Building Inspector and Zoning and Code Enforcement Officer Howie McGowan addressed concerns from Shandaken residents about violations in the town and laid out the process for enforcement going forward when the Shandaken Town Board held a special meeting on July 22. The meeting was requested by Big Indian and Oliverea residents at the board’s regular monthly meeting on July 1 due to the lack of action taken by the town regarding several instances of unsightly and in some cases, illegal junk in the hamlets. Supervisor Rob Stanley said at the start of the meeting that the town had been in contact with many of the landowners in questions in an effort to rectify the situation. He then asked for an update from McGowan on some of the more talked about properties including the Big Indian property owned by Chuck Perez.
“I spoke with Chuck Perez and he promises me he’s going to remove all the cars and the debris. He’s hiring someone to work with him,” said McGowan. He addressed other properties, saying, “I’m in the middle of preparing a ticket for the yard sale person on [Route] 28, and Robert Evans on Oliverea Road, he’s been served. I spoke with Ian Cruickshank this morning, and he’s taking on bids to put some siding on the building….he did put fencing around the back so no one can get inside and he did board up the front.”
When pressed by Barbara Hagstrom for a definitive timeline, McGowan explained how the enforcement process will work going forward. “The process is that if someone complains to me, I send a letter of violation. They have 30 days, if they don’t clean it up in 30 days, I send an order to remedy. An order to remedy, they have another 30 days. So, they automatically have 60 days,” he said. From there, McGowan can now issue an appearance ticket. McGowan only completed the training to issue such a ticket on June 10, and noted that he didn’t believe his predecessor had ever issued an appearance ticket.
To date, McGowan said he has served three appearance tickets, to Robert Evans, Richard Stokes, and Declan Feehan. He noted that he has to physically serve the appearance tickets himself, saying, “I’ve been told by other building inspectors to never go alone when you serve someone.”
Stanley explained that the board has arranged for a local police officer to accompany McGowan when he serves residents to ensure the process goes smoothly. Hagstrom was still not pleased, saying the laws have “no bite.” Larry Wolinsky, Shandaken’s attorney for zoning and planning matters, then explained the legal process in more detail. He began by saying that due process must be followed, but added that the town’s laws are similar to those of other municipalities. “It’s a question of vigorously enforcing the laws that are on the books,” he said. He said once in court, McGowan will be tasked with demonstrating that a violation has occurred, and then it will be the judge who decides what “relief” will be. Wolinsky said the judge would have several options, including fines, jail time, giving the resident more time to be in compliance, or none of those options. Residents can also assert their own defenses on the supposed violations, as well.
Additionally, the town has what Wolinsky referred to as “self-help remedies” such as an Unsafe Building Law. The law allows for the town to take action itself including demolition of a building if the property owner does not respond during a given period of notification. The town can then charge the expense for whatever work is done to that property owner.
While Shandaken has had “slow or uneducated enforcement” according to Wolinsky, he said, “This town board is aggressively moving forward to rectify that situation.”
Brian Powers asked Wolinsky if he believed the town’s laws to be adequate to deal with such situations. “I think you have adequate laws on the books now,” Wolinsky said, adding, “Your code is well set up, it’s just the need to move forward with rigorous enforcement.”
One resident asked how many unregistered cars are allowed on properties, to which McGowan answered that he did not believe any were allowed. He noted however, that he has not received any complaints due to unregistered cars. It was at this point that Chuck Perez spoke up, the first time since these most recent complaints were lodged against him.
“I know most of the people in the room. I stand before you. I know it’s a mess,” he said, adding, “There are unregistered vehicles on properties. Who do you think they call to pick them up?” He explained that he had removed 12 cars from his property over the last month, but that he added three more cars over the weekend due to accidents. When asked by board members, Perez stated he is one of two local towing options for police when accidents occur.
“I’m in business to make money,” he said, later adding, “I am in business, I never went out of business. I still have a registered repair shop.” He explained that when he picks up scrapped cars, there is usually a time period before he can junk them due to the lack of titles. Scrap prices are currently at a low, further complicating the issue for Perez.
Perez stated multiple times that he intended to rectify that situation, saying, “I stand before you with a promise that I am making my best effort to clean it up.” When one resident referred to his property as a junk yard, Perez pushed back, saying, “I don’t consider it a junk yard, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.”
John Michelotti spoke next, saying, “Chuck, we all love you, you do so much for our community, but this detracts from our community.” He added, “Your best efforts and intentions don’t always come to fruition.” Michelotti spoke of those willing to offer their help to Perez, which Perez acknowledged, saying around a dozen people have offered so far.
“I want to be a good neighbor, I’m making the promise to clean it up,” Perez said, “I want to consider you friends. I don’t hold any animosity, I don’t hold a grudge with anybody.”
Several residents were not satisfied with the answer and pressed town officials for specific timelines, which Perez refused to provide. McGowan noted that Perez has already had more than the 30 days that the order of remedy allows, and said, “I’m going to have to serve Chuck an appearance ticket and then he’s going to come in the court room and the judge will make an order.”
Residents also offered up several other properties and instances they believed to be violation of the code. Tina Rice asked the board if McGowan would be able to deal with so many cases, or whether some assistance may be necessary.
“We’ve discussed in the past about hiring a part time zoning person,” Stanley said, “We could look at that again for this year’s budget.”
Martie Gailes, who has worked hard on the beautification committee and been one of the most outspoken residents about Big Indian code violations, said she felt the meeting was “A little discouraging,” adding, “It feels a little like one step forward and two steps back.” Howard Widensky, a property and business owner in Shandaken, defended Perez. He stated neighbors had complained about his property saying, “I put a lot of money into it and the neighbors are still complaining.”
“He’ll fix it and you’ll still complain,” Widensky said, “What do you expect people to do, they have to make a living still. They’re paying more taxes than you are on commercial properties.”
Bernard Jacobs believed the town has everything it needs to solve the situation. “All of the tools that you need are on the books. They’re all available and they all can be used by your code enforcement officer, by your building department and by the board to affect the proper and appropriate changes that we want made in a timely fashion,” he said, “All you need to do it comply with what already exists, we don’t need any more laws on the books.”
At the end of the meeting, Planning Board member Art Christie spoke, noting he was involved in writing the code. He noted a similar situation in Woodstock, which resulted in 18 lawsuits brought against the town and pinned neighbor against neighbor. Explaining that code violations could likely be found on everyone’s property, he asked, “Do we want to do that or do we want to try to work it out, protect our community, respect each other’s position in this world, and live in the harmony of the town of Shandaken?” which received the only applause of the night.