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PC Board Discusses Code Crackdown and Amnesty Program

The Mayor and Board of Trustees commended the Building Department's work covered in a recent news article, but not all residents are as impressed.

Port Chester Mayor Neil Pagano and Board of Trustees members were happy to discuss a Journal News article from last weekend that highlighted the village’s efforts to crackdown on illegal housing and code violations during their board meeting on Monday, June 3. The recent fire that displaced 75 people living in a six unit building on Williams Street, and the evacuation of a North Main Street building because of code violations have the community talking about code enforcement and the consistent problem with illegal housing in Port Chester.

“It was a good article that chronicled our efforts for code enforcement,” said Village Manager Chris Steers. “It gave insights into what we’ve been doing so far, how monumental the task is and compared it to other places.”

The Journal News Leah Rae reported:

Port Chester is three years into a code-enforcement crackdown that is trying to rectify a seemingly intractable problem. It’s more ambitious than any such effort in the area, encompassing village wide inspections, criminal prosecutions and a complete revamping of building files.

The village implemented an “amnesty program” last year that acknowledged that many building owners have done work without necessary permits or lack inspections or certificates of occupancy (COs).

The enforcement now requires owners to rectify their paperwork or face fines if they failed to obtain the permits, to close out the permits or to obtain the COs. If the owner applied for amnesty by the April 2013 deadline they would have the opportunity to rectify their situations without facing the regular associated fines.

Steers said that through their efforts, the village has rectified 340 illegal or crowded housing situations over the last three years, issued hundreds of summonses and collected $400,000 in fines, according to Rae.

But while the village has shut down some illegal housing, the crackdown has also had ramifications for homeowners who need to prove their compliance by working  with a Building Department that is missing files lost in a flood and that is still trying to clean up the files it still has, Rae reports. 

 Two speakers at Monday night’s public hearing and two people in Rae’s story explained how the crackdown has affected them.

Rae reports:

A new by-the-book approach is requiring sacrifices all over. Anyone looking to sell, buy or refinance could face inordinate delays in obtaining Building Department paperwork — though an amnesty program and an expedited-service option for $200 aim to provide relief. A backlash is brewing over who’s paying the price for the village’s own mess, and what it will really take to clean it all up.

 George Ford, who spoke during Monday night’s public speaking session said the amnesty program has rewarded code violators and punished people who do everything by the book.

“I think that’s a terrible program. We are rewarding people who have purposefully taken advantage of this village,” Ford said.

Ford and homeowners quoted in Rae’s article say they have to jump through hoops to fulfill the code enforcement requirements while other landlords known for illegal housing continue to operate. Ford said that he does not think it is fair that landlords with dozens of code violations are allowed to file applications under the amnesty program.

“Why do (we bother to) pay the fees and have the inspections done when you’re doing nothing about the people who don’t do what they are supposed to?” Ford asked.

“We do it every year…where is my reward for doing that?”

“When you have to administer such a program, you cannot lawfully be as selective as some may desire,” Steers said. He added that they are keeping track of those who are incompliant and they will eventually catch up with them. In some, but not all cases, landlords who were incompliant for years are being forced to pay back fines, he said.

Another speaker mentioned Port Chester residents’ fears of being fined or arrested because of the Certificate of Occupancy requirement. He asked if the village could let people know there is no rush.

“Why don’t we take this as a need basis? Why are we loading the system with people panicky because they think they have to get their CO or they’re going to be thrown in jail?”

Steers said that their case by case basis showed that a lack of COs was a more common problem than an exception and the amnesty program aims to help people while they get their documents by alleviating the costs and fines associated.

Steers started to elaborate more but Mayor Pagano told them they should continue the conversation “on the side” because the public speaker’s time was up.

Rae quoted a local homeowner who is trying to refinance a home she bought in 1997 but first needs to rectify paperwork dating back forty years before she bought it. She has documents that show there are no violations but the village considers them worthless, referring to them as predate letters that don’t fulfill their requirements.

Rae quoted another homeowner who owned his one-family home for 50 years and now he needs to get old permits for a bathroom he once added to his home, which is delaying his plan to sell the house.

Village Fire Inspector Kevin Brennan told Rae that the village needs to educate people on the “magnitude of the problem.” 

During Monday night’s meeting Pagano said that he wants the building’s codes documents online so people can see what they are doing any time, rather than just when it is covered in the news. He also said that he recognizes the need for some changes to the program and expects to discuss that at the next meeting.

Also, at the next board meeting, the trustees will vote on a resolution to hire two interns and purchase needed software for the Building Department, which should help them get through back logged files. 

Has the code enforcement affected your ability to sell or refinance your home? What do you think of the village's crackdown? Please share your thoughts in the comments. 

Craig Noor June 08, 2013 at 08:15 AM
Have been waiting on an inspection for more than half a year. The village is sitting on my money and that of a lot of other people. Why don't we pay when they act instead of giving them an interest free loan. And the department is not proactive or responsive. You must make several efforts to get any info from them. They apparently haven't figured out that it takes less time to do something right the first time than to put it off and do it wrong first. Nice to hear them praising themselves tho, I am sure that makes every single family homeowner who did absolutely nothing wrong feel better Which is to say they should be going after the millionaire slumlords not jus plain folk like myself
FJT June 09, 2013 at 09:42 AM
In many cases, the homeowner will need to hire an architect, mechanical engineer or some other expert to attempt to recreate schematics the Building Department should have on file but does not due to the village's negligence. The cost of such experts can be so onerous that the homeowner's hands are essentially tied and he/she is sunk, as I'll explain. Keep in mind that in an alleged effort to crack down on slumlords, every CO (issued by the village in the past) has been nullified by the village. And homeowners CAN'T sell or refinance without a new CO. Most homeowners have only discovered that fact when they've attempted to sell or refinance their home. That's when the horror show really kicks in for the average homeowner in Port Chester. This entire program is a travesty because it goes after EVERY homeowner in town. You're at the mercy of a Building Department -- a department with a long history of corruption, foot-dragging and "make-it-up-as-you-go" policies. If I heard correctly, at a recent Board of Trustees meeting, Mr. Steers asked for two interns and new file-recording software to the tune of $600,000. The mayor and everyone on the BOT, except for Mr. Kenner, voted to provide the funds after virtually no discussion. (I hope I did not hear the figure $600,000.) Bottom line: I feel that innocent property owners (who already pay exorbitant taxes) are being destroyed while slumlords continue to go on their merry way. As for the bureaucrats, who are supposed to serve the public, not "fleece and destroy" them -- well, they seem quite proud of themselves. Let's hope the news media takes a serious, probing interest in what's going on in Port Chester. This is much more than just a local story. Lastly, homeowners in PC need to make themselves heard over this issue. Speak up -- or perish.
Frank B. June 09, 2013 at 10:53 AM
"Steers said that through their efforts, the village has rectified 340 illegal or crowded housing situations over the last three years" Seriously, 340? Not even the tip of the iceberg. What exactly do these people do all day at our expense?
Valerie June 10, 2013 at 09:57 AM
Call in outsiders to take a look at what's going on inside !! Have News 12 cover the story ... We need help from State Politicians to help PC mend these issues. Homeowners should not be footing the bill to clean up the mess PC Builing Dept made ... Where is Mr. George Latimer ??
FJT June 10, 2013 at 04:05 PM
The writer of the article asked: "Has the code enforcement affected your ability to sell or refinance your home?" As a condo owner, I personally know of 8 condo deals in my building that fell apart over the past 6 months. My building has been trying to get a new permanent CO because its longstanding original CO was suddenly nullified -- along with (I believe) ALL other existing COs in the village (nearly 6,000). It can take a very, very long time to get a new permanent CO, not to mention quite a bit of money for application fees and the possible hiring of architects and engineers to recreate documents the village used to have on file -- or were supposed to have on file for your property. Buyers won't wait forever for the seller to get the new permanent CO, which their lenders usually require, so they walk away from the deal sooner or later. If you just want to refinance, you're out of luck too, since lenders want to see a valid CO for your property. I should add, the new CO policy has literally "ruined" some people (as in foreclosure), according to a realtor I recently spoke with. I've lost two deals and considerable amounts of money on attorneys and fees associated with closings that did not go forward due to the CO issue, which still remains unresolved one year after it first came to light where I live. Finally, I believe that a slumlord who does not want to sell or refinance his buildings just might be in the clear, unless of course there's a fire on his premises, which leads to a de facto inspection. But, it's people like me -- who want to either sell or refinance -- who MUST open their door to a code inspector. If you don't, you won't get a new permanent CO and you can neither sell nor refinance your property until you have one. A slumlord, it seems to me, can skate for a very long time. What a mess and what an incredibly ill-conceived program. But what an ingenious way to extract money from all property owners -- all of whom will one day want to either sell or refinance their property, or transfer ownership to a family member.
Liz Giegerich June 10, 2013 at 06:25 PM
@FJT and anyone else who might like to elaborate on their current situation for a future article, please email me at elizabeth.giegerich@patch.com.

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