Editorial: Finally, a new Court of Justice plan is in place

As Councilman Tim Hubbard began discussing Riverhead Town’s planned acquisition of a new Town Hall building last week, he immediately brought up the late Justice Allen Smith. It was Mr Smith, whose public service at Riverhead spanned decades before his death two years ago, who constantly waved the flag trying to raise awareness of the cramped and dangerous conditions at the Riverhead Town Justice court.

“As you all know, this work has been underway for some time,” Hubbard said. “If the Honorable Allen Smith were around, he would say you were too late. But better late than never.”

The Court of Justice has been a focus for several years, and the hope now is that the problems there can finally be alleviated by moving most of its operation to the Robert Entenmann Campus on West Second Street, owned from the Peconic Bay Medical Center Foundation. City council on Tuesday approved three resolutions to begin the process of purchasing this property at a cost of $20 million, plus an additional $1.5 million for renovations. This acquisition will allow the court to move into the current Town Hall building, freeing up space for the Riverhead Town Police Department to expand to its current location.

After all the proposals that never materialized to fix the Court of Justice, hope is finally on the way.

In 2017, the News-Review did not mince words in an editorial that described the current Court of Justice as a “tragedy waiting to happen”. Defense attorneys quoted at the time cited the lack of confidentiality as one of their top concerns. A lawyer from the Legal Aid Society mentioned that there was no room for jurors, so jurors remained in the courtroom during deliberations, forcing everyone else to leave.

At the time, Mr. Smith and current Justice Lori Hulse recommended converting the Highway 58 Armory building into a police and justice building. This plan, just like in previous discussions, never moved forward due to cost.

And so the wait continued.

“If you were lucky enough to be in the Court of Justice, you will see boxes stacked to the ceiling,” Mr Hubbard said. “It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Mr Hubbard said the path the city is currently pursuing to acquire the PBMC property gives the Court of Justice new space “faster than any other method we could do”.

As recently as late May, the city council discussed plans for a new stand-alone city hall, a stand-alone court and a new police department building, as well as a combination of the three. The cost of a new stand-alone court, while modernizing the police department and expanding City Hall, was estimated at $31.8 million. Another option was to build second-floor additions to the current buildings, estimated at $34.6 million. A third plan, which amounted to $30.8 million, would have moved City Hall to a new building.

At the time, Mr. Hubbard said the Armory building, which was given to the city more than a decade ago with the requirement that it be used for law enforcement or hobbies, “probably needs to be bulldozed.”

It’s been long overdue, but the Riverhead Magistrate’s Court finally seems to have found suitable accommodation.

About Jessica J. Bass

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