The building department of the Village of New Paltz has seen a lot of changes in recent weeks, with personnel leaving, joining the staff and shuffling offices to find the most efficient work environment. The newest change to the staff is the addition of code enforcement officer Bryant Arms, who has taken over the office of village planner David Gilmour, who in turn has relocated to an office on the second floor. Arms was hired under the civil service designation Municipal Code Officer Building Inspector II, which is government-speak for someone who is qualified to supervise other building inspectors, as well as do the job himself. Arms comes to the village from the Town of Wawarsing, and has worked in the past for both Rosendale and Marbletown.
Working in a municipality with a dedicated planner is new to Arms, but he said that he and Gilmour were working to minimize the overlap — and possible confusion — that could exist between their roles. Instead, they and other village employees are trying to ensure that it’s easier for residents to navigate the sometimes bewildering bureaucracy around building permits. Arms said that they are creating a “process for creating new processes for processing applications from the public,” for which the building department is the first contact. Depending upon what a property owner seeks to do, he or she may need to appear before the Planning Board, the Zoning Board of Appeals, or in some cases simply comply with the terms of a building permit. In the village, nearly every permit now requires site plan review by the Planning Board, so there is much less leeway for Arms and other inspectors to simply issue one and inspect for compliance. “I haven’t encountered that until here,” he said. “Usually one- and two-family houses are allowed as of right,” meaning that as long as the lot and the construction plans met the specifications laid out in the code, the building permit would be issued. Nevertheless, he’s clear on his duty.
“My job is to enforce the letter of the law,” Arms said. “I just read the law, and determine how a situation relates to the law. It’s pretty dry.” Evidence of his ability to absorb documents that few others ever read is his preference to walk to appointments. “It’s in the employee handbook,” he said, the suggestion that walking when possible helps familiarize himself with the community while avoiding the cost and carbon emissions of driving short distances.
Asked how he thought all the staffing changes might be felt by village residents, he said that change might be noticeable, but how much of that comes from new faces might be difficult to determine. “Even with no turnover, it will still be a change because the [zoning] laws have recently changed, and are being changed again. Change in operations is inevitable.”
Beyond routing applicants to the correct forms, the job of a building inspector involves knowing a tremendous amount of law. In addition to the zoning code, they are charged with enforcing a number of other local laws ranging from rubbish and air pollution to false alarms and the rental registry. On top of that, they must also be familiar with the Uniform Building Code of New York State and relevant fire codes. What they are not trained for is what Arms calls “volatile situations” involving confrontations with any member of the public. “They should see us coming a mile away,” he said, and if there is any question of a situation becoming heated, the police are called instead, even if it’s about a situation as simple as a homeowner leaving garbage cans in the right-of-way too long. Arms prefers the job to stay dry and boring, even when it comes to enforcing flood plain regulations and storm water runoff issues. The village recently joined the ranks of so-called MS4 communities, and Arms has experience administering the requirements of municipal separate storm sewer systems.
Much of the enforcement side of the job comes up when a sale is pending on a property. Title companies quickly determine if a permit is still open (that is, a certificate of occupancy or completion was never issued, because a final inspection was not done), or if a permit was never applied for in the first place. Not getting a permit first is against the law, but the situation is apparently common enough that there’s actually a fee for obtaining one after the work has begun: $250. Arms called that flat fee “unique,” saying that most municipalities don’t have any such penalty, and those that do generally double the cost of the permit, rather than adding a flat fee. Discovering that there was work done without a permit when a sale is pending is stressful, and can be expensive, as the work must comply with the current code, rather than whatever version might have been in force when it was actually performed. “I have a lot of sympathy for people in those situations,” Arms said, “except if they did so knowingly.” His focus is to shepherd people through the process, avoiding delays to the closing if at all possible.
Inspections of registered rental properties happen annually, but residents don’t have to wait to report possible violations; they may contact the building department at 255-3055 to ask one of the inspectors to take a look.
Arms is filling a job that was eliminated some years ago from the village budget, but has now been returned. He hasn’t detected any friction about that, instead talking about how easygoing his coworkers and the village’s elected officials are. “People here seem to want to do their job well,” he said. “They don’t seem to take pleasure in getting in anybody’s way. We just do our job.” He noted that communication with planner Gilmour and the chairs of the Zoning Board of Appeals and Planning Board was excellent, and that they all “kept him in the loop.” (Arms spoke to the New Paltz Times prior to the sudden death of Planning Board chairman Maurice Weitman.)
That’s not to say he hasn’t been given guidance on what his priorities should be. “A unique problem in the village is the demand for student housing and the concern regarding how that impacts the character of residential neighborhoods as people attempt to meet that demand,” he said. “A house that had a family of three to five people that changes to three young couples or more, each with their own vehicle, is a change. Students keep different hours, and can disrupt peace and tranquility. It creates a lot of anxiety for longtime residents.” Addressing that anxiety, he said, is the purpose for much of the ongoing changes to the zoning code. “It was made clear to me that I have to pay particular attention to those concerns.”