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Mar 25, 2009 1:28 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Riverhead Town sues Suffolk County over trailer

Mar 25, 2009 1:28 PM

Riverhead Town officials made it clear at a press conference Friday that they will not stop fighting Suffolk County’s decision to permanently place a trailer that can provide temporary housing for more than 20 homeless sex offenders on the grounds of the Suffolk County Jail in Riverside.

Two weeks ago, Riverhead Town Attorney Annemarie Prudenti filed a lawsuit in Suffolk County Supreme Court, on behalf of the town, alleging that the county is violating its own law, as well as state law, by placing the trailer at the site because the facility is too close to a playground and library. Both are places where children tend to congregate.

The county placed the trailer in Riverside in 2007 before replacing it with a larger one in 2008. A second and smaller trailer, one that can house up to eight sex offenders at one time, is located on Old Country Road in Westhampton, near the Suffolk County Police Academy shooting range.

“Stop dumping on us as if we don’t exist and as if our needs are trivial,” said Riverhead Town Councilman James Wooten during Friday’s press conference, held outside Riverhead Town Hall on Howell Avenue in Riverhead. He then listed the laws that the county allegedly broke by placing the trailer on jail property.

The average number of homeless sex offenders staying at the Riverside trailer, which is located on the perimeter of the jail property, has varied between 17 and 18 for the first two-plus months of 2009, according to Roland Hampson, a spokesman for the Suffolk County Department of Social Services, which operates the trailer.

In its recently filed lawsuit, Riverhead Town alleges that the county violated its own law by placing the trailer in Riverside because it sits less than one quarter mile from the George Lindgren Schmelzer Riverfront Park, and just over one quarter mile from the Riverhead Free Library. Riverhead Town is seeking an order from the Supreme Court that would force the county to move the trailer from that location, Riverhead Supervisor Phil Cardinale said.

But county officials contend that the park was established by the town only after the trailer’s arrival, so Riverhead officials could dispute the placement of the trailer. The Schmelzer park was officially named a park in 2007.

“Even if we bought the park in 2009, it’s still a park, and the county has to respect that it’s there,” Mr. Cardinale said.

Suffolk County officials disagree with that assessment.

“Before this was called a park, this tiny, indistinguishable area was used as a parking area by the public for adjacent buildings,” Mr. Hampson said. “It’s obvious to us that by simply plopping down two picnic benches and putting up a sign that says ‘park,’ the town labeled this a park for the sole purpose of allowing the town to claim that the trailer violated the residency restriction on sex offenders.”

The county residency restriction prohibits sex offenders from living within one-quarter mile of a school, licensed day care center, or playground. Mr. Hampson said county officials could not comment on the details of the lawsuit.

At Friday’s press conference, Mr. Cardinale said his town had allocated funds to purchase the park in 2003, long before the trailer was placed on the grounds of the jail.

“This is illegal,” Mr. Cardinale said. “[Suffolk County Executive] Steve Levy is not above the law.”

Suffolk County Legislator Ed Romaine, whose district covers the entire North Fork and Riverhead Town, also opposes the county’s placement of the trailer, arguing that such a facility puts community members in jeopardy.

“The county thinks might makes right,” Mr. Romaine said. “But, in the end, we’ll show that might does not make right.”

Mr. Romaine said he is confident that the town will prevail in its suit against the county.

The lawsuit also charges that the county’s decision to place the trailer at the Riverside jail violates state law. Sections of state law prohibit large concentrations of registered sex offenders from residing in a single municipality, on a certain property, or near “vulnerable populations.”

“The children and elderly, who are residents of the Town of Riverhead, are included in the ‘vulnerable residents of the County...,’” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit adds that the county “established a homeless sex offender trailer on the County parcel without reference to any rules” set forth by the New York State Division of Parole.

In response to these allegations, Mr. Hampson said the “entirety of the jail premises must be deemed exempt from the residency restriction law.” In other words, he said that the residency requirements set forth by the county—such as those prohibiting sex offenders from living within one quarter mile of any school—do not apply to the trailer.

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