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Friday, July 10, 2009

Let's shed some light on our ongoing developments

The Village's Environmental Conservation Commission has come up with a novel way to legally gain access to sites under development: make one of them an acting building inspector. It's an idea that reminds me of Terry Dungan's brief stint as acting meter maid parking enforcement officer, with one big difference: it would work.

I think that most of what Terry does comes from good intentions, but suffers from a classic case of don'tknowhowtoshowmyworkitis, which is all too common among teachers. In fact, it's the teacher's "shoemaker's children" syndrome.

But here's the rationale behind the EnCC request: Village Code provides a section about acting building inspectors, which reads:

§ 86-4. Acting Building Inspector.

In the absence of the Building Inspector, or in the case of his inability to act for any reason, the Mayor shall have the power, with the consent of the Board of Trustees to designate a person to act on his behalf and to exercise all of the powers conferred upon him by this chapter.
The rationale behind appointing an EnCC member is thus: the Village is in need of a Building Inspector II, for which there is budgeted $44,986.50. At least three people have been interviewed, and none have been hired. By appointing a member of the EnCC to act as a building inspector, the Village would be able to take a significant chunk of work away from the understaffed building department, allowing Kathy Moniz to focus on other equally important areas. The EnCC already has an interest in enforcing all of the requirements agreed to in the site plan by the developer, and building inspector status would require that individual to do what members of the EnCC are rarely allowed to do: inspect active construction sites for violations.

EnCC members have been granted only very limited access to these types of sites, because there isn't any way to legally require landowners or developers to agree to inspections to make sure that all the mitigations which were agreed to are also adhered to. The building inspector does get to inspect these sites.

The code provides for such an appointment in the case of the building inspector's "inability to act for any reason," and I can see two very obvious reasons why one of the two building inspectors in the Village's budget may not be able to act. For one of them, he or she has not yet been hired, and so is unable to act. For the other, Kathy Moniz, she's trying to do the job of two people. She's absolutely going to have to make very hard decisions about priortizing her work. She can never, ever be two places at once. Through no fault of her own, I am certain that there are times when Kathy Moniz is simply unable to act.

Removing site inspections from Kathy's plate would permit her to focus on things that are more likely to imperil people's lives, like overcrowded rentals and gas leaks in restaurants. I like the idea of her being able to do more of that stuff, if it comes up. Whichever EnCC member is selected and trained for the position, they would already start out with amply knowledge about the environmental aspects of site development. It's obvious that the budgeted $44,986.50 isn't enough to attract the right candidate, and that number isn't going to change soon. Set aside that money to sweeten the pot when you post the job next year, and let a dedicated EnCC member do what he or she wants to do anyway in the meantime.

If anyone knows when this is going to be on the agenda for the Village Board, I would definitely speak at the public hearing in support of this idea, if it comes to that.

14 comments:

Martin McPhillips said...

What you propose is a bad faith subterfuge, where an official administrative position would be used to serve the interests of a separate advisory body. It's not necessarily a conflict of interest (such as a building inspector who inspected his own building projects), but it is a conflation of responsibilities. Should a building inspector serve on the environmental commission, for instance? Or the police chief on the police commission?

kt tobin flusser said...

That reminds me of another great idea - in many communities, the planning board is comprised of representatives of other commissions - such as historical, environmental, even bike-ped. I think that is an excellent model.

Terence said...

Martin,

The police chief shouldn't serve on the police commission because the commission's job is to look over his shoulder. The building inspector could be on the environmental commission, because that commission's job informs the functions performed by the building inspector. In fact, I imagine that EnCC participation would increase any building inspector's effectiveness, since they are specialists in one of the many areas a building inspector must be at least passingly familiar with. I liken it to a building inspector being fire chief - no doubt that confluence would only make the inspector more able to identify dangerous situations.

As you are wise to point out, some confluences are problematic, but I wouldn't rush to paint all of them with the same broad brush. You risk trying to draw comparisons between apples and wetlands.

Martin McPhillips said...

Well, you've defended the building inspector being a member of the environmental commission on the grounds that the inspector would be better informed, but your proposal was to make a member of the environmental commission the building inspector for the specific purpose of being the commission's agent.

And your proposal shows why the building inspector should not, in fact, be a member of the environmental commission. The commission advises on policy while the inspector administers state and local codes and should not be advising himself from a separate intra-governmental entity on how that should be done.

That the environmental commission does not have direct oversight over the building inspector, the way the police commission oversees the police chief, doesn't make for a serious difference. The environmental commission still has a particular interest, as your proposal demonstrates, in how the inspector's work is done and the inspector's independence and discretion is called into question if he is seen as the agent for a particular commission.

kt tobin flusser said...

(Posted by kt - who btw is an EnCC commissioner - on behalf of Butch who was having trouble posting.)

GAWD! Shades of J. Edgar Hoover's tactics. HORRIBLE idea. First of all, the EnCC has an agenda that many folks disagree with. They are too narrow visioned to bring an open eye to developments. This town/village needs a broader tax base and many of the EnCC members don't give a hoot about anything but the environment to the detriment of other progress.

PLEASE, no under cover narcs in tree-hugger clothing.

This is 2009 and we need tax relief not tax help poison pills. Putting an EnCC members as an "Inspector" sends chills down my spine! What is next?? Gestapo interrogations of builders?

Stop the madness

Butch Dener

Jason West said...

This idea makes me uncomfortable. Building Inspectors need to have a working knowledge of New York State Building and Housing Codes, blueprint and plat reading, etc.

It's a specialized set of skills and the need for those skills is why those who want the job have to take and pass a test in order to hold the position.

People who are hired (even just provisionally) are people from Code Enforcement and construction backgrounds whose prior careers give them a working knowledge of the job requirements.

Appointing someone Acting Building Inspector means they would have the legal authority (and the legal responsibility to) perform all functions of the Building Inpsector's job, not just site visits. And would an EnCC member know what they were doing on a site visit? Not just is a building too close to a wetland, but would they be able to tell whether struts and support beams are the right size? Or whether the footings and concerete pours are big enough?

Any Acting Building Inspector should have a background that gives the public reasonable assurance that they know what they're doing, and to know what they're looking at when they visit a construction site.

This is a complicated, shaky solution to a problem, and I'm not exactly sure what the problem is.

Does the EnCC claim that the Building Inspector is giving the OK to construction that is not up to code, or is no approved by the Planning Board? If so, and if they can prove that, then that is grounds for firing the current Building Inspector.

If the Building Inspector is, in fact, doing their job, and is holding builders to the codes and approvals, then why do we need an Acting Building Inspector?

If the EnCC has evidence that the Building Inspector is not holding builders to the law, then instead of trying to become Building Inpsectors, they should work to get the current Building Inspector replaced with someone who will make sure that what gets built is what was approved.

If, however, the EnCC does not like the conditions under which the Planning Board is granting approvals, they should recruit capable, serious candidates to apply for the several vacancies on the Planning Board. They should also be researching, drafting, proposing and arm-twisting for approvals of new zoning reforms and stricter, clearer local SEQRA procedures. The Planning Board must grant approvals if what the builder wants is within the scope of the law. If you don't like what gets approved, change the laws.

If the Building Inspector is not doing their job, yet the Mayor and Village Board refuse to replace them, or if the the Mayor and Village Board refuse to appoint environmental PLanning Board members, or refuse to support and pass necessary zoning reforms, then the EnCC should recruit capable, serious candidates to replace the current Village Board.

Not knowing the particulars of what brought this idea forward, it's hard to say, but it seems to me that there are other effective avenues to achieve the EnCC's goals without entangling them with creating a new, legally dubious acting building inspector position.

Jason West

kt tobin flusser said...

short answer to jason - the impetus for this proposal was the EnCC's (and other interested commissions, e.g. Historic Commission, etc) inability make site visits after FEISs are approved to ensure developers follow what has been outlined/committed to in the FEIS. this was not a way for a commission to do the work of a building inspector.

Jason West said...

Though I'm not 100% sure, it seems to me that the Building Inspector, the Planning Board chair and the Mayor could all visit the site without any problem. Why not have an EnCC member go along with one of them to check? Do those people refuse to let the EnCC come with them?

Rachel said...

Jason, you are absolutely right about the other effective avenues. They are-- conservation easements that are in place BEFORE the bulldozers kiss the ground (as that is when the habitats most need to be tested and protected), and stipulations in the FEIS allowing for the EnCC and village consultants to collect data. Those two avenues were neglected by the village in the process of Woodland Ponds. Woodland Ponds would not even allow the arborist to inspect the tree plan he designed when he wanted to and now there is a "stop planting" order months later because they screwed it all up. This is just a desperate measure that would only be used for data collection in cases where it is necessary because the normal means were not put in place. All we are doing is testing the water and identifying the plants and insects. Now the religious right is comparing me to Hoover. Maybe this isn't such a good blog topic.
Needless to say, the mayor is against it.
rachel

kt tobin flusser said...

(posted by kt - who loves that the first time she did this for him he insulted her and now he is insulting terence, oh democracy - on behalf of Butch Dener who is still having trouble posting)

When I was Town Planning Board Vice Chair and then Chair, I instituted mandatory site visits to "all" proposed plans to all "members".

Of course it was never 100%, hence the " "'s.

But it served us all well and we always made sure the EnCC had accessibilty too. (as if we had the chance to say no!)

There should be no problem with site access, seems strange... BUT it IS THE VILLAGE and not the Town and the VL PB has zero cred in as being remotely professional - see Bruce Kazan's site plan application.

Business as usual in the Village - which means no business.

Butch Dener

Martin McPhillips said...

If it is an element of the job of the building inspector to assure compliance with environmental codes, agreements, etc., then it would be in the environmental commission's interest to clarify its understanding of those matters in a concise communication to the inspector.

But the idea of making the inspector the agent of the commission (by the temporary appointment of a member of the commission as the inspector) is bad practice, bad policy, and bad karma. The mayor should be against it.

As for the dreadful Woodland Pond (on which my final comment is too incendiary to make public), did not the various official and unofficial environmental viziers breath down the neck of that thing for years? Wasn't it more or less redesigned to meet many of the environmental objections? You want density development, you get density development. It's not going to float above the ground. It will by definition have an impact on the environment it's being built on. Plants? Insects? Isn't there some soil bacteria that needs to be protected? ("You laugh, Martin, but soil bacteria is essential to life on this planet!")

Somewhere there has to be some balance between the infinite regress of environmental concerns vis a vis the concept of private property.

Rachel said...

No, the environmentalists who were serving in positions that could make a difference did not do much neck breathing. They got the development condensed, but it needed to be reduced as well. They were accused of loving turtles more than their grandmothers so they conceded to the developers. The fact is that you don't have to choose between your grandmother and the turtles. We have the technology, there is no reason we can't love and save them both.

Anonymous said...

I am not a Village resident, nor am I intimately familiar with your code, but I have defended some building code actions (this preamble being the blog equivalent of announcing I am not a doctor but play one on t.v.). The mere fact that you are the "building inspector" does not grant you access to someone's private property that you otherwise would not have. There are limited grounds for an "inspection", but otherwise, the Building Inspector has no more of a right to enter your premises than a police officer. You need reasonable cause to believe a violation is being committed.

Sounds like you're having some fun.

Jon Sennett

Terence said...

Butch,
I believe the intention is to enforce whatever agreements are made between developer and Planning Board. The time for balancing environmental and economic needs comes long before the need for inspections to make sure construction adheres to those conditions.

Jon,
My understanding is that the reason for inspection is the site plan itself, and the need for an inspector to, well, inspect the site as it's being developed. We're an inspector down, and I think it's only rational that our present inspector prioritize things like structural safety.

Jason,
It is definitely my own preference to make the planning process more transparent, consistent, and enforcable. I agree that there are other options, but since no one in a position to do so has managed to make one available to the EnCC, I found this option intriguing.

Kt,
I don't yet feel insulted by Butch. Forgive me for stereotyping, but I usually find that I'm more likely to be insulted if I disagree with liberals than conservatives. The far right shouts more, but the far left is meaner.

Butch (again),
It is with sincere regret that I cannot comment on Bruce Kazan's project, but that's not a good idea with pending litigation. Once that's out of the way, we should have a cup of coffee and talk about it.