January 26, 2011
Complaints Quell, Brainstorming Begins
Adopt stiffer fines, change the town code to make it easier for officials to gain access to suspect homes, and set up a meeting with code enforcement personnel that allows them to articulate their process. Those are measures members of the Springs community, clamoring for swift action to solve the problem of illegal overcrowded homes in the hamlet, believe could be enacted immediately.
Twice this week members of the East Hampton Town Board were confronted by residents of the hamlet – at last Thursday night's town board meeting and at Monday night's meeting of the Springs Citizens Advisory Committee.
The appearance of contingents of community members demanding answers to the problem has become a near-weekly event, and the numbers continue to swell. Monday night's gathering saw about 40 audience members while last Thursday night town hall was packed to standing room only status. (Some people were there to discuss the MTK concert, see elsewhere in this edition for coverage of the interchanges.)
Illegally overcrowded single-family residences are nothing new to East Hampton Town – the problem stretches back decades. Two events at the end of last year spurred the recent demand for relief: a sudden budget-busting surge in Springs School's already large enrollment, and Councilwoman Theresa Quigley's release of a draft plan to amend the town's accessory apartment legislation. Former Town Councilwoman Deb Foster has been accused of inflaming the situation with dire predictions of multifamily houses on every street in Springs, should Quigley's law be adopted as written. Quigley has just as often said her proposal is nothing but a draft to prompt discussion.
As the debate's waged on for weeks, community members detailed a laundry list of negative effects the town's failure to adequately address the issue of illegally overcrowded dwellings wrought. They spoke of how Springs School is bursting at the seams, its educational programs and even the physical building itself suffering from overcrowding. They spoke of decreased property values, as neighborhoods deteriorate into rural slums. They spoke of the threat to public safety and the environment dozens of people crammed into a single house creates. They spoke of the expense, in town and school services, the situation prompts. Repeated complaints were impassioned, with residents angered at what looked to be municipal inertia.
On Monday night, however, the tenor of discussion turned from complaints to brainstorming remedies. The three measures listed above were supported by several speakers. Jerry Kane told Quigley and Supervisor Bill Wilkinson to hike the fines and "charge what you want until it works." Quigley noted her legislation increases fines tenfold.
Residents have repeatedly asked to meet with code enforcement officials. On Monday night, it was agreed they would attend next month's SCAC meeting. In the meantime, Quigley said, newly appointed department heads have been working "feverishly" to compile statistics relating to enforcement of existing cases. The lack of a proper internal reporting system has made deriving stats difficult. Still, said Quigley, "We're really taking this on. We understand how broken town government was."
There were some figures the councilwoman was able to report, and they didn't go over well. Stating she still isn't certain overcrowded houses are the reason for the school district's enrollment spike, the councilwoman related data she received from the district superintendent. She'd asked how many houses send kids to Springs School, learning that the 968 enrollees come from 764 houses; meaning fewer than two children per house. Audience members didn't appear to believe the figures, with one calling out that Quigley was merely using the numbers to make her point. The councilwoman insisted she didn't have a point to make; she's still researching and gathering information. "As we progress, we will dissect these things," the supervisor vowed. Nothing will be rushed, he promised.
Some audience members Monday night favored the idea of exempting Springs entirely from the accessory apartment legislation. Both Wilkinson and Quigley said that if it can be accomplished legally and the majority of the community wants that, it could be considered.
The idea of evicting tenants from illegally crowded homes has been a frequently discussed facet of the complex problem. At the SCAC meeting John Connor, a landlord, spoke of how difficult it is to remove unwanted tenants from a home, while Lynn Scanlon reported on a visit to town justice court. She said she was pleased with the hard line Judge Cathy Cahill seemed to take, but related that during the proceedings she witnessed it was noted that situations persisted for six months to a year while cases were adjudicated.
On Thursday night, Anne Jacobs disparaged the idea of concern for the tenants and where they will go if evicted. She wondered, ff she can't pay her mortgage, would the town step in to help? Jacobs was not alone in expressing a lack of sympathy for people who, according to another speaker are "beating the law."
Patrick Brabant suggested the town consider a strategy considered by Nassau County that involved treating overcrowded multifamily homes as commercial ventures and assessing them accordingly. David Buda recommended publicizing the names of violators.
Some speakers Thursday night urged the town to continue working on accessory apartment legislation. Bill Chaleff and Michael O'Neill both said it was high time the town tried to address the need for affordable units. Wilkinson had to interrupt to quell shouts of "no!" from the audience.
At the conclusion of last Thursday night's testimony, the supervisor was emphatic. Reminding that in its first year his administration took a comprehensive and "exacting knife" to solving East Hampton's financial crisis, he promised to use the same approach to finding housing solutions. Assuring that there will be no rush to implement any new scheme, the supervisor said the town will review the issue "like it's never been reviewed before.
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