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Jun 16, 2010 1:35 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Dune Road homeowners remain locked in legal battle with Westhampton Beach Village

Jun 16, 2010 1:35 PM

Maureen Griffin said she has poured her life savings into renovating her Westhampton Beach home and stands to lose everything if she ends up on the wrong end of a lawsuit that she worries could render her Dune Road property worthless.

Westhampton Beach Village is alleging that Ms. Griffin and co-owner Donald Cayea went beyond the scope of approved renovations to their one-story house—work that was completed nearly a decade earlier—and must now place the structure on pilings. But Ms. Griffin, who now lives in Copiague, and Mr. Cayea say the pilings are too expensive, and they contend that they did not violate the specs of their building permit.

A Federal Emergency Management Administration law dating back to the 1970s mandates that new homes built in a flood plain, which includes Dune Road in Westhampton Beach, be constructed on pilings. Houses built before then do not have to comply with the law unless their owners make “significant improvements,” defined as work costing an amount equal to 50 percent or more of the market value of the home.

The village sued Mr. Cayea and Ms. Griffin in 2002 in an effort to force them into compliance with the federal law and place their house, which was built in the early 1930s, on pilings.

The couple actually started the renovation work before securing a building permit from Westhampton Beach, according to village records. They secured the permit in June 2001 and it stated that the renovations could not exceed $165,000. Ms. Griffin and Mr. Cayea said they spent less than that amount for the work, which was finished in January 2002—a fact that is being disputed by Westhampton Beach Building and Zoning Administrator Paul Houlihan.

Mr. Houlihan said the first floor of the house was completely gutted and rebuilt, while its attic was converted into a second floor. He said the work exceeded the $165,000 cap.

According to 2009-10 tax records, the house, which sits on just over half an acre, is now worth $1.94 million.

The State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the village in September 2009, stating that Mr. Cayea and Ms. Griffin must comply with the FEMA law. The pair filed a notice of appeal in November and expect it to be decided later this year.

Mr. Cayea and Ms. Griffin said the village’s previous building administrator, Fred Showers, had approved their renovations along the way. Village officials, meanwhile, contend that the couple’s building permit allowed them to do only a limited amount of work, and that they ignored those guidelines. They also violated FEMA regulations, said Richard Haefeli, the village attorney. “They rebuilt the house, from footings through the roof, without putting the house on pilings and getting necessary permits,” he said.

The attorney handling their appeal—Richard Lerner of Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker LLP of Manhattan—said Tuesday that he is confident that his clients will be successful in their appeal. “It’s obvious that they didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “The village is pursuing this because they cannot admit that they made a mistake.”

Mr. Haefeli stated that is dangerous to ignore FEMA laws—for both the homeowners and village. If officials fail to enforce such rules, the federal government could opt not to insure homes built on Dune Road.

“When people violate the code, the village has to take whatever actions it has to enforce [it],” Mr. Haefeli said.

The saga actually started in 2001, when Mr. Cayea and Ms. Griffin decided to renovate the home they bought the year before. Ms. Griffin said they didn’t realize how much work needed to be done, and the repairs spiraled out of control.

“It got a little out of hand,” she said. “It was more work than we thought.”

They originally planned to raise the height in the attic so they could stand in it, replace the exterior walls, and fix the foundation. They acknowledge, however, that they never secured the required permits from the village before starting the work.

As a result, a stop work order was issued by Mr. Showers in April 2001. The owners then applied for a permit, and one was approved in June 2001, covering renovations to the first floor.

“[Mr.] Showers approved it all along the way,” Ms. Griffin said. “We stayed within the envelope and replaced the rotting walls.”

Mr. Showers, who retired from the village in August 2001, could not be reached for comment. He was replaced by Mr. Houlihan that same month.

By August 2001, most of house renovations were completed, and it was ready for another inspection. Mr. Houlihan said that when he arrived, 70 percent of the home’s first floor had been replaced—a violation of the building permit. Consequently, he issued another stop work order, dated August 28, 2001.

“The applicant has said incorrectly ... that I disagreed with the permit that the former building administrator issued and therefore issued a stop work order,” Mr. Houlihan wrote in the order. “That is incorrect and I have never said that the permit was issued incorrectly. To the contrary, I believe that the plans and information that has been submitted by the applicant has clearly not been adhered to.” He also cited village codes stating that the couple violated FEMA laws.

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Superman could hold the house up for you while you install the pillings.....
By SirHampton (60), quogue on Jun 24, 10 1:26 AM
This is too common a story, people build what they want regardless of the building department's input; or without the proper permits, then complain when the Town asks them to rectify the situation. They created the situation by not doing what they were supposed to do. It is easy to get carried away with renovations, doesn't mean they should get away with building what they weren't supposed to build.
By bb (922), Hampton Bays on Jun 24, 10 1:12 PM
1 member liked this comment
As I recall, there was another recent story about knocking a historic house down, and all involved suffered from "selective amnesia".

Same old story, same old song and dance...
By Mr. Z (11847), North Sea on Jun 24, 10 6:33 PM