Fire breaks out Jan. 25 at 522 Pulaski Street, one of three buildings containing residential rentals without town permits, according to town records. File photo: Courtney Blasl

Riverhead Town is bringing a lawsuit against the owner of the Polish Town property where a fire last month left two elderly women homeless.

According to town records obtained by RiverheadLOCAL through a Freedom of Information Law request, the property on the corner of Pulaski Street and Sweezy Avenue includes four separate structures rented to residential tenants, including the two apartments destroyed by the Jan. 25 fire, which were located at the rear of a commercial building at 522 Pulaski Street.

None of the dwellings had rental permits, according to the records provided by Town Attorney Erik Howard in response to the FOIL request.

The Town Board voted unanimously Tuesday to retroactively authorize the town attorney to bring an action in State Supreme Court seeking an injunction to stop the alleged “illegal use, occupancy and/or maintenance” of the property and, in his discretion, to “seek monetary and/or punitive damages and/or civil penalties in connection with alleged violations on the property.

Records obtained through the FOIL request show the town’s code enforcement division opened a complaint file regarding alleged illegal rentals on July 24, 2018.

The complaint file was opened after property owner Susan Victoria of New Port Richey, Florida wrote to the assessors’ office to complain about her property taxes. In the note to Assessor Laverne Tennenberg, Victoria complained the property was over-assessed, and stated, “The rental income it produces is just 60,000.00 a year…”

Code enforcement officers first visited the property and attempted to contact the property owner in August 2018. The file shows multiple inspections were made of the premises in 2018, 2021 and 2022 to validate the complaint. Each time the code enforcement officers observed and even interviewed residents living at the property, the file shows. Residents confirmed that they were renting from the owner and mailed their rent checks to her Florida address each month, according to notes in the complaint file.

The file also reflects the code enforcement division’s attempts to bring the property into compliance, with recorded notes of a back-and-forth, by phone and email, between Code Enforcement Officer Nicole Buckner and the property owner on various dates between Sept. 18, 2018 and April 8, 2022.

“Owner stated that her family resides there and that she didn’t need a permit and that they don’t pay rent,” Buckner wrote. Buckner reported telling the owner she did need permits and legal action would be taken if she did not obtain them. “Owner asked me why the Town was all over her ass as this property has been rented for years and she pays enough taxes and the Town has no business going onto her property,” Buckner wrote in notes dated Sept. 18, 2018.

Buckner recorded notes of phone conversations with the property owner who continued to argue she did not need rental permits and continued to complain about code enforcement visiting her property, alleging officers were “harassing my family.”

According to Buckner’s notes, the owner was at times “belligerent” and once hung up on her.

Victoria made at least two references to contacting the town supervisor, according to the documents, including an email from Victoria to Bucker stating, “I have sent correspondence to the supervisor once again,” Victoria wrote. “I do not think you are right for your job.”

The file does not contain any indication that the supervisor or her office contacted code enforcement about the matter.

The last site visit prior to the fire took place on the morning of April 8, 2022, when Buckner and another officer observed the property from their cars parked on Pulaski Street and Sweezy Avenue, according to Buckner’s notes.

Buckner’s next entry was made on the day of the fire, when she reported speaking to the tenant who lives in the house on the corner, whom Buckner described as “visibly shaken.” Buckner reported Riverhead Fire Marshal Craig Zitek told her the fire had started in the second-floor apartment at 522 Pulaski Street. The apartment was a “complete loss,” Zitek told Buckner, according to her notes. “The first floor apartment had considerable water and smoke damage,” Buckner wrote. “Noted the basement was completely flooded.” The tenants in the two apartments, both older Polish women, Buckner wrote, are able to get out without injury, Buckner noted.

MORE COVERAGE: Riverhead Town highway workers, both veteran volunteer firefighters, save two women from burning building in Polish Town

Buckner followed up with a site visit the next day, Jan. 26, according to the complaint file. The officer interviewed the remaining three tenants who rented and lived in three other buildings on the property. She confirmed their length of residence and, for two of them, the amount of monthly rent they pay. One tenant declined to provide the rent amount. “All tenants advised that they mail rent directly to the owner in Florida,” Buckner wrote.

Buckner listed 14 separate violations noted on Jan. 26, including five violations for no rental occupancy permits, four violations for property conditions related to weeds, vegetation, litter, garbage and five violations of the town code provision that prohibits the storage of junked and/or unregistered motor vehicles on property within the town.

There was no indication in the files provided in response to the FOIL request that the town at any point had issued summonses returnable in Riverhead Town Justice Court, but some entries in the complaint files were redacted in their entirety. Among them were: the contents of two “call notes” entered on Sept. 17, 2018 by former code enforcement division employee Linda McKay and investigator Richard Downs; an entry following Buckner’s notes dated Sept. 18, 2018, which concluded with “Summons will be issued”; the first entry in the complaint file opened on March 29, 2022; and the final entry in that file made subsequent to the entry on Jan. 26, 2023.

The complaint was not yet available through the court’s online records website.

In an email this afternoon, in response to an earlier email from RiverheadLOCAL, Victoria called the town’s accusations “ridiculous” and lies.

“When the town started requiring permits I went to the town for my father to get permits for this property. They informed me that since it was commercial property, and I had commercial insurance, I did not need permits. That property was inspected every 6 months by insurance,” she wrote in the email. She said Buckner “had a problem with one of my cousins…who lived there and worked with Nicole in the town.” Victoria accused Buckner of going “door to door” and that she “scared the heck out of my family who speak no English-being Polish that they had to get out because I had no permits,” Victoria wrote.

“I never received any violations from the town,” she wrote.

Editor’s note: This story was updated after its initial publication to add comments from the property owner sent by email in response to an earlier inquiry from RiverheadLOCAL.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor and attorney. Her work has been recognized with numerous journalism awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She was also honored in 2020 with a NY State Senate Woman of Distinction Award for her trailblazing work in local online news. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.