More Encouraging News From City Hall

A Felicitous Encounter With A building Inspector

Today (Thursday, April 19, 2018) I visited the planning office to look at the folder for a property in my neighborhood.

The owners of this property received a variance to build a very large garage beside their home.  In their application they asserted that the new building was just for parking cars and storage on the second floor.  The plans for the project included nothing about water and sewer connections or a bathroom.  After the approval of the variance and without submitting revised plans, they dug a trench and ran water and sewer to the property for a bathroom.    When the neighbors, fearing that the purpose of the new structure would include some kind of living space, notified the city of the violation, the city issued a stop work order.  I am not exactly clear about the dates, but the owner then tried to get approval to put the bathroom on the second floor.  The planning office rejected this for obvious reasons.

I was provided the file but I found it very confusing.  I found the letter advising the owner that they could not put the bathroom on the second floor, but I could not find the revised architectural drawing showing the bathroom on the first floor (there was a separate drawing of a  bathroom with a description stating it was on the first floor but all the document had was a stamp as to when it had been received).

I asked a clerk if someone could help me understand the file.  A short while later someone came.  He was Patrick Cogan who is the Assistant  Building and Construction Inspector.

I should note that Steve Shaw, the head of that department has kind of disappeared.  His email is not longer valid.  When I inquired about where he was I was told he is “on leave.”

I cannot speak highly enough about my encounter with Mr. Cogan.  He was very patient with me.  He carefully walked me through the documents. 

One of my concerns was over the thorny issue of what constituted a violation of inhabiting a building not zoned for that purpose.  I could find nothing in the zoning ordinance that precluded someone putting a bed, couch etc. in such a structure.  My layman’s logic was that a violation could only occur if someone was actually caught staying there.  If this was the case, it would seem that enforcement would be a major problem.

Mr. Cogan explained to me that in addition to the zoning ordinances, there is something called the International Residential Code.  He produced an enormous book with the code.  The standards for residential housing were adopted by the state of New York and the city is subject to them.  He showed me the relevant section.  It defines what a habitable space is.  Since this is a garage, it  cannot contain a habitable space:

[RB] HABITABLE SPACE.  A space in a building for living, sleeping, eating or cooking.  Bathrooms, toilet rooms, closets, halls, storage or utility spaces and similar areas are not considered habitable spaces.

Mr. Cogan explained to me that if they were to find a bed and other amenities in the garage, they would consider it a violation of the building code.  It would not be necessary to catch someone actually living there.

We also discussed the issue of permeability.  The significance here is that there must be enough permeability to absorb rain that may fall on the lot so that it does not cause problems for neighbors.   The same property has been granted a number of variances and it appears that much of the ground on the lot will be covered.  As a lay person, it looks like there could be problems absorbing the rain that may fall on this lot.

Mr. Cogan went into a lengthy discussion about the complex questions associated with permeability.

The thing that most impressed me was that Mr. Cogan was obviously concerned about protecting neighbors in general who might be adversely impacted by construction.  I felt really good when I left the planning office.  I wish that everyone in the planning department reflected his attitude.  

Mayor Kelly Hires Lynn Bachner As Her Executive Assistant

After leaving the planning department, I ran into Lynn Bachner.  Ms. Bachner had been the   Deputy in the Finance Department  under both Commissioners Matt McCabe and Michele Madigan and will now serve the Mayor as Executive Assistant.

Ms. Bachner, who holds a law degree, was an outstanding deputy.  She was famous for the many hours she put in as deputy.  Her extensive research made her knowledge of city finances encyclopedic.  She was universally admired in city hall. 

I continue to be impressed by Mayor Kelly’s management skills. The city is fortunate to have Ms. Bachner back.

Having praised Ms. Bachner, I would note that Michael Sharp who is her successor in the Finance Office, is also a dedicated and very gifted administrator.

 

 

2 thoughts on “More Encouraging News From City Hall”

  1. Truth is John, that in 2018 a garage is no longer solely an early 19th century auto barn, which in their day had potbellied stoves to warm the air and a pot to piss in. Creating habitable space which does not contain an area for food preparation or bedrooms and is not a second living unit detached or otherwise (UR-1,2,3 vs 4) but may include heat (gas or electric) and water for a toilet, is not a violation of the zoning ordinance. Should it become a rental, no different than if your neighbor decided to add an apartment in his basement, attic or above his garage without permission, it would require approvals. Simply making the blind assumption that because the heated space includes a toilet, that the law will be broken ‘in the future’, is outside the realm of code enforcement. It was once a familiar response from neighbors and members of the ZBA to proclaim at a hearing, that plumbing would lead to illegalities later on. Like the movie “Minority Report” with Tom Cruise, the seers could predict future crime and the police would arrest those people before they committed an unlawful act. Unfortunately, that fantasy world does not exist, and our city has enforcement officers to investigate those residents who choose to surreptitiously modify their parcel with unpermitted construction. One doesn’t have to go too far to look up a parcel to determine its property classification and compare it to its present use. The city even has a record of all its buildings from the beginning of our city zoning. If the individual property files do not have compliant documents and approvals for alterations and additions, that property can be tagged as in violation or with “dirty hands”, preventing it from appearing before land boards in the future without first bringing the current use up to compliance. It could also prove problematic when there is a title change. Of course, that vigilance would be left to the neighbor to report such crimes to the city. A heated garage with plumbing is not a crime.

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  2. I should add to my preceding comment, that habitable space is also defined by dimensions in height. A garage with its ample height is often used as storage leaving the car at the curb. Doors have been fitted with screens to create the northern version of the Florida room for seasonal entertaining, yet as long as long as Aunt Millie or college Joe doesn’t move into the garage, it is not a violation. The real crimes are not those permitted uses, its the unregulated conversions that provide our Code officials with the lawful bounds of authority vested in them by the public.

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