• Credit: Port Chester Patch

The Port Chester, New York, building department has problems — big problems. In 2010, a criminal investigation into corruption at the department led to police shuttering the office, the Journal News reported ("Police investigation continues at Port Chester Building Department," by Leah Rae).

The investigation led to resignations, but the disgraced building officials took cover behind state labor laws upon leaving office, the Port Chester Patch reported in 2011 ("Police Shutter Building Department Again; Employees Sent Home," by Nick Bonapartis). "Frank Ruccolo, the department's building inspector, was suspended without pay in the resulting investigation, and soon after submitted retirement papers," the Patch reported. "Although the village drafted administrative charges against Ruccolo, the disgraced former building inspector used the protection of state personnel law to bury the charges when he retired. As a result, the details of those charges never became public, and village residents have become increasingly frustrated as other suspended former employees used the same legal strategy."

In the aftermath of the shakeup, investigators found the department's records in a shambles, the Patch reported ("'This Village Is Ass Backwards': Trustee Shocked by Building Department Records," by Nick Bonaparte). "Since a police raid on the building department more than a year ago, a handful of village staffers have been assigned the unenviable task of cataloging decades worth of unorganized paper records," the Patch reported. "The files date back to the 1930s and include more than two decades of incomplete, questionable records spanning the now-infamous tenures of former building inspectors Leonard Cusumano and Frank Ruccolo. Cusumano passed away in 2007 after 19 years as building inspector, while his protege Ruccolo headed the long-corrupt department until he was suspended last year in the wake of a criminal investigation."

Now, the newly reorganized building department is trying to find its way back to the straight and narrow. Previous building officials apparently winked at code violations for decades. The new officials are trying to make the buildings right, and they've offered owners a temporary amnesty: if owners allow inspectors in to check for violations, they can escape fines (as long as they fix the violations). The new policy is getting mixed reviews from citizens, reports the Patch ("PC Board Discusses Code Crackdown and Amnesty Program," by Liz Giegerich.

For some Port Chester homeowners, the cure for the building department's ills is proving worse than the disease. "Originally designed to entice slumlords to open their doors to building inspectors, the amnesty program was curiously expanded to include those least likely to engage in slumlording, i.e., condo, co-op and single-family homeowners," writes Frank Troha, who owns a unit in a Port Chester condominium building at 1 Landmark Square ("Community View: Building codes create absurd 'to do' list," by Frank Troha). Owners in the building have been unable to sell their units, bought years ago in good faith, because the building never received a Certificate of Occupancy. "I'm still trying to understand the rationale behind Port Chester's Amnesty program and who it really benefits," Troha wrote in an online comment. "However, I believe I do know who it harms. Many innocent homeowners who want to sell or refinance are finding it nearly impossible to do so within a reasonable time frame, and many are being required to hire expensive architects and mechanical engineers to prepare schematics of work done many decades ago by previous owners or the original builder. Why can't the Building Department just check whether what exists today is up to code and if it's not, require to homeowner to fix it, instead of putting them through such punishment and expense?"

"The issue is a complex one," Troha wrote in an email to Coastal Connection. "I believe most homeowners in Port Chester have been blindsided. Only when attempting to sell or refinance do most homeowners discover there's suddenly an issue with their home. And it can take over a year to sort matters out. I'm still trying."

Troha continues, "In my case, I was personally told last July that my condo unit and the building in which it's located lacked certificates of occupancy. This was a shock to me because for the past 24 or 25 years, transactions in my building have all gone off without a hitch. Then around May of 2012, some condo owners in my building discovered banks wouldn't lend to their prospective buyers, nor would banks refi any condos in our building. Out of the blue, the village Building Department was apparently telling the lenders we lacked valid COs for the building and the individual units."

"To make matters even more difficult," Troha continues, "in order to get a CO (needed to sell to a buyer with a mortgage or to simply refi), all homeowners in Port Chester must open their doors to an inspection. That seemed reasonable enough to many in our community – from the standpoint of health and safety, I guess – but the inspectors started asking for evidence of decades-old building permits, electrical diagrams, gas line diagrams, etc., especially if they suspected any significant work had been done on the home. In most cases, the homeowner had bought their home from a local seller with no interference from the Building Department. Any prior work done to the home by previous owners was never even considered by the buyer who believed all was very legit – as did the lawyers for both sides of the transaction, the title insurance company, and anyone else with a stake in the deal, including the lender."

Adds Troha: "Now the village inspectors – when they see something that looks new or strange to them in a home -- demand to see evidence of building permits and the proper closure of same. If the homeowner can't produce the permit(s) and evidence of closed permit(s), the next thing you know you have to start hiring "design professionals" to diagram what the inspector asks of you, so it can be compared to the original site plan. However, the original schematics are oftentimes missing. You see, the same Building Department that allowed the sales to occur for many decades was shut down twice for criminal investigations. The old regime said the homeowners' records were lost or damaged in a flood. Nevertheless, the village today is going after every homeowner hammer and tong today. It's costing some many thousands of dollars to make things right. In order to alleviate the pain of making things right, a homeowner -- who may not even know there's something awry with his or her home (and most do NOT know) – is offered "amnesty". If you apply for amnesty, any fines levied will be substantially reduced."

Troha sums up: "No matter how the village tries to defend their program as all about health and safety and a crackdown on overcrowding and slumlords, I honestly cannot see how the slumlords and overcrowding are being addressed. The crackdown is more on innocent homeowners than the slumlords who scoff at the law."