The Riverhead Town Board has unanimously voted to turn its troubled animal shelter's day-to-day operation over to the North Fork Animal Welfare League, following years of public debate and criticism over the facility's operation.

The board voted 5-0 Tuesday to pay the not-for-profit league $223,135 a year. The town will keep ownership of the shelter facility on Youngs Avenue in Calverton. The volunteer league, which runs the Southold Town shelter in Peconic, has no obligation to hire the town's two full-time and three part-time shelter workers. But it will have to staff the shelter every day and keep it open at least 36 hours a week.

Under the three-year contract, the league is scheduled to begin running the shelter March 1.

"We hope with the support of the community, we can provide a higher standard of care than provided by the municipality," said league executive director Gillian Wood Pultz in a telephone interview. "We hope to develop a community outreach program to keep animals out of the shelter. That's what we did in Southold."

When Pultz became executive director about 15 years ago, the Southold shelter housed 60-70 dogs a day. Today, the number is down to 25, Pultz said.

"This has been a long time coming. It will mean great things for Riverhead," she said.

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Riverhead officials also predicted conditions would quickly improve once the league takes over. James Wooten, a board member and liaison to the shelter, said it would "begin a new era."

Riverhead officials said they are not indifferent to the care of animals at the shelter. Once a month, a dog from the shelter is taken to a town board meeting in hopes someone will adopt the animal. But Riverhead, like neighboring Southold, has a population fewer than 25,000, and the board has found it hard to come up with enough money to run the shelter and make renovations.

The town put its shelter operations under the parks department until that proved inadequate, then several years ago assigned it to the town police department, with the police chief making decisions on day-to-day shelter problems, including finding staff when workers would be absent.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter, in a prepared statement, said turning shelter operations over to the league "puts behind us an issue that has divided our community," and promised that the league would provide "high quality, humane care."