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Proposal to increase fines for building code violations sparks debate

A proposal to increase fines and penalties for building code violations was met with mostly support during a public hearing last Wednesday, but the meeting turned into a shouting match between Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith and the leader of a new civic group.

The hearing dealt with housing standards and comes at a time when residents have expressed concern about illegal and overcrowded rental housing and its effect on school enrollment.

The most significant proposed change would allow the town to impose fines ranging from $2,500 to $10,000 per day on property owners who fail to comply with building codes. The proposal would treat each day’s continued violation as a separate additional incident. Jail terms of up to 15 days can also be imposed.

In addition, failure to comply with code would allow the town to revoke the certificate of occupancy from a building.

Stephanie Ranghelli, who heads a new civic group called Riverhead Town Association of Concerned Citizens, said she supports the proposal.

But she said she thinks the town’s code enforcement is lacking, and that this is affecting property values and aesthetics in the town.

“We need to concentrate on non-owner-occupied residences and how they are failing to be maintained,” she said. “Unless we are enforcing and really cracking down, the problem will not get addressed.”

“That’s what this code change does,” Ms. Jens-Smtih said. “It’s to enable us to go after the landlords that are renting apartments in overcrowded houses. It’s giving us another tool to go after them and hit them where it hurts — in the pocketbook — so it does not become profitable.”

Councilwoman Catherine Kent, a Democrat like Ms. Jens-Smith, said the town has beefed up code enforcement and has doubled the number of violations issued this year.

Ms. Kent said: “When you’ve got a landlord that’s got such egregious situations, I don’t think we need to work with them. I think we need to just take a hard line with them. And that’s what we’re doing here.”

“Having more people put in complaints is not going to help unless we have the staff to handle them,” Councilman Tim Hubbard said.

Several years ago, he said, the town had a deputy town attorney who’s job was solely to take people to justice court or state Supreme court on building violations.

“We don’t have that now,” he said.

Ms. Jens-Smith said that since 2011, long before she took office, the town attorney’s office stopped taking cases to state supreme court.

“Since then, there have been more and more homes that have gone into blight and overcrowding,” she said. “Since I came in, I addressed that aggressively” and increased code enforcement.

“No, you didn’t,” Ms. Ranghelli said. “I’m sorry. This is not a political campaign.”

Ms. Jens-Smith said the town added a code enforcement officer last year and she proposes to add another this year.

“We are 10 months into the supervisor’s budget and we still have two code enforcement officials in one car,” Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said.

Ms. Kent said Ms. Giglio is the board’s liaison to code enforcement.

Ms. Giglio said she is never invited to their meetings and the times are often changed.

“We can make it a $1 million fine,” Mr. Hubbard said. “If we can’t enforce it, what good is it? We need more officers, we need a full-time clerk and we need a paralegal in the town attorney’s office to handle Supreme Court cases.”

He said Ms. Jens-Smith’s proposed budget for 2020 “doesn’t include nearly enough.”

Ms. Jens-Smith said council members have the ability to make changes to the budget, but did not request additional code enforcement.

Ms. Giglio disputed that. She feels the proposal has inconsistencies with state building code and should not have gone to public hearing.

Yvette Aguiar, the Republican candidate for supervisor, said the town has not taken landlords to state Supreme Court, which carries heavier fines.

Ms. Kent said Erik Howard, the deputy town attorney in charge of taking landlords to court —and who is also Mr. Hubbard’s son-in-law — has not favored taking property owners to Supreme Court.

Town attorney Bob Kozakiewicz said the town has been having success in gaining entry to homes thanks to Spanish-speaking code enforcement officers. He said state Supreme Court isn’t always faster unless the judge grants a temporary restraining order or a preliminary injunction urging the illegal action to stop at the start of the case.

“This is obviously becoming political,” said Garret Moore of Riverhead. He said he supports “any kind of code enforcement.”

Janice Scherer of Baiting Hollow also supported the proposal.

“Overcrowding is a symptom of lack of affordability,” she said.

The Town Board closed the hearing, but left it open for written comments until Friday.

Photo caption: Stephanie Ranghelli addressed the Town Board last Wednesday. (Credit: Tim Gannon)

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