Not Enforcing Town Code

by jane
(southeast, ny)

Last Reviewed: July 4, 2024

Visitor Question: Our town of Southeast NY has a law stating there shall be no parking of exposed commercial vehicles in residential zones. The zoning inspector and town supervisor will not enforce the law nor do they respond to written complaints. Who should I turn to?

Editors' Reply: Ouch. Failure to enforce local ordinances on matters that help to maintain residential quality just isn't a good idea.

To answer your immediate question, you have several choices but no silver bullets:

1) You can take matters into your own hands and ask the owner of the commercial vehicle(s) in question directly if they will comply with the law. It's possible they don't realize there is such a law, and it's also possible that if they decide they like you, they will comply voluntarily. This means, of course, that you ask nicely even if you ask repeatedly. Many people don't take this route because of fear, which isn't entirely ungrounded. You will have to assess the risk of an aggressive action on the owner's part.

2) Since the zoning inspector refuses to issue a citation, you may be able to ask the town's zoning board of appeals to rule on the actions of an administrative officials. The name of the board may vary, but there is a process for granting a variance or exception in almost every zoning ordinance. In most cases the same board that decides on variances also can take appeals on administrative actions.

Since you have a town supervisor that doesn't want to cooperate on this issue, don't expect the town hall to roll out the red carpet to help you file an appeal, but do check, or have an attorney check, to see if this is an option.

3) You can and should organize your neighbors to join you in asking the zoning inspector and town supervisor to act more aggressively. We suggest that you concentrate on the town supervisor, because he or she is subject to election. The zoning inspector is either following orders or just lazy, but probably the former if you have talked to the town supervisor about this.

It is possible that you don't have enough clout with the town. Often someone who complains about the status quo is characterized unfairly as a whiny resident who can be ignored. But even people who actually are whiny residents who complain too much can become politically effective if they are part of a larger group.

4) If you can afford it, you can take the vehicle's owner and the town officials to court to try to force performance. Obviously this is a mighty expensive option, so you would have to judge the damage to your property value to be quite dramatic to justify this from an economic standpoint.

5) Run for office, or enlist another resident who shares your thoughts on this topic to run for office. This is a long-run strategy for dealing with a short-run issue, but this business of not enforcing laws that will keep neighborhoods healthy is a pretty serious breach of faith with the community.

Those are the options. We hope one of them works for you.

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