February 02, 2011
'I Know The People Are Angry'
East Hampton, grappling with a huge illegal housing problem and a Springs community that has reached the breaking point because of it, is about to dramatically ramp up its code enforcement efforts.
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Patrick Gunn, an assistant town attorney who is in charge of East Hampton's Code Enforcement under department head Betsy Bambrick, promised rapid change in the way the town handles complaints.
"I'm trying to get things done," said Gunn. "I've only been on the job since November. I feel it every day. I know the people are angry." The firestorm started when Councilwoman Theresa Quigley announced she was working on amending the existing accessory apartment legislation and considering granting amnesty to those who currently have illegal apartments in their houses. She said this week she still favors a holistic approach to the problem.
"Being punitive is like whacking your kids every day," Quigley said. "People are ignoring the underlying problem – why do we have so many people violating the law?"
Critics contend the reason for the overcrowding is obvious – it's because the town doesn't enforce the laws on the books. Officials in Southampton, where the code enforcement effort is constant, say the illegal residents find a place to live elsewhere.
And though Quigley and Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson have said they don't want to put people out on the streets, Southampton officials said that's not how the process works.
"We're about compliance, compliance, compliance," said David Betts, the head of Code Enforcement in Southampton. "The criminal justice system will take care of the problem."
Complaints can be lodged on the department's website or by phone. "Or they can call me," said Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne Holst. "We don't put people on the streets." Rather, she said, "We met with clergy and formed a task force. We go to the families and let them know the landlord is going to be shut down and they need to find alternate housing." Usually, Throne-Holst said, it works, though the County Department of Social Services has to be called "occasionally."
"We've had pretty good success getting people to comply," Betts said.
"We have managed to send the message: we are not complacent," Throne-Holst said. More important, she added, "We have sent a signal within that community: `you may find yourself on the streets.'"
East Hampton officials acknowledge that under disgraced former town supervisor Bill McGintee, the Code Enforcement department underachieved. "There was a lack of leadership," Gunn said. "I want to do the right thing. We can't get bogged down in the past."
"Code Enforcement in the past hasn't been managed effectively," said Wilkinson. In fact, McGintee appointed a friend, Dominic Schirrippa to run Code Enforcement. Insiders say he was often lax, and took full advantage of sick and personal time, leaving his department rudderless.
McGintee, when he did take an interest in code enforcement, sometimes directed officers to issue violations to people he had a personal gripe or grudge with. George Miller of Springs once filed a complaint against McGintee when the former supervisor was a lieutenant on the police force. After McGintee was elected supervisor a code enforcement officer visited Miller for years, issuing numerous violations because he had his work truck in a yard or because he put a flyer on a telephone pole. Yet the code enforcement officer routinely drove right by flagrant violators on his way to Miller's house. (The full story can be found in our May 9, 2007 issue, which is available at indyeeastend.com). Miller eventually had to hire an attorney and complain to the press.
Betts said his people work early morning, evenings, and on the weekends. In Southampton a car is allowed for each bedroom plus one for the house. All cars must be parked in a designated parking area – a driveway or garage – on the property. There is no overnight parking on the street allowed anywhere in town.
Gunn said only four cars are allowed per household in East Hampton, yet residents see score of yards with more. In the past complaints were often ignored, or they were followed up by an afternoon visit from a code enforcement officer – when all the cars were gone.
While many Springs residents believe the apartments exist because the town has looked the other way, Quigley and Wilkinson suspect the people living in East Hampton illegally are here to stay, and must have affordable housing to move into.
"It on us to create housing," Wilkinson said. "But a significant minority sees this as `illegals.' It's complicating the issue."
"My plan is to go after the landlords and put the pressure on them," Gunn said. "A lot are victims," he said of the illegal tenants.
Both Gunn and Betts have a system in place to bring complaints to a judge. Both said the local courts are quick to issue search warrants based on the observations made by enforcement officers. The difference is, in Southampton, the officers are on the job early, "counting people going out the door," as Betts put it.
Gunn vowed to "investigate every complaint."
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