Leaves piled in the road awaiting pickup on Duryea Street in Riverhead. Photo: Peter Blasl

Riverhead Town will conduct loose leaf pickup in January, after a new highway superintendent takes the helm, according to a notice posted on the town website this afternoon.

The announcement comes after the town board on Nov. 10 adopted a resolution ordering the outgoing highway superintendent to complete the loose leaf pickup on or before Nov. 30.

Highway Superintendent George Woodson, who did not seek re-election and is retiring Dec. 31, has not commenced the pickup and said today he has not changed his mind about not doing it.

An ongoing dispute between Woodson and the town board over whether highway funds can be lawfully expended on the service turned into a full-blown standoff this year. Woodson maintains that the leaf pickup is not a highway function, but a sanitation function, and highway funds cannot be spent to do the job. He also argues that the leaf pickup diverts resources away from other highway functions in December, like preparing for winter storms, including erecting snow fences to prevent roads along open farm fields from becoming impassable.

The town board says the highway department has provided the service since at least 1968 and it has the funds in its budget to do it.

Deputy Highway Superintendent Mike Zaleski, who was elected highway superintendent Nov. 2 and takes office Jan. 1, told RiverheadLOCAL today it usually takes three to five weeks to complete the loose leaf pickup if weather conditions are good. Doing the job in January “makes it hard, but not impossible,” Zaleski said. A significant snowfall in January would complicate the task, he said. Plow trucks would be plowing leaves up with the snow, he said, noting that residents routinely put their leaves in the road, even though they are supposed to pile them on the grass near the edge of the roadway.

The job “can take much longer depending on the accumulation of leaves and weather conditions,” according to the notice posted on the town website by Supervisor Yvette Aguiar’s office.

Zaleski said today he’s spoken with the supervisor and town board members and has agreed to do the pickup. But he said he wants the issue to be resolved going forward by “a neutral arbitrator,” such as the Office of the State Comptroller.

“I don’t buy the whole past practice [argument]… if we were doing something wrong we should learn from our mistakes, we shouldn’t repeat them,” Zaleski said.

Woodson agreed to conduct the pickup last year on the condition that it would be the last time — unless the highway department were reimbursed for the service from the town’s general fund.

Pickup is now scheduled to begin Jan. 3 on the west end of town, according to the town’s notice. The area from the Brookhaven Town line to Hulse Landing Road will be picked up first, then the area from Hulse Landing Road to Northville Turnpike will be picked up, beginning about Jan. 13, and finally from Northville Turnpike to the Southold Town line beginning around Jan. 20, according to the notice.

The town asks residents place loose leaves at the edge of the lawn as close as possible to the date for pickup in their area. The town also asks residents to keep the leaves away from storm drains and fire hydrants, remove other obstructions on the roadway edge, and keep other yard waste and branches away from leaves being picked up.

Since the town adopted the resolution, residents have been putting leaves out for pickup, in anticipation of the program beginning at any time.

Town board members who voted for the resolution Nov. 10 — it passed 3-1, with Councilwoman Catherine Kent in dissent — said leaves could create hazardous conditions on town roads if they were not picked up.

Aguiar did not return a call seeking comment for this story.

Residents who have municipal garbage pickup can dispose of leaves in paper yard waste bags to be picked up on the scheduled yard waste collection day. “Please consider this alternative for faster leaf pickup,” the town’s notice says.

“We apologize for the delay and appreciate your patience,” the notice says.

Denise Civiletti contributed reporting.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com