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A shared justice court for Riverhead and Southold?

For years, Southold and Riverhead towns have both been trying to upgrade their antiquated justice court facilities, which present similar safety and space problems.

But could the towns create a shared justice court space?

That’s a question officials from both towns are looking into.

In the wake of a request from Riverhead’s two justices to revive a plan to turn the shuttered Route 58 armory into a combination justice court and police headquarters, Councilwoman Jodi Giglio is exploring the possibility of combining Riverhead and Southold town court spaces.

The conversation started when Southold Councilman Jim Dinizio made a one-line comment about a recent Times-Review online story on Riverhead’s cramped and inefficient court facility. The story referenced comments Riverhead justices Allen Smith and Lori Hulse had made to the Town Board, requesting that it approve of a $13 million bond for armory project by the end of this year. The project has been stalled for several years, since a board majority deemed it too expensive to pursue.

In response to the article, Mr. Dinizio wrote the following in online comment section: “I would be open to a discussion on sharing a facility with Riverhead. If that’s a possibility?”

Ms. Giglio saw the comment and called him.

“We need to look into a few things,” she said in an interview this week. “One of them is whether or not a justice court has to be in the town it represents. If that’s the case, we’d have to see what we have to do to consolidate services.”

Ms. Giglio doesn’t favor the armory location, saying she thinks Route 58 is not suitable for a police department and justice court. She feels that location would be better served for a recreation facility, such as a YMCA, since it would be adjacent to town recreation facilities at Stotzky Park.

Mr. Dinizio said in an interview that he has yet to present the idea to his Town Board, but feels something must be done about Southold’s court facilities, which, like Riverhead’s, are cramped and antiquated.

“Since I’ve been on the board, we’ve gone through five or six proposals for a new court, ranging from building new, adding more portables onto it, building on the empty lot behind Town Hall and buying some buildings. None of them seems to work out,” he said.

Southold, which holds court sessions in Town Hall, has already attached two portable buildings to the back of Town Hall as a court office, Mr. Dinizio said.

Even those, he added, “are well beyond their life span.”

Riverhead’s Justice Court is inside the police department building and has been criticized as being unsafe, too small and antiquated.

The Riverhead Town Board has also considered a number of options for replacing it, most of which were shot down due to cost.

Ms. Giglio said she’s looked at several locations that might make a good court. One is the former family court building in the office complex on East Main Street, she said.

“It’s got holding cells, meeting rooms, everything else needed for a court,” she said. “Perhaps Justice Court could move in temporarily until we get our finances on better ground.”

Ms. Giglio said that location is currently under lease, but it is still vacant. She plans to ask the broker if there is interest in sub-leasing to the town.

She also cited the former North Fork Bank property in Mattituck, which is vacant and, although it’s in Southold Town, is near the Riverhead Town border.

Ms. Giglio also feels the meeting room at the Suffolk County Center building in Riverside, which is in Southampton Town, would make a good court when the county isn’t meeting there.

“It’s already got metal detectors, a meeting room and a juror deliberation room,” she said.

Other officials weren’t as supportive of the idea of having a justice court outside town limits.

“I assume that such an idea poses jurisdictional issues but, I will leave that to the others that know,” Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said. “I think we need to solve our court issue as a town and not look to other towns to help solve it for us.”

Justice Smith said the only way a joint court could be established would be through a public referendum in both towns, after which a district court consisting of Riverhead and Southold would have to be created.

He also said the language of the state bill that turned the armory over to the town will only allow police and court facilities, along with recreation programs run by the police, such as PAL programs.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter, who leaves office at the end of this month, said he doesn’t think a joint justice court could be established, other than by becoming part of the Unified Court System and having district courts, as they do in western Suffolk.

He feels that would be more expensive and would probably need a public referendum.

Riverhead councilmen Jim Wooten and Tim Hubbard said they don’t think consolidation is a good idea. Mr. Hubbard felt the town should look into the former family court building, if it’s available.

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Photo caption: The former armory building on Route 58 in Riverhead could be an option for a combined Riverhead and Southold justice court. (Credit: Krysten Massa, file photo)