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The house on Cozy Lane: Town dealing with an unusual situation

Chris Tehan, Shelter Island’s senior building inspector, first noticed the house in December 2018, which began a process that he’d only had to deal with once before in 16 years.

Mr. Tehan was doing a site inspection at an adjacent property when he noticed the house at 9 Cozy Lane in Silver Beach with “multiple tarps covering the roof.” Looking a little closer, he noted “more issues,” with the seemingly abandoned house on .086 acre.

“There was black mold in the building, the roof has been leaking for years, the sheetrock and insulation was falling down,” he said.

He wrote to the owner, William R. Conroy, referring him to the state’s property maintenance code — which requires owners to keep basic standards of, among other things, sanitation, structural and fire safety — notifying Mr. Conroy that he had 30 days to come up to compliance.

The owner responded that he had contacted a roofing company to come around and put a new roof on the house.

“Didn’t happen,” Mr. Tehan said. “And it’s been radio silence ever since.”

In October 2019, after trying to contact Mr. Conroy by phone and mail, with specific references to the town code, Mr. Tehan reported to the Town Board that the house was an unsafe structure and there had been no correspondence from the owner.

“This is the first phase of getting in there and doing things without his permission,” Mr. Tehan said. “The building is compromised and needs to be remediated.”

There is an ongoing, serious problem of the roof falling in, creating a dangerous situation.

But all is not lost, if acted upon, Mr. Tehan added. “This can be fixed.”

In January of this year the Building Department sent a condemnation notice to the owner, reminding him that a notice was sent in October 2019 and the town hadn’t heard back.

The owner was notified, Mr. Tehan said, that “now we can do repairs, or secure the building, or whatever you want. We prefer to have it at your direction, but failing any correspondence from you, we’re going to  do what we have to do.”

Two weeks ago, the town put a fence around the property and a “Keep Out” sign, with Mr. Conroy billed for the fencing. “If he doesn’t pay, the amount is added to his tax bill,” Mr. Tehan said, adding that the owner has been paying his taxes.

The next step? “That’s a tough one,” Mr. Tehan said. In his years with the department, there’s been only one similar situation. “We had a house in much worse condition,” he said, but the homeowner asked for a discussion. “The owner told us, ‘I get it, knock it down.’ He had time to get whatever property he wanted out of the house and it was taken down.”

But if the town has not received permission from the owner to raze a building, Mr. Tehan added, “it’s basically a taking of property.”

If the town, after notifying a homeowner that his/her property is unsafe, receives no return correspondence, then razes the structure out of safety concerns, it becomes a matter for the courts, according to Town Attorney Bob DeStefano Jr.

“It would likely be a case of inverse condemnation,” Mr. DeStefano added, explaining that the legal term is an action against a government for a “taking” of private property. “Generally, the government will be liable to pay the value of what it takes,” Mr. DeStefano said. “What the value is would likely be determined by the estimate and eventually by the court.”

According to Craig Wood, chairman of the Shelter Island’s Board of Assessors, “The house and land together are assessed at $455,000 for the 2020-2021 assessment roll.  If the home was no longer on the property, the land would be assessed at $361,900.

“The difference of $93,100 is an estimation of the value of the structures on the property. However we assess the property as a whole and determine it to be worth $455,000. A full appraisal would need to be done to get a more complete picture of the structure’s value.”

The matter is still pending before the Town Board.

Asked about the owner’s silence on the matter, Mr. Tehan said. “I don’t understand the thinking behind this.”