January 16, 2013

Showdown Over Homeless Hotel Looms

Southampton Town has notified the Suffolk County Department of Social Services (DSS) that it intends to sue to stop what officials call the illegal use of a Hampton Bays motel as a homeless shelter.

Gregory Blass, the Commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Social Services (DSS), took the offensive in an exclusive interview this week, and vowed that any effort to curtail the use of the motel would fail.

Blass accused Southampton Town and other critics of the Hidden Cove Motel in Hampton Bays of making "utterly, patently false statements."

The motel on West Tiana Drive has been in the news of late -- including two recent articles in this newspaper -- because three rent paying tenants, including an 88 year-old woman and her handicapped daughter, are being evicted so their rooms can be used by DSS. Blass said the tenants are being evicted for unrelated reasons, and Southampton Town's shot over the bow notwithstanding, the motel will continue to house social services recipients.

In a letter dated January 3 Southampton Town Attorney Tiffany Scarlato warned DSS that it is violation of the town's zoning ordinances. Specifically, she said this week, there has been a change of use at the motel, "from a transient motel to a homeless shelter with no approval whatsoever." The DSS would need to apply for a special exemption, she added, which would trigger a site plan review.

"We are not required to comply with local zoning," Blass said. He produced the certificate of occupancy dated 1976 that identified the motel as a year-round motel. Scarlato said the DSS is bound by the town's definition of a "motel" which precedes the issuance of the C of O, and that makes the current use "illegal." Blass acknowledged a county law prohibits more than 12 homeless units in any one dwelling but he said state law takes precedence.

"The county has a responsibility to distribute the load. The homeless deserve to be given a fair shake," Blass said. "The Town of Southampton has never done its fair share." There are 52 homeless shelters in Suffolk County. Hidden Cove is the only shelter in Southampton Town; other Suffolk towns accomodate numerous shelters within their boundaries.

Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst agreed the town has lagged in its affordable housing efforts, but since she was elected she has revamped the program, she said. The town's housing authority has taken over the management of apartments in Hampton Bays, she said, and "We have plans to develop" some of the substandard lots turned over to the town from Suffolk County. There was a lottery for a dozen or so affordable sites in December. Others have been turned over to Habitat for Humanity and the Long Island Housing Initiative.

"He can attack my record, but it doesn't justify his abominable record on how he conducts his own program," Throne-Holst said of Blass. She has said the septic system at the motel is "way out of compliance."

Blass disagreed. "That is a gross misstatement. It is built to code. I had it inspected recently." But Scarlato said the change of use, from transient motel to homeless shelter, would trigger a review. "The planning board would likely require an upgrade to the pre-existing system," she said.

The town has two months from the issuance of the January 3 letter to take legal action if DSS doesn't comply. Throne Holst said she would indeed litigate.

Meanwhile, the DSS has an application into the state to classify the facility as a Tier II Homeless Shelter, which would provide a level of protection against local zoning.

"They are far away from a Tier II. I doubt they can provide the services needed to receive the classification," Scarlato said.

"Tier II is not the only way to escape zoning," Blass said. Regardless, town officials and critics are overlooking the bigger picture, he charged.

"This economy has produced a perfect storm of homelessness – foreclosures, evictions, lost jobs, prisoners released into homelessness." Blass said the DSS is charged with providing shelter. Blass said the average stay is four to six months, and sometimes less, and that no more than six residents are enrolled in the Hampton Bays School District at any given time.

Throne-Holst said there are about 40 children from the Hidden Cove who are now on the books at Hampton Bays School District. "Once they are enrolled Hampton Bays becomes the sending district and pays the cost to educate them in perpetuity." If accurate that would mean Hampton Bays property owners are on the hook for more than $1.2 million more in school taxes annually because of Hidden Cove.

The supervisor said her opposition to the motel, and similar efforts in Flanders, is based on the negative impact on the local school districts.

"Hampton Bays and Riverhead schools are so overburdened. This is the wrong place." Throne-Holst said she has offered to meet with Blass and "roll out a map" to find more suitable spots for a homeless program, but he has been unreceptive.

Blass said almost half of the Hidden Cove residents are local. Throne-Holst strongly disagreed. "None of them originated from the East End. Most aren't even from Suffolk County," she said. "Half are from out of state." Blass said residents aren't allowed to own cars, but a late model Toyota with Virginia plates has been at Hidden Cove for sometime, one source said, and a resident drives it.

A meeting of the Hampton Bays Citizens Advisory Committee about the motel drew scores of angry residents last summer. "I would be delighted to talk with some of the officers of the HBCAC personally," Blass said.

Meanwhile, issues of The Independent with articles about the matter were snatched from local newsstands -- one merchant said an employee of the management company running the site took a pile from her store. "That's despicable," Blass commented.

A letter from Alex Roberts, who heads the management company running Hidden Cove, is in this week's issue.

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