Two news items about property regulations made a notable juxtaposition this week. After photos in The New York Post forced their hand, East Hampton Town officials came down on a Montauk homeowner who completed interior renovations without a building permit. And, at the town board, a common-sense proposal to review a property's paperwork to make sure everything is in order at the time of sale was considered. Both of these suggest that the town's regulatory apparatus is not able to keep up with the staggering pace of development underway.
In the first example, the owner of a unit at the Montauk Shores Condominium, known as the Trailer Park, at Ditch Plain, was told to remove four beds improperly put in the attic and to take down a staircase he had built to access them. That the owner was able to get so far implicates the condominium board, as well as the East Hampton Town Building Department. Both should have noticed that major work was happening at the unit and taken steps to intervene before the $4.4 million listing for the unit went online.
Even so, it may be that the owner could get away with it. He was given the opportunity to submit plans to the Building Department for the changes he had already made. There was no mention of heavy fines or any other steps that would dissuade others from doing the same. Unfortunately, build first, ask for permission later has become standard operating procedure in East Hampton.
In the bigger picture, the town board's likely requiring updated certificates of occupancy when properties change hands would put it in line with surrounding municipalities. East Hampton Village as well as the Villages of Sag Harbor, Southampton, Quogue, West Hampton Dunes, and Westhampton Beach all require an updated certificate of occupancy upon transfer of ownership. This is an overdue move for two reasons: safety and tax fairness.
As one town official put it during a hearing this week, owners who completed unapproved renovations reap the benefits, while not paying their fair share in property taxes. A C. of O. inspection might have caught a project like the Montauk attic bedroom, had it slipped through the cracks. To an extent, East Hampton Town has relied on banks' mortgage requirements as its main line of defense against illegal building or clearing of natural vegetation. Outsourcing land-use regulation to private industry also provides a loophole for home buyers who do not need bank financing. This could mean that some very high-end properties remain underassessed, while other buyers have to pay more of the tax load than they should. One example involves a hypothetical swimming pool installed without permits, which would boost the rental or sale price of a house, but not contribute to the incremental growth in infrastructure and quality of life costs. Illegal third floors or attic bedrooms also add to the overall burden in the town.
Excessive growth is right up there with sea level rise in the competition for Enemy Number One in East Hampton. Any step that officials can take to rein in the cheaters is welcome.