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Property owners in Riverhead Town would be required to obtain an updated certificate of occupancy before selling or transferring their property, under a code revision proposed by Councilwoman Jodi Giglio.

The idea is for the town to be able to gain access to the homes to perform the inspection that would be required before an updated certificate of occupancy can be issued, according to Giglio.

“We have a tremendous problem with overcrowding in the school district and overcrowded house complaints coming into code enforcement,” Giglio said during yesterday’s work session. “And I think that changes are being made to people’s houses that the town is not aware of. So for the safety of the residents, and the people involved, I think it’s a small price to pay,” she said.

The board is expected to schedule a Nov. 4 public hearing on the proposed code revision. (See text)

While the change would require the building department to conduct inspections before updated C.O.s can be issued, Giglio said it should not pose much of a problem for the building department’s current staff levels.

The councilwoman said the Village of Westhampton Beach already has the same requirement in place. She spoke to the village’s building and zoning administrator, Brad Hammond, who was Riverhead Town’s chief building inspector until April 2019.

“I know that it’s going to be a little more involved for the building department as far as when people apply for updated certificates of occupancy,” Giglio said, “but from what Brad was telling me, is that he just, you know, does it in his tour and on his route to other inspections and stops in and makes sure that everything’s the same,” she said. “If it’s not, you’re not getting an updated certificate of occupancy, and then they start the building permit process to correct any changes that were made.”

The Village of Westhampton Beach requires the homeowner to complete an application, pay a $100 fee, provide an updated original survey of the premises and a smoke alarm and carbon monoxide detector affidavit, according to the Village of Westhampton Beach website. All open building permits must be finalized before an updated C.O. will be issued.

Giglio said she didn’t think the code change would affect that many people. “I mean, how often are people in the town of Riverhead selling their houses? You know, most of the houses that are for sale are owned by — a lot of them are owned by one person or one entity. And those are the ones that are selling because the town issued code violations — a lot of them are anyway,” she said.

According to data provided by Suffolk Research Service, there were about 40 property transfers in the Town of Riverhead in July and August and 22 from Sept. 1-15. All but a handful were classified as single family homes.

Giglio said real estate brokers would advise sellers of the requirement and that would help prevent surprises that could delay closings.

“This is a big deal,” said Riverhead-based permit expediter Victor Prusinowski, a former Riverhead councilman.

“So many C.O.s date back 20, 30 years or more. And many more homes don’t have a C.O. at all, because they were built before the town required them,” Prusinowski said.

Riverhead did not adopt a zoning ordinance until May 1959 — it was, in fact, the last town in Suffolk County to adopt a zoning ordinance — so any homes built prior to 1959 would not have any certificate of occupancy. Owners of homes built before them are entitled to a certificate of pre-existing use from the building department.

Building and planning administrator Jefferson Murphree told the town board yesterday that a lot of the older certificates of occupancy did not contain a lot of details about the structures on premises.

No one at the meeting mentioned the issue of pre-1959 buildings with no certificates of occupancy.

The letters of pre-existing use are often quite vague, Prusinowski said.

“How do you issue a new, updated certificate of occupancy for a house where the original C.O. is maybe 30 or 40 years old? The building and fire codes have changed many times since then,” he said. “A home built in 1980 doesn’t meet the current New York State building code.”

By definition, a “certificate of occupancy is a document issued by a local government agency or building department certifying a building’s compliance with applicable building codes and other laws, and indicating it to be in a condition suitable for occupancy,” according to West’s Encyclopedia of American Law (second edition, 2008).

Riverhead attorney Mary Hartill, who practices real estate law and is also a licensed real estate broker, said the proposed code change would “add another level of government intrusion” and additional cost.

“And what if it fails the inspection?” she asked. “Is the Town of Riverhead equipped to immediately go out and do another inspection or is the seller going to lose the sale because the town is backlogged?”

Hartill said implementing this requirement “is going to make all the surrounding towns that don’t have this requirement more desirable” for home buyers.

“If people have to wait say 30 days to get an updated C.O. they’re going to go to Brookhaven,” Hartill said.

“It’s going to kill the Riverhead real estate market or stall it,” she said.

“Because there are a few people making additions to homes without proper permits — This is not the way to solve that problem,” Hartill said. “They should look for other ways to solve that problem. This is not a move in the right direction.”

Prusinowski agreed. “This is not the time to do anything that will impact people’s financial condition as we come out of this lockdown,” he said. “There’s lots of damage out there.”

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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.