New laundromats, like the one opening soon at the corner of East Main Street and Union Avenue, would be banned in the Downtown Riverfront Overlay District. Existing uses would not be affected. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Riverhead is hoping to make its downtown area more “family friendly” with changes to town code that will ban certain uses in a new overlay district and beef up the town’s existing “Zero Tolerance Zone” rules, creating new offenses with criminal penalties and increasing penalties for some violations already on the books. 

The new “Downtown Riverfront Overlay District” would prohibit certain commercial uses and the amended Zero Tolerance Zones code would prohibit certain personal conduct, including “aggressive solicitation” and sitting or lying on the sidewalk, punishable by fines and jail time under local law. 

Officials are offering the proposals as measures aimed at attaining the town’s long-sought goal of rebranding its once-thriving business center into a walkable family-friendly neighborhood. 

To accomplish that, downtown Riverhead has to shed public perception of the area as plagued by crime, though town officials, including the police chief, say downtown crime data does not back up public perception.

“Over the past few years, the board’s been working carefully to make downtown a better place and revitalize the area,” Community Development Director Dawn Thomas told Town Board members at last week’s work session. In recent years, she said, there have been “some increases in some things that are undesirable downtown, and some uses that may not be as consistent with the board’s direction.”

That led to the drafting of a new code establishing the “Downtown Riverfront Overlay District” —  a special zoning law that applies an additional layer of standards within a defined area. The new overlay district would include the whole of the Business Improvement District plus additional areas, taking in the Roanoke Avenue Elementary School and the Riverhead Free Library, according to Thomas. A map of the proposed district has not been released. In an interview on Friday, Thomas said it wasn’t yet completed.

The proposed code would prohibit certain commercial uses in the overlay district to reflect “a direction and a path for the downtown as a family friendly destination,” according to Thomas.

Banned uses include convenience stores, automobile rentals and service stations, self-serve laundromats, tobacco and smoke shops, tattoo and body-piercing parlors, pawnshops, storage yards, adult entertainment establishments, motels, medical centers, convalescent homes and rehabilitation facilities. 

“We wanted to preserve that Main Street area for activated businesses, restaurants, personal service businesses,” Thomas said. 

Many of the prohibited uses are not “activated uses” the town wants to encourage in the downtown area, while others, such as smoke shops and tattoo parlors, are not “family friendly, Thomas said. 

The second major code revision being proposed would make sweeping changes to the “Zero Tolerance Zones” code first enacted by the Town Board in 2008. The existing code establishes the entire Business Improvement District as a “zero tolerance zone” and doubles the fines or penalties for violations of other parts of the town code within the zone. The violations carrying that double penalty currently include things like possessing an open alcohol container in a public place, consuming alcohol in a public place, riding a bicycle on the sidewalk, littering, making graffiti, failing to maintain commercial properties and trash receptacles in a clean manner, distributing handbills, loitering, public urination, and creating “unreasonable” noise. 

The proposed amendment would expand the zero tolerance zone to include the new overlay district and add violations for certain prohibited acts under the law. 

“So some of the problems were related to people’s misbehavior downtown in particular… defecating on the sidewalks, urinating on the sidewalks, harassing people, aggressive panhandling, those types of quality of life crimes that would make you feel uncomfortable walking downtown,” Thomas said.

“You want people to feel like they can go down there and feel that it’s open, safe,” Town Attorney Erik Howard said. 

The amended “zero tolerance” code would ban sitting and lying on any public sidewalk, or any object not “designed primarily for the purpose of sitting.” It would also ban sitting or lying in any building entrance/exit or vestibule, or lying or sleeping on benches in public parks. According to the draft, these provisions would only be enforceable if the person in violation had previously been notified they were in violation of the law, but had either refused to comply or engaged in the same behavior in another location in the area.

“Aggressive solicitation” would also be prohibited under the proposed code. The ban is aimed at aggressive panhandling and would include intentionally engaging in “conduct that would likely intimidate a reasonable person,” such as touching, following and persistently soliciting anything of value after being refused either verbally or nonverbally, and using violent or threatening language or gestures to induce someone to give something of value to the solicitor.

The law would also make it a violation to rummage through garbage or trash, or remove coins from a water fountain. Smoking or vaping would also be prohibited in the zero tolerance zone.

Other violations added to the code include acts that are already crimes listed in the New York State Penal Law: loitering for the purpose of engaging in drug-related and/or prostitution-related activity, and lewd acts.

According to the proposal, “No person, or known unlawful drug user, shall loiter in or near any  thoroughfare, park, or any place open to the public within the zero tolerance zones in a manner and under circumstances manifesting a purpose to engage in drug and/or prostitution related activity.” 

The proposed code establishes a broad definition of a “unlawful drug user” for the purpose of enforcement. That definition includes people who have previously been, within the “knowledge of the arresting officer”: convicted of drug-related offenses; displays “physical characteristics of drug intoxication or usage, such as “needle tracks”; committed a drug related offense but was not arrested for one; the area involved in the incident is in or has been observed in an area of known drug activity; a person whose behavior raises the “reasonable suspicion that he is about to engage in or is then engaged in an unlawful drug-related activity”; and other identifiers. 

Asked whether the proposal encourages police profiling, Howard said it would not.

“I think our police officers have traditionally demonstrated pretty good judgment,” he said. “And when you look at the known unlawful drug user definition…it’s really on the whole. So if this is someone that PD is familiar with [or] know, that it is a circumstance which would, together with other factors, support the conclusion that there are known unlawful drug user.”

“At the end of the day they’re being charged with the crime and they will have the opportunity to dispute the validity of the charge or the circumstances leading to the charge just as anyone would in court,” he added.

Under the proposed code, lewd acts within the zero tolerance zone would be a Class B Misdemeanor punishable by a maximum fine of $1,000 and/or a maximum term of 90 days of incarceration. Loitering for the purpose of engaging in drug-related and/or prostitution-related activity within a zero tolerance zone shall be a Class B Misdemeanor punishable by a maximum fine of $2,500.00 and/or a maximum term of 90 days of incarceration.

“If there’s an area that we’re investing a lot of town resources, personnel, grant money, effort, all of that, in really trying to revitalize and make an attractive, walkable destination. It’s like, well, what can you do to enhance that? To support those efforts? And this is one tool that we’re going to try,” Howard said.

Officials hope that the new overlay district banning certain types of uses and the amended zero tolerance zone together will work to help create the kind of atmosphere downtown where people feel comfortable living, visiting and shopping.

“I think we’ve done the downtown planning really pretty effectively,” Thomas said. “We’ve been immersed in downtown for the last five years. So given that fact, I think it’s important that the zoning is consistent with those things that have come out of all of that public engagement. Everybody says this is what they want. Everybody says, well, why doesn’t the zoning match? And so I thought it was important.”

For example, Thomas said, rehabilitation facilities don’t have to be on Main Street. 

“It’s a destination for a person, they’ll go find it. It doesn’t need to be where you might just be walking to have a pleasant experience,” Thomas said.

The overlay district would also prohibit group homes, which Thomas said is intended to discourage people from “commercializing” residential uses at a time when the town wants to encourage families to own homes downtown.

Bobby Hartmann, owner of the Riverhead-based Mainstream House, which operates sober homes in various locations in Riverhead, including the downtown area, said while there might be a lot of people with drug and alcohol-related issues in the downtown area, sober homes are not necessarily the cause of that. People often get the “wrong impression” of people in recovery, Hartmann said.

“When you have outpatient facilities and you see people hanging out in front of them in between breaks, and then the people who go by say ‘oh, there’s just more people loitering,’ when really, in fact, they’re just trying to get their lives together,” Hartmann said. “They’re engaged in treatment, they’re bettering themselves.” 

The overlay zoning would not ban firearm businesses, as was previously discussed for the downtown area but ultimately rejected by the Town Board last year. The proposed overlay zoning would ban the public display of firearms, knives and weapons, she said. 

“I think like anything, there’s a time and a place, right?” Thomas said. “So if I’m walking my kid down Main Street, do I want them looking at the knives and guns? No, I want them to look for the candy store, I want them to look at the bookstore.”

If adopted, the proposed overlay district would not affect existing uses at the time of adoption. 

The businesses that are legally there will stay, Thomas said. “That’s the law and that’s their right and it will not be disturbed at all,” she said.

“I also think it’s important to communicate with the business investors to say, this is what we want here and this is where we would rather you go if that’s the kind of use you want to bring to town,” Thomas added.

The Town Board is expected to vote next week to schedule public hearings on both the proposed overlay district code, proposed amendments to the Zero Tolerance Zones code, and two other proposed code changes that beef up penalties for violations of the town’s open alcohol and loitering ordinances. 

The hearing for the overlay district code would be called for Feb. 22 at 6:05 p.m.. The hearing for the zero tolerance code and the other two code changes would be called for the board meeting on March 22 starting at 6:10 p.m..

Crime hasn’t increased downtown, but ‘quality of life issues’ remain 

Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said although he has not seen a big increase in crime downtown, he has seen an increase in panhandling and homelessness. Certain lewd acts like public urination, which are crimes, have also increased, he said.

“What’s going on down there, as far as I see, is the quality of life issues,” Hegermiller said in an interview this week. “When people complain to me about something down on Main Street, lots of times it has to do with a homeless person.”

“I say it all the time: It’s not a crime to be homeless. It bothers people and people don’t like it,” Hegermiller added. “And hopefully some of these new codes will help us to at least have it out of that zone.”

Town officials acknowledged that although asking people for money on the street, an act known as panhandling, is an issue downtown and makes people uncomfortable, it is an individual’s constitutional right. They can only legally crack down on aggressive panhandling, town officials said.

“That’s where we really have to work with the police department and increase what we can and what we can’t do, especially in the downtown area,” said Council Member Tim Hubbard, a retired Riverhead police detective. “We are going to stop this from happening, because it’s happening, and it’s been a complaint of many of the business owners recently downtown, and it needs to be addressed.”

Downtown business owner Marc LaMaina said in a message this week that the current activity in downtown Riverhead is hurting businesses.

“I can speak for myself when I say that until the amount of mental health and drug and alcohol rehab homes/service providers and shelters are limited in and around the downtown business district nothing will change,” LaMaina wrote. 

“So whatever we all say or do… is for nothing… and I personally cannot call myself a smart businessman and continue to invest in downtown until there is not only a plan but that plan is in motion. And I know for a fact I am not alone on those sentiments,” LaMaina said.

“Downtown Riverhead has got to swing directly at the root cause and remove this cancer with a bulldozer,” LaMaina added. “Wide sweeping regulations need to be created and enforced. DTR had been held hostage by these players long enough. I’ll say it again, it’s now or never.”

Hubbard said the town must work with the police department to enforce these laws in the downtown area. 

Hegermiller said there are two foot patrol officers on Main Street, along with members of the department’s Community Oriented Policing Enforcement (COPE) specialized unit, which typically has around six officers. That will be enough officers to enforce the new violations if adopted, he said. 

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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