The East Hampton Town Board is poised to amend its code to require that an updated certificate of occupancy be obtained upon a change in a property’s ownership, following a public hearing last Thursday.
The importance of the amendment, Councilwoman Cate Rogers said during a discussion last month, became clear during weekly meetings of the Zoning Code Amendment Work Group, announced in May and charged with identifying changes needed to rein in a development boom that is characterized by ever-larger houses and lot coverage, and overclearing of vegetation.
“What we found,” she said at last Thursday’s hearing, “is there is an issue in the town with folks getting a building permit and then leaving it open in perpetuity.” This fails to acknowledge structures that may have been built but did not undergo required safety inspections by a building inspector and fire marshal, she said. Properties on which improvements, such as swimming pools and accessory structures, are made may also not be “equitably assessed,” said Joe Palermo, the town’s chief building inspector.
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 a transfer of ownership. In the town, meanwhile, many properties with open building permits have code violations, Mr. Palermo said. “They may be structures on the property or other items that were built without the benefit of a building permit. What we’d like to do is get everything, as much as we can, into compliance with the building and zoning codes.”
Clearing regulations are also regularly violated, he said. “I think it would be a great idea to have a mandatory C. of O. at the point of ownership transfer” to legalize structures and correct violations, he said. He added that when legalizing a structure that was built without a permit, the fee for a building permit is double that for a new project. This would increase revenues to the town, he said. Exceptions would be made when an updated certificate of occupancy has been obtained within six months of the date of transfer and where the transfer is made solely for estate planning purposes or ownership is transferred to a trust or similar entity and the beneficial ownership of a property remains unchanged.
The Building Department’s staff has been bolstered, Mr. Palermo said, and includes four certified inspectors in addition to himself, and a building permits examiner has just been hired. Those calling his department to schedule an inspection can expect it to happen in about one week, he said, and the department will be able to handle the increased workload that would result from the code amendment.
A certificate of occupancy is “an important safety measure for a property,” said Tina LaGarenne, the Planning Department’s assistant director, ensuring that a property is in accordance with town code and New York State’s fire code. Updating a certificate of occupancy at the point of sale allows “a clean start for these properties” that will streamline the review process, she said. Those who buy a property only to learn of multiple outstanding approvals that were not legalized with a certificate of occupancy experience both aggravation and expense. “Meanwhile, the prior owner had reaped the benefits” of improvements “for long periods while not complying with town regulations or paying their fair share of taxes under the code,” she said.
The proposed code amendment also “bolsters our commitment to protecting the environment” by identifying properties that are illegally clear-cut or overcleared. “It will be able to help us rectify the matter quicker and for a larger swath of properties than we currently capture,” she said.
Many banks require an updated certificate of occupancy as part of the mortgage process, Ms. LaGarenne said. “This measure is really only extending that requirement to other owners who may not need a mortgage, or that particular bank didn’t require this measure. So it closes a loophole for those who are trying to sidestep town regulations and are also getting to sidestep their property taxes.”
Jaine Mehring, an Amagansett resident who is a member of the Zoning Code Amendment Work Group but was speaking as a resident, described a realworld case study, a neighbor who she said has knowingly been out of compliance with the code “for quite some time” and the resulting environmental and quality-of-life degradation.
Ensuring an updated certificate of occupancy will bring multiple benefits, she said, such as safety; energy efficiency, as it pertains to the Home Energy Rating System, or HERS, index; protection of quality of life for neighbors; protection of natural resources, and fairness. “The people who abide accept that sometimes, or often, it means that when they add improvements and expansions and amenities to their lots, it means that their property taxes are reassessed. So it’s simply not fair for all our code-abiding citizens who take the process seriously to have to assume that ‘burden’ while others evade it all.”
Ms. Mehring further stressed that while a streamlined process of legalization of unpermitted and noncompliant changes is a worthy goal, “the default position of the town and the Building Department and board cannot be to just look at this as a way to facilitate legalizing unpermitted activities, because that only reinforces that mind-set ‘ask for forgiveness and not permission.’ ”
The hearing was closed, and the board is expected to vote on the proposed amendment at a future meeting.