Trash was piled on the ground near a Dumpster in a downtown parking lot in June 2022. It has since been fully enclosed, as required by town code. File photo: Denise Civiletti

I am a longtime resident of Riverhead and I care about this community. These days, the sight of excessive trash and litter in our town is truly distressing. 

I’m not just talking about the vast wasteland of food wrappers and bags that swirl around the large businesses on Route 58, but also the clutter in downtown Riverhead and yes, trash in the yards of residences. 

All of this uncollected garbage combines to make Riverhead an eyesore and an embarrassment for those who live here. To coin a phrase, it is “visual pollution.” 

Additionally, this litter degrades the environment, poses a safety hazard, impacts water quality, and reduces the natural beauty of our town. 

In recent years I’ve taken daily walks around town and collected litter as I go.  I’d like to share my observations of what I learned about Riverhead from picking up litter and also the questions that were formed as to why. 

All litter is data. Waste, and the management of it tells the story about a community; whether it feels pride or just doesn’t see or care.

Businesses, shopping centers and even medical establishments are not regularly cleaning up their parking lots. 

Riverhead is a shopping hub for the East End with many big box stores and franchise fast food places which are both large litter generators. Shopping carts and discarded takeout containers  accumulate in the parking lots and landscaping everywhere. 

Some businesses have their trash bins visible from the road, some overflowing with trash around them, even though the town code states that they should be enclosed 

I do not know what role the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce could play in remediating this.

According to their mission statement: “The primary objectives of the organization are to promote the patronage of Riverhead Businesses; promote the well being of the Riverhead area; promote positive public awareness of Riverhead; provide information about local businesses and services and to promote tourism with the Tourism Outreach Program and through collaborative efforts with local organizations.”

It would seem that from a marketing and health standpoint that business properties, parking lots and surrounding areas that are blighted with litter would not lure customers. 

People associate excessive litter with lack of social control and management, which breeds a sense of insecurity.

The perception of Riverhead is that it is dirty and dangerous. 

It would seem a logical solution to take more of an initiative in encouraging businesses to do their part.

Certain residential properties generate more litter than others.  There are well-kept private homes next to eyesores throughout downtown. Having experienced living next to a neglected property, I fully understand how frustrating this can be, especially when the town is not responsive. It is unclear whether the town is monitoring how many people can live in one residence. 

My research, accessed from Suffolk County and Riverhead Town tax assessors records revealed that most of those properties are owned by LLCs, corporations or realtors. Business information was obtained on the NYS Department of State and the OpenCorporates website.

Commonly, the owners of these properties do not live on the premises, nor adequately monitor how the tenants are maintaining them. Many live out of town with obviously no stake in the Riverhead community. Owners, including landlords, are ultimately responsible and according to the town code, are accountable for the sidewalks in front of their homes as well. 

According to the most recent census, around 40% of the residences in Riverhead are rentals.   

There are an inordinate amount of beer and liquor bottles  strewn onto people’s properties, which indicates that people are either driving or walking around inebriated and flinging the bottles wherever.

Some neighborhoods indicate drug trade and or use from the presence of q-tips and small bags on the sidewalks. Through research I found that Q-tips are used to filter out heroin or meth from their impurities when shooting up. They are also used to clean the pipe when smoking methamphetamine. 

There are signs of homeless folks sleeping in the cemetery on Roanoke Avenue and on the vacant property next to the parking lot on Third Street.

I recently found a sleeping bag and small chair stashed near the bushes on the back end of the cemetery; along with toilet paper and a disposable diaper. On the other side of that fence is Pulaski Street Elementary School.

I also found other gathering places behind the trash bin at Insatiable Eats and the railroad tracks. There are chairs, shopping carts, litter and clothing. 

Sometimes I come across bags of new groceries on or near the sidewalks. Is someone coming back for them later?

The downtown area has quite a few rehabilitation facilities, group homes and other social service agencies. Will the proposed building spree downtown displace these services? And where will they go?

Suffolk County-owned properties: vacant lands including watersheds and BOCES are not being cleaned of litter. 

The Riverhead Town owned properties and parking lots are not being regularly maintained. 

The trash that accumulates on the streets goes down into the sewer drains. Local streets are not regularly swept. The county roads that are the major arteries of the town; (Route 58, Roanoke Avenue and Northville Turnpike) are swept twice a year. The traffic circle by the hospital routinely has trash and pieces of plastic from cars.

Cigarette butts are the single-most common item on the streets and sidewalks. (Plastic fibers in cigarettes take 10-20 years to decompose.)

Litter and leaf detritus are clogging the sewer drains on the streets. Is this debris trapped before it enters the bay? This could eventually become a town sanitation problem.

Citizens can report litter violations to Code Enforcement. 

There are codes on the books already that address litter, commercial trash bins, landlords and sidewalks.

There are five code enforcement officers in the entire town, including Jamesport, Calverton, Aquebogue and parts of Manorville. 

A complaint is often not responded to for months. Either there is a time efficiency issue or there aren’t enough code enforcement officers.  With the proposed building downtown, their department will most likely be spread thinner.

As stated on the Riverhead Town website, “the Highway Department consists of 32 full-time employees, downsized since 1984 from 47.” This makes no sense since the town’s population has increased quite a bit from the 1980s. More people, more mess.

The Town does not appear to be showing adequate stewardship of  what is already here in Riverhead now. This does not bode well for future development when its current state is not being maintained. 

The single-best thing that the town can do to improve the quality of life here is to clean and maintain the streets, sidewalks and physical appearance of the town. 

‘Simply put, beauty adds value to the community. The appearance of a community is one of the foremost influences of value and, hence, one of its most regarded assets’. Residents should be able to take pride in their community.

Any positive change would require holding businesses and landlords more accountable, which would require more code enforcement, highway and sanitation department involvement. 

A major paradigm shift is going to be required to improve our community. 

The comprehensive plan should include strategies to change attitudes and behaviors regarding litter and related issues.

Jeanne Fallot is a resident of Riverhead.

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