Southold wants former labor camp in Cutchogue vacated of residents

Two of four buildings that house six numbered apartments at the Cutchogue business property where town officials say people are living illegally. The buildings were described in the 1960s as being part of a 'labor camp' where farmworkers lived. (Credit: Cyndi Murray)
Two of four buildings that house six numbered apartments at the Cutchogue business property where town officials say people are living illegally. The buildings were described in the 1960s as being part of a ‘labor camp’ where farmworkers lived. (Credit: Cyndi Murray)

Southold Town is preparing to bring charges against a Cutchogue business owner accused of renting out apartments at his Cox Lane property in violation of town code, officials said. They also claim the landlord has ignored notices to vacate tenants.

Robert Hamilton, owner of a company called Prime Purveyors at 8305 Cox Lane, where the tenants live, will face six counts of violating town code when he appears in Southold Town Justice Court on Monday, Aug. 25, said assistant town attorney Lori Hulse, who is handling the case. The property has four buildings with a total of six numbered rental units, plus a warehouse.

Mr. Hamilton had appeared in town court on July 28, but that hearing was put off, town officials said, to better prepare the violations.

The town’s code enforcement officer issued an initial violation in January after a former tenant filed a complaint that units on the business property were being rented out — not a permitted use in the town’s light industrial zone where the property is located, Ms. Hulse said. Mr. Hamilton did not comply with a resulting notice to vacate the property and the town is proceeding with legal action to stop the operation, she said.

“It is basically now just rental units,” she said of activities at the property. “That is not something that is permitted. The town’s certainly going to make a record that we want the tenants vacated. That is what our objective is. The code enforcement officer allowed a certain amount of time to vacate the units in order to not be in violation of the zoning code and there was no response from the owner.”

One tenant, who has lived on the property for several years and asked to remain anonymous, said last week that neither the town nor Mr. Hamilton has issued eviction notices. But that isn’t surprising, the resident said.

“I have been here for years and recently found out things weren’t being done by the books,” the tenant said, adding that when the tenants  first rented they were unaware of any town code issues with the units.

Neither Mr. Hamilton, nor his attorney, Scott DeSimone of Peconic, would provide a comment for this article.

In 1966, the property’s previous owner, Eastern Suffolk Cooperative, was granted an exemption from the town Zoning Board of Appeals permitting use of the property as a labor camp to house farm workers and their families, according to building department records.

Although the exemption was grandfathered into the property in 1983, when Prime Purveyors purchased it, Ms. Hulse said that Mr. Hamilton’s operation would not fall under the exemption, since the labor camp was intended to house workers employed by the on-site business and was not intended to allow for profit by charging rent.

It’s unclear how long the units have been rented out, Ms. Hulse said.

Heating and water issues have been a concern, said former tenant Delia Kuhlmann, who called in the initial complaint to the town.

“I just want him to do the right thing,” Ms. Kuhlmann said of her decision to file a complaint.

That complaint came after the county Department of Health and Services issued a sanitary code violation against Mr. Hamilton for not providing adequate heat for the units. That violation was based on the agency’s inspections of the property on Nov. 25, Dec. 4, and Dec. 19, according to health department documents obtained by The Suffolk Times. In addition, water to the units was shut off Dec. 26, according to those records.

Another document states that Mr. Hamilton told county health workers the water had to be turned off because of “a repair being made to the distribution system.”

Ms. Kuhlmann, who said she was paying about $1,050 a month when she lived on the property, said the health department also posted signs last fall indicating people should not drink the water on the property.

She added that Mr. Hamilton later hooked up the buildings to county water, resolving that issue.

Meanwhile, the tenant referred to earlier in this article said it’s unclear what people still living there will do should they be forced to move.

“Hopefully [the town] will help move us or find a place, because there is a lack of affordable housing,” the tenant said. “ For your studio flats people charge $2,000 a month, but I am still here because I can’t afford to move. I know I am not the only one here that is not in the position to run out and go rent a place.”

Tenants are also concerned about whether they will get their deposit money back if they are evicted. If they don’t, it will be even harder for them to rent elsewhere.

“I feel like it is wrong to kick us out with no place to go,” said another tenant who also asked to remain anonymous. “If [Mr. Hamilton] got himself into a jam, the people here should not be inconvenienced to move. The town should find us a place to live. At the very least [Mr. Hamilton] should be forced to give our rent back.”

Southold Supervisor Scott Russell declined to comment on this specific matter, citing the legal proceedings, but said the town would likely not be in a position to assist the tenants in finding new residences.

“Generally the town has the responsibility to ensure all residents are housed in a safe and habitable dwelling,” he said. “The responsibility for finding suitable accommodations for residents falls squarely on the shoulders of the landlord.”

Eight years ago, a group of four residents appeared before Southold Town Board to propose a family recreational center at the property, which would have been called Galaxy’s, according to an article in the East Hampton Independent dated June 21, 2006. However, that plan never came to fruition.

If Mr. Hamilton does not comply with the town zoning code he could face a $5,000 fine for each violation, Ms. Hulse said. She added that the town is willing to seek a lesser fine if Mr. Hamilton does vacate the property.

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