Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith's housing code revision was rejected in her absence by a 2-1 vote of the town board Nov. 6. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith’s proposal to tighten housing code standards and implement steep increases in fines for code violations was rejected by the town board Wednesday in a 2-1 vote.

Councilwoman Catherine Kent cast the only vote in support of the measure, with Councilwoman Jodi Giglio and Councilman Tim Hubbard opposed.

Jens-Smith and Councilman James Wooten were both absent from the Nov. 6 meeting.

Jens-Smith proposed the revisions last month after the town came under fire by community members who blamed “lax” code enforcement for overcrowded housing and overcrowded classrooms. The issue became a flash point in the local election this fall after the school district proposed a $100 million capital expansion plan to accommodate rising student enrollment.

The supervisor said at the time her proposal would make the town code consistent with state property maintenance code requirements and make it possible to punish “slumlords” with fines that are meaningful. Currently, violations of the town’s housing code are punishable by a fine of not more than $250. Jens-Smith’s proposal would have increased penalties to a minimum of $2,500 and a maximum of $10,000 per violation.

Giglio opposed even holding a hearing on the proposal. Voting against scheduling the hearing, she complained that the proposal did not go through proper channels.

“I thought this should have gone through the code revision committee and I thought the town attorney that handles code violations for overcrowding and rentals should have been included in the drafting of this document,” Giglio said Oct. 2.

The revisions were drafted at the request of the supervisor by deputy town attorney Anne Marie Prudenti, with the knowledge of town attorney Robert Kozakiewicz.

Giglio reiterated that objection Wednesday. She said the deputy town attorney who handles code enforcement actions, Erik Howard, should have been involved in drafting the revisions, as well as the town’s code enforcement officers — “instead of it being drafted in the middle of the night and asking them to discuss it less than four business hours later when they didn’t even have a chance to review it,” Giglio said. “They got the draft a 3 p.m. on Wednesday (Oct. 2) and were asked to come to meet with us at 10 a.m. on Thursday (Oct. 3).”

The proposed code revision was the subject of a very contentious public hearing Oct. 16.

During a discussion after the vote was taken Wednesday, Hubbard raised an objection that hadn’t been previously aired publicly. He said the proposed code changes were not consistent with the state property maintenance code and thus the town would have to petition the state to approve them before the changes could take effect.

“If it goes to the state you’re talking a year,” Hubbard said.

Kent, who as deputy supervisor was presiding over the meeting in Jens-Smith’s absence, had not heard that objection before. She turned to the town attorney. “Bob, is that true?” she asked.

“New York State Executive Law Article 18 does indicate that any time a municipality is looking to do anything that’s inconsistent or in conflict with the uniform code they are required to seek permission,” Kozakiewicz said.
“It would impair our ability to move forward if it’s more stringent than the state code.”

No one articulated specifics about how the proposed changes would make the town code inconsistent with the state code.

“I do not agree with the inconsistencies in the code as far as the square footage for the number of people that can occupy,” Giglio said.

“I think that we should eliminate Chapter 217, which was adopted in the 60s, and instead of trying to tweak it and make it better, I think we should just adopt the property and building maintenance code for New York State,” Giglio said, “and take other recommendations that were made by our code enforcement officers into consideration and go back out to public hearing before adopting something haphazardly.”

Both Giglio and Hubbard said they do support higher fines.

Kent was dismayed by the outcome of the vote.

“There have been inconsistencies [between the town and state codes] for 10 years,” she said. The revision would actually eliminate one inconsistency, the minimum size of bedrooms, that directly affects enforcement against overcrowded dwellings. The revision would have the town code simply adopt the state code provision.

“Our code would now be stronger,” Kent said.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.