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Letter: Building Department Nightmare

(Editor’s Note: This cautionary tale was written to help others caught in a similar situation. Author Liu said, “I am taking to heart the advice you mentioned in your recent editorial ‘Change Begins with You.’ Instead of waiting for someone else to do it, I’ll start the change.”)

Last year, with our youngest in college, my husband and I decided to start renovating our house. We’ve been living in the same house for almost 20 years now. Things were getting worn out. One of the first things we did was to replace our old central a/c unit, which was making a lot of noise and using a lot of Freon. We replaced it with a more energy efficient, quieter model. We were elated when our monthly utility bill went down and we were going green.

Everything was fine until one day, in early February of this year, an inspector from the building department knocked on my door. He said I did not have a permit for my a/c unit and proceed to write me a ticket. I was shocked. I told the inspector that I had replaced the existing unit, that it was not new, and that all the wiring and ductwork was already in place. It didn’t matter; apparently, even a replacement a/c unit required a permit. Who knew? When we were selecting a contractor for the job, no one mentioned needing a permit, including a company from Nassau County. The main concern that many people have when they hire contractors is that they may disappear after you hand over your money. In our case, everything was done to our complete satisfaction – except that we didn’t file for a permit that we didn’t know about.

On the same ticket, the inspector also cited me for having my gutters attached to a French drain. When we bought our house, the gutters were already connected this way. If anything needs to be changed, we should’ve been warned, rather than getting a ticket for it. We would’ve gladly changed anything that was deemed necessary.

The ticket stated that I was to appear in court on March 9 to face these two charges. It also stated that if I failed to appear in court “…a warrant may be issued for my arrest and I may be charged with a further violation of the law which upon conviction may subject me to a fine and/or imprisonment.” Bit overkill, I thought. Couldn’t the inspector just tell me to get a permit? The last word worried me – imprisonment. Since my husband did not want to see me imprisoned, he took a day off to go to court with me.

On the court date, I was instructed to talk to one of the town attorneys who advised me about my charges and my fines. The fine for not getting a permit for the a/c unit ranged from $0 - $1,000. My fine was set at $500. The fine for not disconnecting the gutters ranged from $50 - $1,000. My fine was set at $100. There were other people waiting on line, so I had little time to question or argue with the attorney.

Afterwards, I went to the courtroom to wait for the judge. When the court clerk called my name, I stood before the judge and was charged as stated and pleaded “Not Guilty” as advised by the town lawyer. All the while, I was dumbfounded that I was in a courtroom at all! I was told to go back to court again on April 20 to pay the fines and to have the violations cleared by then.

The fines were steep, but that won’t be all. The fee for my HVAC permit application (three copies, each must be notarized) was $496 and I must also get one of seven town-approved electrical inspectors to come to my house ($115) – a whopping grand total of $1,111 just for my a/c unit.

And still that’s wasn’t enough. After all the trouble with the application and paying the hefty fees, I got an “Omission Letter” from the building department stating that now the location of my a/c unit may not be right. The letter stated that: “Please be aware that 70-100.2H requires a minimum of 5’ from this unit to the property line.” What on earth was 70-100.2H? The letter included yet another warning. If I didn’t respond within 120 days, my “application and the file will be destroyed.” When I read this, I just wanted to scream: “Take my house already!”

It was very frustrating dealing with the building department because I had no one who could guide me. From the very beginning, I had a hard time finding anyone to help me with the permit questions. I went to the building department in town to find that I can only get applications and answers to general questions at the front desk. What I needed was someone to help me through the permit process. That person turned out to be Lesley Fogarty. When I told Lesley about my problems (and my pending court date), she quickly helped me through the bureaucratic process. I can’t thank her enough for saving my sanity. I was so happy when I finally got my a/c permit approval, I almost cried! It really shouldn’t be this stressful to get a permit – really.

It’s never easy when dealing with the government agencies, but I also found an ally in Councilwoman Anna Kaplan’s office. Anna and her assistant, Sabereh Samet, worked on my behalf before my second court date. I am very grateful for their help because I was absolutely lost in the building department bureaucracy. It was such a relief to have someone in the government I could turn to.

My second court date was on April 20. Like the first court date, I spoke to the town attorney first who informed me to pay the a/c fine, and then said that the town has dismissed the second charge. That was a pleasant surprise. Afterwards, as before, I stood before the judge, but this time I pleaded “Guilty” and paid my fine. When I walked out of the court building, I gave a loud sigh of relief. What a nightmare.

I understand the importance of the building department’s function. I am in no way criticizing their role in the safety of the residents, but there should be a better way to communicate. If I’m driving down a street and the sign reads: “Speed Limit: 35 mph” and I was driving at 40 mph, if the cop stopped me, at least I know it’s because I drove past the speed limit. With the building department, the violation codes come out of nowhere. This is the area that needs to be addressed.

I read in the recent Manhasset Press [April 19] that there will be a building department conference on April 30 in Port Washington. Timing couldn’t be better. The building department needs to do a better job of informing residents about the permit requirements. Information should be readily available and easily understood in the town’s website so that the residents can research any possible projects for their house (permit requirements, fees, time required, etc, etc). There should be transparency, simplicity, and availability for the staff members to answer questions. Why doesn’t the building department have evening hours and/or weekend hours for the working folks? Also, why not refund any permit fee(s) that aren’t approved? After all, if the resident didn’t get the permit they had applied for, they should get their money back.

I never dreamed that replacing my old central a/c would land me in front of a judge or cause such a nightmare. It was an eye-opening experience that an ordinary citizen could be taken to court without prior warning. It’s an experience I will never forget.

Linda Liu