Pictured Above: The town-owned Peconic Community Center, which is used by the town’s Recreation Department, for public meetings and as an emergency shelter, has land behind it that could be used for a justice court.

Southold Town is going back to the drawing board with a plan to build a justice court behind the town Community Center on Peconic Lane, instead taking another look at how to incorporate numerous pressing needs in several town buildings into a comprehensive strategy.

A vote on whether to bond $6 million for the justice court project was taken off the agenda March 1 because the town still needed to determine the building’s environmental impact under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, and a vote to hire an architect for the project was also taken off the March 15 agenda.

Since March 1, several board members said they’d heard input from community members who were critical of the plan. The debate came to a head at the board’s March 15 work session, after Councilman Greg Doroski penned an op-ed in the Suffolk Times suggesting the town form a Municipal Building Task Force — similar to an idea also recently floated by Town Supervisor Scott Russell. Mr. Doroski, a Democrat who won his seat on the Town Council this past November, was narrowly defeated in his run against Mr. Russell for Supervisor in 2017.

Southold’s Justice Court, which currently meets just two days per week, with occasional arraignments on other days, meets in the Town Board meeting room at Town Hall on the Main Road in Southold. As with many other small-town justice courts throughout the state, New York’s Office of Court Administration has been pushing the town in recent years to update its court infrastructure. The town purchased the former Southold Savings Bank, a brick building that houses town annex offices, for $3.1 million in 2018, with the impetus at the time being to use that building as a justice court, but found out later that the estimated cost to renovate that space for use as a court was about $18.5 million.

Southold has recently considered several alternatives, including building a new Town Hall on a vacant stretch of lawn behind the existing Town Hall, renovating the Annex for use as a Justice Court and then tearing down the existing Town Hall building, or renovating and keeping the existing Town Hall for use as a Justice Court and moving all other town offices to the Annex. Estimates for those plans ranged from $28 million to $37 million. Town Engineer Michael Collins said in January 2022 that the town received an estimate of $19.5 million last year to just build a new Town Hall behind the existing Town Hall.

Councilwoman Jill Doherty, who has been working with the Office of Court Administration on making sure the new justice court has everything required by the state, said at the March 15 work session that the town had already done the work Mr. Doroski is asking them to do.

“Each time a new town board member comes in and wants to do a new needs assessment, in my experience, it just kicks the can down the road another four years,” she said. “We had a great plan that would fit everything, but it cost $30 million.”

“This needs assessment led us to purchase the Annex for a courthouse,” said Mr. Doroski. “It is a symptom of the problem.”

“What would you have done in the spring of 2018,” snapped Mr. Russell, adding that the town had been told then by the prior owner of the Annex building that they would not be renewing the town’s lease because they were putting the building on the market — leaving the town scrambling for a solution to where to put the town offices there. “Leadership requires firm, decisive action. Leadership requires you make decisions based on changing circumstances. You do not have the courage to give the public an answer.”

“This is not about courage,” said Mr. Doroski. “This is about you go downstairs in Town Hall and there is black mold and there are tarps over file storage. When you go to the police station the files in the basement are not organized because we don’t have the space, and prisoners don’t have the right accommodations and we won’t get accredited? That is the problem, and that, right there, is a failure of leadership.”

“We tried, it didn’t work. Move on,” said Mr. Russell of the Annex purchase, adding that his administration had solved numerous facilities problems at the town’s animal shelter, highway barn and transfer station. “Your plan is a good plan. You know how I know it’s a good plan? It’s my plan!”

“I am advocating for Scott’s plan now,” said Mr. Doroski. “Ok, I agree with you.”

“I agree there are a lot of things that have gotten done,” said Councilwoman Sarah Nappa. “As a member of the public when those things were getting done, if we had an overall plan and those boxes were already checked, the public would have known that.”

“We’re getting a lot of negative feedback from the public because they don’t care” about the need for a justice court, she added. “They don’t think we ned this as much as we do.”

“I think Greg’s plan, except for the courthouse, has been a need since practically I’ve been on the board,” said Councilwoman Louisa Evans. “I think we’ve done the court. Lumping it in now with the rest of the buildings, you’re just going over what we’ve already done.”

Ms. Doherty, who continued to advocate for moving forward with the court on Peconic Lane, added that both Southold’s police chief and and the Office of Court Administration frown on putting a police station and justice court in the same building, primarily for safety concerns. 

“There’s no need to have the justice court and police department together,” agreed Mr. Russell. “Riverhead tried that and it doesn’t work.”

New Councilman Brian Mealy sat quietly through the conversation, until Mr. Russell asked his opinion.

“I’m glad the yelling has stopped,” said Mr. Mealy, nearly an hour into the discussion. “It’s hard to hear ideas when people are yelling at each other. I’m kind of where Sarah is at. I want to give voice to some reasonable discussion. It’s reasonable to have a 12-month process and explanation. I think that’s leadership, trying to bring along the public as long as you can.”

“I’m a very visual person,” he added. “We need to have some kind of capture of what we’re going to do. I want to see how it’s going to look.”

The board members agreed to hold a special session on Thursday, March 31, to discuss moving forward with a needs assessment.

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 editor@eastendbeacon.com

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