The zoning board saw a real curveball this month when, after hearing substantive testimony that a coach house had not been vacated, it learned that the tenant was living without running water. The question became whether this created an unsanitary living condition, or was such a deviation from the normal use of the home (which is not allowed under the zoning code) that a demolition order should stand.
Despite the confusing nature of the circumstances and a department head’s best effort to validate the decree, zoning board members voted appropriately to let the coach house stand. Here’s why: clearly the tenant was in an odd living situation, splitting his time between the coach house and a two-flat on the same lot at 417 Circle Ave., but his testimony to the board on April 10 was believable. He never left the coach house for a consecutive period of six months, which would have constituted a vacancy under the zoning code. And though he had shut off the water, the tenant was still being billed for other utilities, according to the property owner’s attorney.
There’s no doubt that shuttling water from one property to another for more than a year, as this tenant said he did, is unusual. But choosing–however ignorantly–not to use running water is not a decision for any government to overrule, especially if the zoning code isn’t explicit on the issue.
However, if the code said in no uncertain terms that a resident must use running water supplied to the home, then we could see upholding the demolition order. The problem of course, is that the village’s zoning codes don’t appear to be clear on much when it comes to legal non-conforming properties such as coach houses. And without the authority to rewrite the code, the zoning board of appeals and the director of Public Health and Safety must adhere to what’s on the books, no matter how absurd.
This brings us to the next codebook quagmire that exists at 417 Circle Ave., the damaged two-flat. It makes little sense to force a property owner to bend to the will of a poorly constructed and haphazard policy. Clearly, the zoning changes of a decade ago that would force this two-flat to become a single-family home were done with little to no forethought. With that said, the zoning board must maintain what little dignity the zoning codes have and apply serious pressure to the village council for a revision of these policies.
When the ZBA takes up the issue of the two-flat in May, the appealing party should save the argument for a just decision and focus on whether the property was truly damaged beyond 50 percent of its value. Plan B might include evidence that supports the growing suspicion that the rezoning of her property was done illegally, a point that was raised in the discussion of her coach house.
But if the board finds that the property has suffered damage in excess of the existing threshold, no matter how distasteful, the demolition order should be upheld. Then, with its next breath, the ZBA could join the property owner in arguing for a substantial revision to the codes by the newly elected village council.