Monday, April 30, 2007

Moratorium, Schmoratorium

Prospect Of Helter-Shelter Zoning, Enforcement Puts Damper On Hempstead Town's Building Moratorium

The cheers went up among residents of Hempstead Town when Supervisor Murray and the Town Board announced the passage of a six-month building moratorium on one and two-family homes.

The town attorney has been asked to quickly find solutions to residents' complaints that too many variances are approved allowing the building of oversized houses -- so-called McMansions -- on properties smaller than town code permits.

Aside from the fact that neither Town nor Town attorney ever moves "quickly," and a moratorium of "no more than six months" is hardly enough time to examine the problems, let alone to come up with practical solutions, there is the foreboding reality that, regardless of measures that may be codified by the Town Board, absent oversight by the Zoning Board and enforcement by the Building Department, nothing will ever change.

The Town of Hempstead is notorious for passing legislation that has either no legs, or is simply ignored, both by residents and Town officials.

Take, for instance, the illegal accessory apartment crisis -- one that first came to light in the 70s, and which the Town has promised to address ever since.

Just a few years ago, the Town, with enabling legislation from the State, enacted legislation designed (at least in theory) to weed out unlawful apartments in single-family homes.

There was the new "nail" provision as applies to service of the summons. Then there were amendments to the Building Code, allowing indica of illegality (i.e., multiple mailboxes or multiple utility meters) to serve as prima facie evidence of an illegal apartment.

Sounded good on paper. Truth is, without enforcement, all the new laws on the books did as little to stem the tide of illegal accessory apartments as the old laws, and today, the problem is worse, not better.

It has become customary at Hempstead Town Hall to maintain a Helter-Skelter approach to community issues. With respect to zoning, building code enforcement, and the housing crisis in Hempstead Town, call it Helter-Shelter!

A building moratorium with a view toward changing the law, and then applying (without variance) and enforcing it, is a good thing. A building moratorium just for the sake of having a six-month respite from zoning-gone-wild isn't worth the paper the legislation was written on.

"I am going to do everything in my power to ensure that overdevelopment does not turn the suburban dream into the urban nightmare," declared Hempstead Town Supervsor Kate Murray.

Kate, its already a nightmare in Hempstead Town. Time for the folks at Town Hall to wake up to that sad fact, and for residents to begin to take back their town!
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On April 26, 2004, The Community Alliance sent the following letter to Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray concerning the illegal accessory apartment crisis:

. . .We all agree that the proliferation of illegal rental apartments is one of the greatest threats, if not the foremost affront to our quality of life here in the Town of Hempstead. From their negative impact on essential services such as police, fire and sanitation, to the overcrowding of our classrooms, illegal rentals burden our limited resources as well as our wallets. In the case of basement/cellar apartments, life itself is often put at risk and, in fact, has been tragically and senselessly lost - by fire, by carbon monoxide poisoning, by our collective neglect as a community. It is with the overriding concern for the welfare of our neighbors, the stability of our neighborhoods and the value of our houses, that we have sought your guidance, your assistance and your stewardship as the Supervisor of America’s largest township.

At our meeting of April 14, we agreed, at least in principle, that specific measures, defined and significant, would be required in order to educate the public, discourage deviation from the law and to identify, prosecute and punish violators. Toward that end, we have touched upon certain salient directives to be viewed as “marching orders” in the battle to take back community from the evils of urban sprawl. These include, as our initial assault, the following actions to be taken by the Town of Hempstead:

(1) The initiation of a dedicated public relations campaign, including mailings to every Town resident, same to detail (a) the law concerning the rental of accessory apartments, (b) the obligations of homeowners under the law, and (c) the methods by which, the steps taken and measures to be undertaken by the Town regarding enforcement of the law in order to assure compliance;

(2) The enactment and/or amendment by the Town Board, and implementation and enforcement by the Town’s departments and agencies, of such Ordinances and regulations as shall give the existing law "teeth." This shall include, among other things, (a) the establishment of penalties and fines for violation that exceed by far the cost of dong business (i.e., a fine calculated as a multiple of the monthly rent as charged and/or advertised, then multiplied by a factor. So, for instance, a "landlord" charging $1000/month in rent would pay a base fine of, say, $16,000 - the equivalent of 12 months rent plus 1/3 of the annual rent); (b) requiring the homeowner to restore the premises to remove all violations; (c) docketing and recording of fines as money judgments which would be attachable as a lien against the property; (d) holding the homeowner responsible for all costs associated with relocating any tenant required to vacate the premises; and (e) making it illegal for a public utility to install and/or maintain more than one meter on a single family house (as designated in the Certificate of Occupancy);

(3) The Town shall undertake, by all means necessary and with all deliberate speed, appropriate measures to enforce both existing and newly created Code provisions relating to and governing the rental of accessory apartments, making public all evidence of action taken to enforce, to prosecute and, where fines are imposed, to collect.

In view of the import of this concern, and the time already lost in pursuing a reasonable and prudent plan to solve the illegal rental problem – which can now be measured in years, if not decades – we are asking that you respond to our call to action within thirty (30) days of the date of this letter, presenting a realistic game plan, subject to a defined timeline, so that, together, we can engage and defeat this notorious foe of our suburban way of life.

And what has been the response from Hempstead Town Hall? A single mailing, by way of Murraygram, announcing a Quality of Life "Initiative," and, frankly, not much else.

Call us skeptics or realists, but between us residents of Hempstead Town, we wouldn't expect too much in the way of protecting the suburban dream to come out of the building moratorium of 2007.

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