,000, or imprisonment of up to 15 days, or both. Each day’s continued violation will be deemed a separate additional violation.

The proposed amendment “makes it less profitable to violate the town code,” Jens-Smith said.

“I think it’s the landlords you have to go after. They’re the ones violating our town code. They are profiting off the people who are living there in substandard conditions.”

Giglio expressed a similar sentiment today.

“We need to stop pointing fingers and be more solution-oriented,” she said. The school district and the town have to work together, she said.

“We have to make sure very child in the school district is living in a safe environment and educated properly.”

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said in an interview today that is the type of collaborative approach that’s worked in Southampton with districts like Hampton Bays, where last year school officials filed a $10.6 million notice of claim against the town for allegedly failing to properly enforce its zoning code.

Schneiderman said cooperation has been beneficial.

“We have dramatically increased the number of investigations,” he said. Moreover, the town is being “very proactive” rather than reactive. “We’re not waiting for complaints,” he said.

The Hampton Bays school district never filed the lawsuit threatened in the notice of claim.

Schneiderman said enrollment in the district has begun to drop as property values in Hampton Bays have increased. Data provided by the Hampton Bays school district indicates enrollment there has dropped by more than 100 students in the past couple of years.

The workforce has begun to relocate to other, more affordable communities, Schneiderman said. Among them is likely Riverhead, he said.

Years ago, workforce housing was available in eastern parts of the South Fork, but not anymore, Schneiderman said.

“As time went on, there were no longer neighborhoods where working class residents could afford to live. And you started to see the workforce being pushed to the west,” he said. “Hampton Bays became the next most affordable area.”

But that’s changing, Schneiderman said. “Property value has gone up there. Rents went up. And Hampton Bays has become less affordable.”

So far, he said, “Riverhead remains affordable.” That leads to the workforce settling in Riverhead, he said.

“I think economics more than anything is dictating this movement of people. The most affordable areas end up concentrating workforce.”

Editor’s note: Due to an editing error a section of text reporting an interchange between school board member Christopher Dorr and assessor Mason Haas was deleted from the version of this story initially published. This story has been updated to include the deleted text.

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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.