By Danny Schrafel
The new owners of the home at 792 Larkfield Road in East Northport, which include Huntington Councilman Gene Cook, are adamant that its current use as a five-family rental property predates Huntington town code and is therefore legal.
While town records show that prior residents say the home has always been a five-family dwelling, however, those records also show that inspectors have for years said that the multi-family use must be approved by the Huntington Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) before it is legal.
Cook, of Greenlawn, along with Commack attorney Josh Price – Cook’s running mate in 2013 for Huntington Town Board – and Douglas Elliman Real Estate Broker Tim Cavanaugh, doing business under a limited liability company, TGJ 2014 LLC, bought the multi-family residence, Huntington-based attorney John Breslin said in an interview last week. According to a Zillow listing accessed Wednesday, the sale occurred on Oct. 15, 2014; Cook, Price and Cavanaugh formed the LLC on June 27, 2014.
Cook referred questions related to the house to Breslin, who said its five apartments are a legal, pre-existing use that predates the existence of Huntington’s town code, which was established in 1934.
A “letter in lieu” issued by the town in March 1997 acknowledges that the structure predates town code. Letters in lieu are issued instead of certificates of occupancy in cases related to buildings constructed before the establishment of town code.
Breslin said last week said that today, “at least two” of the apartments are occupied.
“There’s no question it’s a legal five-family, and if necessary, it will get proved at a ZBA hearing,” Breslin said.
Conflict exists, however, between Breslin’s stance and that of ordinance inspectors who repeatedly told the property’s owners that the letter in lieu does not legalize the multi-family use.
On Oct. 2, 2012, an inspector said he told former owner Carmen Tomeo “that the [letter in lieu] does not designate use of the structure, and that he must go to ZBA for the use of a five-family dwelling.” Those comments are found in a file related to a Sept. 11, 2012 complaint related to “overcrowding, junk cars, litter and debris.”
In the same file, an inspector said he told a family member the home “needs to be converted back to single-family” use, or the owner must go to the ZBA to certify the multi-family use.
The letter in lieu itself states, “this letter is not intended to legalize zoning violations pertaining to any past or present use.”
With older, non-conforming properties, “there’s a misconception about what’s legal and what’s not legal,” Breslin said.
“People say, ‘Well, there’s no CO for a five-family, so it’s illegal,’” Breslin said. “If it pre-existed the zoning requirements, they had no reason to get a CO or no requirement to get it.”
Price said “it doesn’t matter how the property is zoned” because the home was and has always been a five-family residence, since before the establishment of town code. The application for the letter in lieu includes two affidavits from prior residents stating that the premises “have always been a five-family dwelling.”
“It has been used as a five-family house since before the Great Depression…. The right to use it as a five-family house continues going forward without limitations,” Price said.
Code Enforcement Renews Interest
The house has been on Code Enforcement’s radar for more than five years; efforts continued in the fall.
Most recently, on Oct. 27, 2014, an inspector working next door observed “roof work being done,” which resulted in a Nov. 5 notice of violation alleging interior alterations were made to the home without proper permits.
That’s when the town discovered the home had been sold to TGJ 2014, according to the inspector’s report. A demand for inspection was issued by the town’s Department of Public Safety on Dec. 11; a date for that inspection has not yet been set, Breslin said.
Breslin’s involvement in the property predates Cook’s, the attorney said, to when Tomeo and Maryann Dellinger were the owners.
After he found out Cook, Price and Cavanaugh bought the house, Breslin said he advised them not to “do anything [file for permits] until you have to,” and to only make cosmetic, not structural, improvements. It was his understanding that the extent of the work was limited to “painting, siding, maybe windows,” Breslin said.
“I don’t think they were doing anything that required a permit,” he said.
Politics And Board Appointments
There is also controversy behind the motivations of the enforcement efforts.
Price blames the brouhaha on politics. Cook, an Independence member closely aligned with Huntington’s GOP, is up for re-election this year.
“It’s frustrating that because my co-owner in the property is an elected official and the political enemy of the Democrat majority that the resources of government are being used to attack us,” Price, a Republican, said.
In response, town spokesman A.J. Carter said the town began enforcement efforts on the home in 2009, and again last fall without any knowledge that Cook was one of the new owners. Complicating the dispute is Cook’s efforts to appoint Price to two boards after they formed the LLC together.
The councilman made an attempt on July 15, 2014 to appoint Price to the town’s Board of Assessment Review three weeks after the LLC was formed. During his motion to nominate Price during that town board meeting, he did not disclose the business relationship. The motion failed without a second.
Price also denied that Cook made any official moves to get him on the zoning board, making the statement after ethical concerns were raised at the March 18 meeting of the town’s Board of Ethics and Financial Review.
“Gene Cook never offered my name or nomination to the zoning board and never offered a resolution for the zoning board,” he said.
It appears Cook lobbied for Price behind the scenes. In a Feb. 9 email to Supervisor Frank Petrone provided to Long Islander News, Cook said he’d “...like to have Josh Price appointed to the Zoning Board of Appeals as the start of preparing for tomorrow’s future by making the first change to a committee and showing our commitment to work together to change all the boards and committees by adding fresh faces to the table.”
Instead, Chairman Christopher Modelewski was re-appointed.
Huntington Councilman Mark Cuthbertson has recently been criticized for not disclosing a business relationship. The town’s ethics board ruled on Oct. 20 that he did not commit a technical ethics violation when he voted on Oheka Castle-related matters despite working with Gary Melius, the castle’s owner, in court-appointed roles on foreclosure receiverships.
The ethics board advised Cuthbertson to reveal such relationships in the future, which he since has done before voting on Oheka-related proposals.
Cook, however, did cite his ownership of rental properties that would be affected by the change, when he abstained from votes on Jan. 14 that related to Councilwoman Tracey Edwards’ proposals to tighten rental housing codes.
Luann Dallojacono contributed to this report.