Port Chester homeowners have documents that look like this valid Certificate of Occupancy, others have invalid "predate" letters, and some do not have any at all. The confusion over what is valid, why seemingly official documents are worthless and what needs to be done to fix it has left many residents complaining and village officials defending their ambitious Code Enforcement program.
The the code enforcement program was implemented to make Port Chester buildings safer and to address an epidemic of i overcrowding, but residents say it is now “punishing the good guy.”
Steers and Miley, the city staff leading the effort, say their method is the only way to follow state and local laws, which both require Certificate of Occupancy documents and to bring village buildings up to code. Mayor Neil Pagano has emphasized that the program is the law and is carried out with appropriate intentions, but he and other Board of Trustee members have said they sympathize with citizen complaints.
Lenient policies, alleged corruption and invalid documents issued by past leadership and the current administration’s attempt to bring the village up to code, have left many homeowners frustrated as they learn their COs were never valid. Owners have said they are required to spend too much money and time to obtain a CO, that was invalid through no cause of their own. They have explained their opposition to the program many times during public meetings over the last two years.
Steers and Miley defend their efforts, explaining that the program is the only way to achieve their goals.
“We are not coming out after people, we are not hurting the good people,” Miley said. “What we are doing is a in a much more comprehensive and proactive way that anyone else in the state. “We’ll be a model,” Miley said
“The program is fair and nondiscriminatory,” Steers said. That means everybody gets treated the same way and word on the street in the past was that wasn’t happening. There were certain members of the public who were part of the protected class.”
The reason why the CO issue is now affecting sales and refinancing is because until the recent program, officials were confirming with banks and lawyers that homes with invalid COS, often referred to as pre-date letters, were valid. Now that the department has determined all those pre-date letters are unofficial they tell banks and lawyers that homes with those documents do not have valid COs.
“It is not that we don’t sympathize with individuals that have this (document), but the realty is very simple,” said Steers. “The way the law is written we are prohibited from issuing that type of paper work , by local law, and its been that way since 1927.”
Patch spent about two hours talking with Code Enforcement Director Peter Miley, Village Manager Chris Steers and Village Assistant Chris Ameigh to find out how the CO situation happened, what people need to do to fix it and how the building department is handling the program. This is a summarized version of that conversation.
How did the mess happen? Pre-Date Letters, Invalid
Since 1927, the village code mandated that every property have a Certificate of Occupancy. Between the early 1980s and April, 2011 many homes were given “pre-date” letters that appeared to be COs and that many homeowners today believed were valid until the Code Enforcement Program.
“The individuals issuing pre-date letters did not have any lawful authority to issue them,” Steers said. When Steers took over the building department, they stopped issuing the pre-date letters.
The letters evolved from search requests. An owner would ask for a search from the building department and the search request would be given a number; but at some point, the people issuing the documents replaced a search number with a CO number, Steers said. When Steers investigated, he found that the CO number correlated to a notebook with handwritten numbers that related to nothing. So the documents were not legal proof that any structures had been searched and approved.
In many cases, homeowners have open permits, which means permits were issued and then either no one came back to close the permit or to get a final inspection, but they still received a letter saying the property had no violations. That letter, considered a CO by many homeowners, claimed the house was up to code but indicates that no inspection ever confirmed it.
“They are not legitimate with what they are meant to be,” Steers explained. “For whatever reason, they were just created.”
No one knows why they issued the pre-date letters instead of the valid COs, Steers said.
“There was a drawer that had a folder of blank letters, pre-signed by the building inspector, that would then later be filled in by somebody,” Steers said.
What is a Valid CO?
If it indicates certificate of occupancy (not in the form of a “CO #” on a search form), it is dated and signed by building inspector, then it is a valid CO. Today, the Building Department also seals the COs.
The Amnesty Program
The Amnesty program was established in Nov. 2012 to help provide relief to people with code violations who would have faced fines if not in the program. Any homeowner can apply for amnesty as long as they are not already in violation (considered a scofflaw), which helps them avoid fines and violation summonses.
“The ultimate goal of any code enforcement program is to gain voluntary compliances,” Steers said. “And this is one of the tools you use to get there.”
For minor infractions, like a deck not set back far enough by a few inches, the Amnesty allows the owner to avoid going to the zoning board, which saves time and money.
The board is discussing a local law that essentially lowers the code compliance standards for small family homeowners who may be burdened by the cost of coming into code compliance because they don’t have the same level of impact or risk of danger as multi-family homes. To learn more about the Amnesty Program you can watch Steers’ presentation and answers to many public comments at the public hearing on the local law proposal on Aug. 19 here.
What Happens If a Homeowner Has a Violation
- For Non-Amnesty Residences
If the building department conducts a search or if the fire department or someone else reports a code violation and the inspector finds a violation then the homeowner will be issued a Notice of Violation (NOV). The NOV is a punch list of the problems that the owner typically has a month to fix, Miley said. But the time can vary depending on the nature of the violation and number of violations.
“If it entails zoning, it is real life-safety stuff. If it is egregious life-threatening situation, the owner does not have a lot of time,” Steers said.
The punch list is easy to understand, but if the violations include more difficult building code issues then a homeowner can consult with Miley or a building inspector to talk about their “path to compliance,” Steers said.
- For Amnesty Residences
If a homeowner applies for amnesty, Code Enforcement will put them on a list for a full search. This is a comprehensive review of that property’s file, where they check out paperwork and then invite the resident in to go over that file. If there are no issues and they have a valid CO then the process is over.
If the search shows any outstanding problems, like if a one family had been illegally converted to a two family, they will receive a document explaining what they have to do to come into compliance. Under Amnesty, a homeowner has about 18 months with possible extension to comply.
They will not get an official Notice of Violation until the 18 months or extension time has expired and the problems are still outstanding.
Usually, people who get NOV have either directly contradicted requests or “have dragged their feet for more than a year,” Ameigh said.
What Does That Mean?
Hypothetically, someone could have bought a house 50 years ago that had a basement bathroom and a what they thought was a valid CO. They go to sell it now and find out it has an invalid CO and the permits for the bathroom were never closed, making it an illegal bathroom. Without a CO the homeowner most likely will be unable to sell the house.
To get a CO they have to go to the Building Department, which is backlogged with a year’s worth of searches, and ask for a search. They can pay $200 to have the search expedited and done in ten days, or wait until the department gets to it. Once the search is completed, they will receive a written search result that is a bullet point list of the history of the property and what permits might be open (in order by the date when the property was built to current date).
Because they have an open permit for a bathroom that was installed before they moved in, the village needs to certify the plumbing and work was all up to code.
If the homeowner is not under amnesty then they will have to hire a plumber to state the work is all up to code and might need an architect to submit blueprints that show it is up to code.
If the homewoner is under amnesty there would be more leniency with professional document requirements so they might not need to pay an architect for blueprints but instead a plumber for less detailed drawing of the work that was done, Ameigh said.
In either case, the village might need an inspector to check out the bathroom and if the inspector felt it was necessary, might require the homeowner to open up walls to make sure the plumbing is up to code.
Once the documents are submitted the village will either accept them and issue a valid CO or they might require an inspector to visit the property again. If the work was originally done in compliance to the village code, then the homeowner will be done with the process. If it was not done to code, they may need to redo the bathroom – a much more costly situation.
Sometimes when an inspector visits a property to check out something of which the homeowner is already aware, he finds something else that is illegal that the homeowner then has to deal with. That is what is really agitating Port Chester residents. As they try to come into compliance “the target keeps moving.”
“They are essentially bearing the brunt of the previous owners and previous plumbers choices to not get a permit to certify that a bathroom is up to code and the village’s not catching it until now,” Amleigh said. “There is plenty of blame to go around to plumbers, homeowners, lawyers, banks and the village.”
If they are under amnesty, the situation is less costly and potentially less time consuming than if they are not, according to officials.
What Should Homeowners do?
According to Steers, don’t wait until you are ready to sell to find out if your CO is valid. If your documents are not valid then join the Amnesty Program and request a search. Once you receive your search results, follow the instructions and submit the documents in order to receive a validated CO.
“It is better for them to find out now (about their violations) and get enough lead time even if they are considering selling next year,” Steers said.
How many people are in the Amnesty Program?
Normally with a program like this, villages get two percent of homeowners applying, but Port Chester has had about three to four percent apply, which is about 400 owners, Steers said.
Can Anyone Apply for Amnesty
If an owner knows they have a building below code, they can apply for amnesty and avoid fines, as long as they haven’t already been issued a notice of violation. If they apply for amnesty because they know they have an illegal four family home in a building only approved for two family home, they will avoid the fines for having an illegal dwelling, but will still have to turn the building back into a two-family home, Steers said.
“Our ultimate goal is reducing overcrowding and illegal housing,” Miley said. “We are not here to target people and throw fines at people.”
So landlords who know they have too many apartments in a building can avoid the fines but will have to pay to revert their buildings back to code.
“It would be unconstitutional for us to turn those people away,” Steers said.
If they apply for amnesty and then never make the required changes they will be fined and eventually taken to court.
Can the Village Change the Law?
“No. The law is very specific,” Steers said.
Is this the best way to do this?
“There is only one way to do it and it’s the legal way, the right way, according to the law.”
Miley pointed out that banks and attorneys should have never accepted the pre-date letters as valid COs. On any pre-date letter, an inspection was not done, they said.
Are any documents lost due to flooding and/or the FBI and local investigation into the building department?
“No, if the CO exists, we have it,” Steers said. “Flood, El Nino, all of that is not true. The records are there.”
Overworked Building Department
The building department already has a year’s worth of searches to be done and less than half the staff needed to do it. However, if people want expedited searches, they can do it within ten days. While the search could be done in ten days, the time to fix the problem could, and likely will, take much longer.
Searches take days to do because staff has to go though multiple data and filling systems, pull all documents relating to a property together and review them piece by piece. It includes a lot of historical documents they need to sift through too.
“People are unfortunately learning we’ll get the search done for you in ten days, but that doesn’t mean you have a valid CO. Odds are you’re going to find you don’t have valid CO, you have open permits and other issues,” Steers said.
Building Department Staff:
- One full-time Director
- One full-time assistant building inspector and one part time assistant building inspector
- Two full-time fire inspectors
- One part-time fire inspector
- Three code enforcement officers
- Three clerks for each area who handle scheduling, paperwork, etc.
- Three Interns, in process of finding another to hire
- One part-time code enforcement and one part-time building department staffer
(One intern and the part time code enforcement and building department positions listed at the end are new positions that have been filled over the last few weeks, Ameigh said.)
Two interns are working full-time on the backlog of searches, but Ameigh estimates that they have received more than 400 Amnesty Applications and currently have about 20 expedited searches ordered and 100 standard searches ordered. Each search varies depending on a variety of factors, like whether the building is a simple single family home or more complicated apartment complex. A larger property search can take about two days and an average smaller property can take about three or four hours.
Steers said with a program like they are running they should have one code inspector for every 3,000 people, which would mean 10 inspectors, more than double what they have.
“The problem is revenues are shrinking and there are budget constraints,” Steers said. “I told the board this is what I need to tackle the problems here but the scope of the problem was not as obvious to everyone else.”
The money for the two new interns and part-time staff comes from a village proffer that was geared towards housing needs, Ameigh said.
The board recently adopted a resolution to spend $27,000 on a new software program to scan documents to make them available for the public to search. They hope to eventually have a full system where the public can go to a map and click on any property to see its information. That is a goal they hope to achieve in the future. For now, they hope the additional staff will help with the clerical load and some inspection work.
Did this answer your CO questions? What else do you need to know?