Southold Town Hall is usually a pretty quiet place.
Southold Town Hall is usually a pretty quiet place.

Southold Town is looking into the possibility of using the Peconic Community Center at the old Peconic School as a temporary courthouse, in light of a recent lawsuit filed by Suffolk County’s Legal Aid Society against East End towns that don’t allow space for their attorneys to conference with clients.

Board members are skeptical of a proposed $3 million justice court proposed two weeks ago to be built behind town hall, but they are also skeptical that the community center, which is used for recreation programs, would be a good fit for a part-time courthouse.

“There are two issues, what are we gonna do in the next three months to get it resolved and what are we gonna do in the next three years,” said Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell at a work session Tuesday morning. “I don’t think I have any interest in a $3 to $4 million justice court.”

Councilman Jim Dinizio, who suggested the town look into using the community center, said the court would basically be in session on Fridays and Mondays, as it is in town hall now.

“Arraignments could be done just like they’re done here,” said Mr. Dinizio. “The Mother’s Club could move into another room, temporarily.”

But it’s exactly the idea of having groups like a mother’s club meet in the same building where alleged criminals are being prosecuted that has some in town hall unconvinced.

Assistant Town Attorney Stephen Kiely said he believes it would be difficult to make the old school building secure. The bulk of the inside of the building is a central hallway, off of which are individual classrooms, with little interior flow that could be used for officers to bring defendants in through a seperate door. The one room that has a second entrance has a stage door behind the stage.

“If nobody’s in the Peconic School except the courts at the same time, I don’t think you have that issue,” countered Mr. Dinizio.

Councilman Bill Ruland said he would support the proposal if it turned out to be a viable option that didn’t take too much reconfiguration.

A Plea to Leapfrog the County on Septic Upgrades

Also at Tuesday’s work session, clean water advocate Kevin McAllister of Defend H20 urged the town board, as he has in the past, to adopt more stringent wastewater treatment requirements than those required by the Suffolk County Health Department.

Mr. McAllister said the Town of Brookhaven recently instituted similar requirements for new developments in the Carman’s River watershed.

“It’s the vernacular of Suffolk County that when they talk about upgrades, they talk about bringing existing systems up to code,” he said, instead of talking about more effective advanced treatment systems.

“I recommend the towns re-examine the performance and raise the bar,” he added. “If Suffolk County is unwilling, the towns should really seize the authority.”

Mr. McAllister added that there is now more case law in favor of towns that decide to require more advanced septic systems than there had been when he’s approached the board in the past.

Mr. McAllister suggested the town require the costly septic systems in new large housing developments, multi-family and commercial developments, but not in single family homes.

“When dealing with developments at a larger scale, this should be the cost of doing business,” he said. “This should be part and parcel to getting development approval.”

But board members said they would rather work to convince Suffolk County to approve the use of upgraded septic systems.

“Southold’s real challenge is not new development, it’s single and seperate systems,” said Mr. Rusell, who added that Southold will be unlikely to consider any septic system regulations before finishing the land use component of its current comprehensive plan update.

“Suffolk County doesn’t even require the update of cesspools,” he said. ” Could you work with us to get Suffolk County to approve new systems?”

Councilman Ruland agreed.

“I would much rather say to our health department: ‘get with it,'” he said. “If that takes an act of the legislature, the county legislature should follow through. The goal is splendid, but how you get there is another matter.”

“The trick here is cost,” said Councilman Bob Ghosio. “There’s a maintenance component to these systems. There’s going to have to be wholesale mindset change. There’s going to have to be an education component to that for sure.”

Councilman Jim Dinizio didn’t like the idea.

“I have a problem with us going alone,” he said. “If you’re mandating that [an applicant] have one of these systems, it might become a conflict with some other agency, and suddenly he’s in the middle of it.”

Mr. McAllister said he’s been trying to speed the county along in the process for the better part of the decade, to no avail.

“I’ve been talking about it myself for 8 to 10 years and I haven’t seen the movement,” he said. “There’s a bit of urgency in getting these systems into the ground.”

‘Southold’s Biggest Export is Young People’

Also at Tuesday’s work session, Dan Sarnowski, Phillip Beltz and Beth Motschenbacher of the town’s Housing Advisory Commission gave a presentation on their upcoming affordable housing forum to be held at the Peconic Lane Community Center on March 11 at 6 p.m.

Mr. Sarnowski said the forum is an attempt to dispell the myths, fears and misconceptions about affordable housing in the community, and to help people who are in need of affordable housing to learn the ropes of the town’s program.

Ms. Motschenbacher said the median price of a house in Southold Town is now $550,000, much more than people who live here can afford.

Mr. Sarnowski said there are now 350 applicants waiting on the town’s affordable housing registry, and many of them are firefighters, EMTs, health care workers, teachers and other vital members of the community.

“They’re already here, you already know them,” he said. “You just might not know they’re on the list.”

“Southold’s biggest export is young people,” agreed Mr. Russell.

The March 11 forum is free and open to the public.


Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at

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