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Southampton cracks down on 'prom houses'

Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst during a Town

Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst during a Town Board meeting at Town Hall in Southampton. (June 12, 2012) Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Southampton's town board has authorized the town attorney to seek temporary restraining orders against the owners and landlords of 10 homes that officials said have been rented within the past month to high school students as "prom houses."

The move is designed to shut down these houses, say officials, who contend that transient rentals for a night or a few days are against code.

The authorization allows the office of Town Attorney Tiffany Scarlato to go to Supreme Court and seek the restraining order, which would also apply to anyone who markets the homes to students.

"This year has been particularly serious, with the number of houses we've encountered, the number of houses involved," she said, noting that some parties were shut down by police because of underage drinking.

According to the town resolution adopted late last month, most of the homes are in East Quogue, Noyack, Shinnecock Hills and Water Mill.

The prom houses are rented during June by groups of teens, sometimes through promoters who have rented the houses from the owners and then find clients through word-of-mouth or social media. Usually there is little or no supervision, officials said, and owners of the homes may not be aware the house is being used for parties.

That's what Donald DiRenzo, 50, said happened to him. He owns a house on Parrish Pond Lane in Shinnecock Hills that appeared in the resolution, and said he had no idea it was being used for prom parties.

DiRenzo said he usually rents his home for the summer to one family, but was having a problem finding tenants this year. He agreed with a real estate agent's suggestion to rent it monthly.

As the owner, DiRenzo received citations -- one for not having a renter's permit, which he said he didn't know he needed. He added that he is happy the town is cracking down on prom party rentals.

"I didn't do my due diligence," DiRenzo said, noting that the house, which he bought five years ago, was not damaged.

Bill Stoecker, an agent at Town & Country Real Estate in East Hampton, said he rented out DiRenzo's house to Lee Hnetinka.

Scarlato said Hnetinka, as well as Leslie Jennemann, have been responsible for holding parties at most of the rental properties cited in the resolution. Attempts to reach Hnetinka and Jennemann were unsuccessful. Scarlato said Hnetinka is due in Southampton Justice Court Friday on some of the charges stemming from the rentals, including change of use of property, transient rentals, occupying a house without a rental permit and littering.

Amagansett resident Lucy Sachs said she and her siblings rented a home that has been in their family for decades to Hnetinka for the month of June. Sachs said she rushed over to the house June 8 after getting a call from a neighbor at 5 a.m. that two buses filled with young people had pulled up to her home at 2 a.m.

"There must have been 100 kids in the house," Sachs said. She told them all to call parents and get picked up and even took some to the train station, she said. Sachs added that she considered the lease broken because of language prohibiting a sublease.

Southampton Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said the town has known about prom houses in the past, but the effort to rent them out was not as organized in the past as it was this year.

Typically, those attending these parties, which can last from several hours through entire weekends, are high school seniors -- who at 17 or 18 are below the state drinking age of 21 -- but those older and younger also attend, officials said.

The homes are often overcrowded, against local codes and New York State code of occupancy rules, Scarlato said.

"It's an obvious concern for any public official," said East Hampton Councilman Dominick Stanzione.

Some promoters hire an adult security guard to watch over the parties, and sometimes give the students tips about when officials have the right to enter the home, said David Betts, the town's chief investigator.

"We feel the kids have to be protected," he said. "We are doing our best to do that."

At a recent meeting, Throne-Holst read from what she called a manual put out by one of the promoters and recently found by town officials at one of the homes. One section states that guns, drugs and knives will be confiscated, along with hard liquor, but that "hard liquor will be returned once we feel you have earned it, and you are young adults that can in fact handle it."

Neighbors near a Jeffery Lane house in East Quogue that was named in the resolution said there are dozens of cars there every weekend, not just during prom season. While the noise isn't bad, they said, it does create more traffic and potential safety issues.

Katherine Smith said she was recently watering the flowers along the curb of her home when she was startled by a shirtless young man who jumped out of the bushes.

"He was obviously intoxicated," Smith said, noting that the block is quiet in winter and on weekdays. When the weekend arrives, so does the commotion, she added.

If the restraining order is granted and the order served on the homeowner or others listed on the complaint, it would require that the house stop being used for these types of parties or there could be contempt proceedings, which could mean fines and even possible jail time, Scarlato said.

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