New Paltz town council members got a lot of information about possible code changes at their March 2 meeting, all of which related to building in the town. They looked at accessory dwelling units, the cluster subdivision code and tackled a massive package of updates to the building code that was handed down by state officials. Most of these changes have been written over months or years, with much of the work in response to state-level changes to address climate change or safety. Some have reached a level of urgency because Stacy Delarede, the building inspector who is most familiar with all the details, is retiring in the coming weeks. Council members have many hours of reading ahead, should they wish to be fully informed when it comes time to vote on these changes.
Accessory apartment law nearing completion
It’s been years in the making, and delayed by a pandemic and short-staffing in the building department, but Delarede is determined to get a new accessory apartment law before the town council before her retirement. These apartments will be called “accessory dwelling units” in the new law in an effort to standardize language across municipalities, and Delarede proposed several options to council members in an effort to get these changes passed.
Past attempts to relax or change the rules have faced opposition from some homeowners who were concerned it would impact the character of their neighborhoods, but a massive housing crisis has given the current effort support at the county and state levels. They are seen as a way to increase the number of people living in the community — the population density — without the high infrastructure costs of suburban sprawl. Accessory units can keep aging residents near family members, or allow homeowners to more easily pay an increasing property tax bill. An accessory unit can’t be as large as the main living area, else it becomes a two-family home, which isn’t allowed in many zones.
Current law caps the area of an accessory unit at 35%, whether it’s inside the main building or in a separate structure. Delarede recalls that when the first version of this law was passed, only buildings in place at that time would have qualified to have one added at all. Eventually, that rule was modified to the extent that the structure had to have a certificate of occupancy for seven years before putting in such an apartment, meaning that it still wasn’t legal to build anything that had the extra dwelling unit in the original plans. For example, one could not build a new garage with an apartment overhead; that apartment would have to be added seven years later under current law. Planning board approval is still required, but Delarede explained that board members always vote to approve any application that the building inspector recommends, making that process needlessly cumbersome.
Council members are strongly in favor of an owner occupancy requirement, in either of the units, to avoid these becoming investment properties. However, there is less interest in specifically banning them being used for short-term rentals. Supervisor Neil Bettez reasoned that most people opting to rent out part of their own home in that manner would soon discover it’s a lot of work, and seek out long-term tenants instead. A ban of that nature has been a required modification from the county planning board for similar laws, meaning that it could only be overridden if four out of five council members agreed.
These units may be quite small, but still wouldn’t be considered tiny homes, which are not legal under town zoning. Tiny homes are typically not hooked up permanently to sewer or septic, which to Delarede makes them mobile homes. They also tend to be clustered together on one lot, which would violate rules about multi-family housing. That kind of change would require a different conversation, one which is unlikely to happen while Delarede is still on the job.
Consolidating building functions not on radar
Delarede’s upcoming retirement could present a rare opportunity to consider massively restructuring how building functions are handled in New Paltz; when Bettez became supervisor and Tim Rogers mayor, exploring a consolidated building department was sometimes raised as beneficial to residents. Bettez acknowledged that this has not been part of recent discussions, however. The supervisor doesn’t actually want to replace one building inspector with another, but instead would like to hire a manager with broader experience to oversee building and planning functions. What Bettez envisions would not be a civil service position.
The rationale Bettez offered is that the number of individuals qualified for positions such as building inspector, assessor and highway worker are limited, and as a result the way they are replaced is by poaching from other municipalities. In fact Cory Wirthmann, building inspector in the village, claims to be the only individual on the civil service list for replacing Delarede, suggesting that a straight hire would require such a lateral move. By creating an appointed position, Bettez hopes to attract someone with the experience to do everything Delarede did, which exceeded those civil service functions, and hopefully that individual wouldn’t be hired at the expense of department in a nearby municipality.
Development of this strategy has apparently been without consideration of the question of consolidating functions for the benefit of village and other town residents. Another experiment of this sort, hiring one individual to act as secretary for both planning boards, was not continued when Alanna Sawchuk resigned from both positions. In the village, a project manager was hired to oversee village and planning board work. Presently, the town planning board secretary is listed as a vacant position on the town web site.
Building code updates in process
State officials have updated building standards, which happens every few years, and Delarede has been going over the recommendations line by line to see which of them make sense in New Paltz. Town council members got a briefing about the changes Delarede thinks they should adopt into the local code.
There are some welcome modernizing changes, such as being able to accept electronic signatures. While acceptance of digital signatures accelerated during the height of the pandemic, it was President Bill Clinton who made them legal by signing the Millennium Digital Commerce Act—first with a pen, and then electronically—on March 3, 2000; state lawmakers have taken 23 years to catch up. This update would also allow for some inspections to be performed remotely, when staffing or other issues warranted it. Delarede explained after the meeting that these would be limited; if an inspector needs to determine if a footing is solid or a beam can bear a load, for example, there’s just no way to use photos or live video to verify such critical questions of safety.
Other changes include the threshold for requiring annual inspections in some cases, based on the number of people that might be gathered in a location at one time. Assembly of more than 50 individuals for events or in locations such as restaurants will now trigger the yearly look. There will also be more requirements for events that include fireworks or bonfires.