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Town officials looking to close demolition permit loophole

When does renovation become demolition?

Southold Town Zoning Board of Appeals chair Leslie Kanes Weisman and Board of Trustees president John Bredemeyer say some homeowners are barreling through the fine line that answers such a question by using loopholes in the town code to do far more construction work than would ordinarily be permitted.

At a Town Board meeting Tuesday, Ms. Weisman and Mr. Bredemeyer used the example of a home construction project which was approved under the town’s house expansion rules. This code allows a 25 percent addition to a home without having to address water, sewer and other concerns.

In the example the pair showed Tuesday, the unidentified homeowner apparently gave the ZBA a site plan showing the floorplan of the house, but then used the opportunity to tear down the existing walls and replace them in the exact same locations, Mr. Bredemeyer said.

As a result, the property owners — whom he said were basically demolishing the house — were using a “workaround” to avoid more scrutiny by the Board of Trustees.

“The code is simply not adequate to do what its intent was,” Mr. Bredemeyer said. “We’re looking at a house that looks like it’s about 95 percent brand new.”

Ms. Weisman said the house was basically “a teardown” and might not have received approval had the full extent of the construction been disclosed.

“We would have looked at it differently had someone said they were demolishing the dwelling,” Ms. Weisman said.

The duo also showed examples of construction projects that they say violate the spirit of the law. Mr. Bredemeyer said a construction project involving similar accusations of circumventing the town code concerning demolition of sand bluffs went unnoticed because it was located “off the beaten path … beyond the eyes and ears of the trustees and the [bay] constables.”

Mike Verity, a town building inspector, said the examples shown Tuesday were from years prior and that the town has cracked down on violators.

“We’ve since calmed this down quite a bit — now we view these as teardowns,” he said. “We somewhat have cleaned up the process, but the 25 percent [rule] is a problem.”

Mr. Verity said it’s still possible for homeowners to circumvent the town codes by invoking the 25 percent expansion rule and suggested adopting the uniform standard used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The calculations for that standard would be easier for the ZBA and Board of Trustees to digest, the board representatives said.

Mr. Bredemeyer suggested the trustees, who serve on a part-time, could do a better job of following each construction project if they were counted as full-time workers.

“They could find more before they become problems,” he said. He also suggested that the trustees gain more jurisdiction over water quality concerns, saying the town’s stormwater runoff rules could give the trustees a way to “compel” uncooperative property owners to follow the law.

Town Supervisor Scott Russell said their concerns and others about water quality could be discussed at a future code committee meeting.

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Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the building inspector’s last name.