July 26, 2006

Crackdown On Code Enforcement Continues New Task Force Established

The Southampton Town Board is taking another step to demonstrate its dead-serious commitment to enhanced code enforcement.

Southampton Town Councilman Chris Nuzzi announced at last Friday's Town Board work session that he and Town Supervisor Skip Heaney have co-sponsored a resolution establishing a Housing and Quality of Life Task Force.

As this publication went to press, a vote on the resolution was expected at yesterday's town board meeting.

According to Nuzzi, the task force has been created as a result of the spike in housing and quality-of-life complaints in town.

And, said Heaney, the task force will be used as a platform for introducing year-round rental legislation for the Town of Southampton later this year.

The aim of the task force, said Nuzzi, is to "draw together various departments" with the common goal of working together to respond to and prosecute housing and quality of life violations in a more expeditious manner, and to foster communication between all town departments involved in addressing housing and quality of life complaints.

The new task force will be comprised of representatives from departments including the town attorney's office, police, public safety, land management divisions of building and zoning and environment, general services, town board liaisons for public safety, Heaney or his designee, and a representative from the town justice court.

Members will attend monthly meetings to share ideas and information regarding housing and quality of life complaints. In addition, the task force will act in an advisory capacity to the town board, recommending action and town code amendments in the areas of housing and quality of life issues that negatively impact residents.

Code enforcement is a critical issue in Southampton Town, one that Nuzzi has worked actively to spotlight. Last month, Southampton Town officials served a temporary restraining order to Berta Aquino-Perez, the owner of a Hampton Bays house that was home to 17 people, including children and an infant, who were living in horrific conditions.

For Aquino-Perez and five of her tenants at 57 Peconic Road, the restraining order was an evacuation notice compelling them not to occupy the property pending a hearing in State Supreme Court, after which the Southampton Town Attorney's office sought a permanent injunction until Aquino-Perez corrects the plethora of code violations in her basement and garage living spaces and obtains approvals for the second story of her home. Aquino-Perez was also slapped with an appearance ticket that charged her with 45 town and New York State Uniform Fire Prevention Building Code violations.

On May 17, following up on complaints of unsafe and illegal living conditions, Southampton Town Police, the fire marshal's office, code enforcement officers and building department officials executed a search of the Hampton Bays home.

Once inside, conditions were reportedly horrifying: Heaney said 17 people — three children, one infant, eight men and four women — were found to be living in unsafe and illegal conditions. Eleven bedrooms had been created in a home that had approval for just one conventional bedroom.

Nuzzi said the town's actions demonstrated the board's aggressive approach to the health and safety and quality of life violations. Nuzzi has been working hard on initiatives geared toward reorganization within town government to better address code enforcement needs; the new task force is tangible evidence of the town board's take-charge stance toward the problems.

Southampton Town is not alone in its quest: Last month, East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill McGintee vowed zero tolerance for overcrowded and illegal housing, and announced that he would turn housing code violators over to the IRS for investigation.

Recently, McGintee also organized an East Hampton task force comprised of representatives from police, building, town attorney, harbormaster, fire marshal and code enforcement departments to tackle code enforcement issues.

In the weeks since, a series of violators have been slapped with warrants, and McGintee vowed to keep up the fight. Although East Hampton will seek voluntary compliance before pursuing a more drastic path, other measures suggested by McGintee for addressing code violations include forwarding addresses of offenders to the town assessor for potential reassessment as a multifamily home, adding two new code enforcement officers to the department and a housing telephone hotline.

And on the North Fork, in Southold, Town Supervisor Scott Russell has been meeting regularly with a committee of representatives from nearly every department in town hall to address the towns' current code enforcement efforts. "Or, should I say, lack of efforts," said Russell, who said issues include construction without building permits to concerns over illegal housing.

Russell said he will soon be releasing a series of proposals outlined by his working group to address the issues. "Why have any rules at all if we are not serious about enforcing them?"

Nuzzi agreed: "Our commitment is not only to protect the occupants who may be living in these dangerous conditions, but also to protect the quality of life enjoyed by the residents of the surrounding neighborhood."

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