The multi-family home at 46 E. Second Street in Riverhead in January, the scene of a deadly Nov. 16 blaze that killed a family of five. File photo: Denise Civiletti

A proposed amendment to Riverhead Town’s local rental dwelling law to require homeowners to have a sprinkler system and second means of egress for homes three stories or more drew few comments during a public hearing at the Riverhead Town Board meeting last Tuesday.

The proposed law was introduced in March by Councilman Ken Rothwell after a fire in a three-story, four-family home on East Second Street killed five third-floor residents in November. The proposal would require of an interconnected smoke detection and alarm system. It would also reduce the term of the town’s rental permit from two years to one year to allow town officials to inspect rental homes more often for compliance with fire safety codes.

The fees for permits would be removed from the code and would instead be set by town board resolution under the amendment. Town officials said the added revenue from permit renewals will allow the town to hire additional code enforcement officers. 

The amendment would also require proof of existing homeowners insurance for the structure with first-time and renewal applications and increase fees for violations. 

Town Attorney Erik Howard said in an email Tuesday that he new requirements would apply to “at least one additional occupancy of a third floor residential structure which has a rental permit and exists pursuant to a Letter of Preexisting Non-Conforming Use.”

The blaze at 46 East Second Street, which Suffolk County Police investigators determined was caused by improperly discarded cigarettes outside the building, claimed the lives of five members of the Rivera family: Zonia Dinora Rivera, 41, her children, Carlos Cifredo Peñate Rivera, 24, and Andrea Isamar González, 16, and her nephews, Douglas Edgardo Rivera Aguirre, 24, and Carlos Alberto Ramos Aguirre, 22. Tenants occupying two apartments on the second floor and the owner, who lived on the first floor, all escaped without injury. 

Documents obtained by RiverheadLOCAL, including hand-drawn floor plans submitted by the landlord with her rental permit applications, showed the building had only one staircase and the third floor did not have two means of egress, as required by New York State Multiple Residence Law. There were inconsistencies in the town’s records concerning whether the use of the third-floor as a dwelling pre-existed Riverhead’s zoning code, which was first enacted in 1965.

See prior coverage: Trapped by blaze, five people died in third-floor apartment that lacked second means of egress

The public hearing drew comments from only two people.

Riverhead architect Jim DeLuca said the proposed requirement for a sprinkler system would be extremely costly to landlords for installation, which he said could potentially cost $50,000. DeLuca asked if the town would subsidize the cost of implementing these systems for landlords.

“We didn’t have specific discussions as to the cost to the landlord. We understand that there will be a cost,” Town Attorney Erik Howard said. “The protection to life safety that it provides, I think to us, justifies whatever the cost would be.”

Senior Building Inspector Andreas Sofoklis said the building code will allow the installation of a 13R sprinkler system for fire protection, which he said is residentially based and more cost effective for landlords to install.

DeLuca said that, if the town is concerned with the safety of residents on a third-floor dwelling, the focus of the law should be on the path of travel off of the floor. “The main thing of the building code is for someone to exit the building. That was the main purpose when the building code was created, it’s the main purpose of the building code right now, is to have a safe exit out of the building.”

“So I think we should think about this a little bit more. And I think you should have consultations a little bit more with architects and engineers before you do a sweeping system like this,” DeLuca said. “And make it more cost effective and that makes the people much more agreeable to do these things.”

DeLuca also said the town has to consider how the requirement to require an egress like a fire escape might interact with the architectural requirements of historic buildings. Howard said the town board did not talk to the town Landmark Preservation Committee, which consults on changes to historic structures, when writing the amendment.

DeLuca also said the town code amendment should include the responsibilities of a tenant and allow for the owner of the building to have recourse against a tenant if they interfere with smoke detectors or carbon monoxide detectors.

The Price-Northridge House at 46. E. Second Street was built in 1907 for August Price, a prosperous Brooklyn attorney, who married a local woman and moved to Riverhead. He lost the home in 1919 after being convicted of fraud and sent to Sing Sing. It was subsequently purchased by pediatrician Dr. John Northridge, also from Brooklyn, who met and married the daughter of a local farmer and moved to Riverhead. Information and photo from Riverhead Town National Register of Historic Places registration documents. Photo: Richard Wines (2016)

In an exchange during the public hearing, Aguiar said the Second Street home had “a third staircase” built as “an escape,” she said. “From what I understand, it was just an exit, it wasn’t for you to, you know, go up and down and start visiting,” Aguiar said. 

“They weren’t even built as three families, they were single-family homes in the village that were subsequently —” Sofoklis started to say.

“Well this one was built as a three-story,” Aguair interrupted.

“Three-story, but I’m saying, not three-family,” Sofoklis said.

“Three-family, I’m sorry,” Aguiar said. “Three-family and it had the staircase,” she repeated. 

At the time of the fire, the three-story home at 46 E. Second Street was occupied as a four-family dwelling, with one apartment on the first floor (occupied by the homeowner), two apartments on the second floor and one apartment on the third floor (occupied by tenants.)

The home, known as the Price-Northridge House, was built in 1907 as a single-family home for attorney August Price, according to Riverhead Town’s registration documents for the Second & Ostrander Historic District, which described the home “perhaps the most spectacular home built in this time period.” It  was later occupied by a pediatrician and his family.

It is not clear from town records obtained through the Freedom of Information Law when the home was first occupied as a multi-family dwelling. See prior story.

Aquebogue attorney Ron Hariri  during the hearing said the amendment to the town code is “too little, too late” for the family who died in the house fire. He suggested the town open an investigation into the inconsistencies of rental documents and pre-existing use letters of the house.

Hariri continued to make comments criticizing the circumstances surrounding the Second Street house fire and the town’s ability to enforce safety codes. He alleged that the town ignored inspection reports that the building was occupied illegally.

Howard asked Hariri to focus his comments or questions on the proposed law. The town “never ignored anything,” Howard said. “I don’t really think that you’re adding anything to the record for the town board to consider whether or not they should adopt this legislation,” he said.

Aguiar apologized called out Hariri for his comments.

“To make accusations against the town, and say that you couldn’t enforce that — there was some other circumstances,” Aguiar said. “I’m not at liberty to discuss that, but to start here in a public hearing just start laying fingers and pointing fingers and saying that the town is inept, that’s somebody else’s personal agenda.”

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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: [email protected]