Illegal Housing Complaints a 2011 Priority

Despite promise, Springs remains skeptical
Neighbors of a house on Copeces Lane in Springs have complained of town code infractions they said point to code violations. The owners of the house got a visit from the East Hampton Town Building Department yesterday. Morgan McGivern

Promising a more proactive Ordinence Enforcement Department, the head of East Hampton Town’s public safety division told those gathered at the Springs Citizens Advisory Committee on Monday night that the Ordinance Enforcement Department is dedicated to policing illegal and unsafe housing conditions and has started ratcheting up enforcement all over town.
    “Housing is a priority for 2011 and maybe beyond,” said Patrick J. Gunn, the town’s new assistant attorney and head of the public safety division, which includes the Ordinance Enforcement Department.
    Since January, Mr. Gunn said, the department has introduced 25 housing-related cases in the East Hampton Town Justice Court and 266 individual charges. Of the 25 cases, he said, between 15 and 20 of them are “serious housing charges” with 25 to 30 counts against the property owner.
    Most zoning violations carry misdemeanor penalties that fall within the state’s fine range of $250 to $1,000 each. Those numbers cannot be changed, Mr. Gunn said, but prosecutors can, and have been, seeking fine amounts on the higher end of the scale.
    “The goal is to make a recognizable deterrent,” he said.
    Consternation has grown in Springs in particular over what has been perceived as a glut of illegal housing there and a lack of enforcement.
    Mr. Gunn said he prefers to keep cases out of court. “Going to court is not always the right answer for all cases,” he said.
    “We would like voluntary compliance,” he said, noting that someone found violating the town code with issues like overcrowding and multiple kitchens is given 10 days to comply.
    However, he stressed that there is no middle ground when dealing with zoning violations — they either exist or they do not. “Mediation is: resolve the problem,” he told the group.
    Many in the audience seemed doubtful that the department had been able to gain entry to some of the houses in question. Tom Baker, a Springs Fire Department member who is also an East Hampton Town fire marshal, said that in his experience some people choose to meet emergency medical personnel on street corners rather than have them come into their houses for fear of officials noticing illegal conditions.
    Since taking on his post, Mr. Gunn said he has yet to request a search warrant to get access to violators’ houses. “I haven’t had a need to do it,” he said. Most people let ordinance enforcement officers in, he added. He perceives this as a plus.
    Police Chief Ed Ecker agreed, saying his department has not served a search warrant for a housing violation in some time, but recalled around 10 that he had helped execute in the past. “They’re kind of over the top,” he said of the warrants, adding that in some situations the cases were already in court. Chief Ecker said that police work with the Public Safety Department and often refer violations they see upon entering a house to Mr. Gunn’s department.
    Mr. Gunn said he is not opposed to acquiring difficult-to-obtain warrants if the situation calls for it, although he steps lightly, he said, acknowledging a “constitutional right to privacy in your home.”
    To smooth out what some residents have said was a disconnect within the Ordinance Enforcement Department causing some complaints to go unreviewed, Mr. Gunn pointed to a new complaint form, which can be accessed online. Complainants are given a case number immediately after filing a grievance to track the case and are provided an “action taken” form that lays out what has been done to correct a perceived problem. Mr. Gunn was unsure if anonymous complaints would be accepted by the department as they have been in the past.
    In Springs, residents came out en masse in January to grill Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and Councilwoman Theresa Quigley about how they intended to cut down on what many see as a pervasive illegal housing problem in the hamlet. The issue had been catapulted to the forefront after Councilwoman Quigley proposed revamped affordable housing legislation that, in part, would have allowed people with illegal apartments to legalize them.
    The Ordinance Enforcement Department now has expanded hours and is on the job seven days a week. But there are still some stumbling blocks, he said, including a staff of five officers to serve the whole town. Human nature plays a part too. “People do get away with things,” he acknowledged.
    The town code, he said, may need some changes to make his work more effective. “We are always looking at the code and talking to the town board as to what could be changed, amended, or left out,” Mr. Gunn said. Specifically, he said he is hoping to initiate a provision that would limit the number of cars parked in driveways similar to one on the books in Southampton, where the Ordinance Enforcement Department has been successful in clearing up some high-profile violations.
    East Hampton Town Code prohibits parking of more than four cars overnight on rented houses and properties that contain a legal affordable accessory apartment approved by the town board. But the board has been grappling with how many cars are too many, said Pete Hammerle, the board’s liaison to the committee. “It’s tough,” he said, adding that someone with six cars may not have any zoning violations on their property.
    Debra Foster, a former town board member, asked Supervisor Wilkinson, who sat in the audience, and Mr. Gunn to clear up a rumor that the Ordinance Enforcement Department had been asked to step back from enforcement because of fears of litigation.
    Both men said the allegation was preposterous.