The Town of Huntington appointed a special attorney Tuesday night to independently investigate an East Northport house owned by town board member Gene Cook and two partners to determine if it conforms with town zoning codes.
In an interview, Cook said he bought the house at 792 Larkfield Rd. in 2014 and that it was a multifamily house then, even though it is in a single-family-zoned area. He said they rent five apartments in the house and have done work on the property since they purchased it.
Cook said he and his partners maintain the house has always been used as a multifamily home and that the work done on the house is cosmetic, not structural, and therefore does not require permits. He said the house was built before zoning codes were created in 1934 and is thus exempt from them.
The town board Tuesday passed a resolution with four votes and Cook recusing himself, appointing attorney Edward Guardaro Jr., of the Westchester office of Kaufman Borgeest & Ryan, to handle the investigation.
Cook: 'Political payback'
According to the resolution, it would be a conflict of interest for town attorney Cindy Elan-Mangano to investigate an issue related to a board member, so she recused herself from the matter. Guardaro will be paid $200 per hour from the town's operating budget.
Cook said at the meeting that the investigation was "political payback" and said the town should have issued a summons if officials wanted to resolve the issue. "It's a waste of taxpayer money," he said.
The results of the investigation could require Cook and his partners to go to the zoning board of appeals to have the house confirmed as a multifamily home or converted to a single-family house, in which case they would lose four rental units.
Cook said he believes he does not need to go before the ZBA to legalize it as a multifamily.
Josh Price, one of Cook's partners, said the home has continuously been used as a five-family house since it was built. "There really shouldn't be any question of that at all," Price said.
The town will look at whether any of the work on the property required a permit and what the established use of the dwelling is. Town spokesman A.J. Carter said if it is determined that permits were needed, the building department would send the matter to the ZBA for review. He said there is a certificate of occupancy referencing a single-family dwelling at that address. The ZBA is the only entity that can establish the use, Carter said.
In 2013, Cook ran for town supervisor against incumbent Frank Petrone; Price ran unsuccessfully for town board on Cook's ticket. In February, Cook sent Petrone an email asking that Price be named to the ZBA. Nothing came of this request. Cook has been on the town board since 2011. Price said the ZBA "would be compelled to rule in our favor, but because Gene Cook and Josh Price . . . are owners of this property, we would have no expectation that we would be treated fairly or that they would rule based on the law and precedent."
Town Supervisor Petrone said the town is trying to "resolve" the issue, first reported in two weekly newspapers, the Northport Observer and the Long Islander.
"Gene is being treated the same way anyone else would," Petrone said. "He can question it, but the town has the right to look into issues that's brought to its attention."
Town officials say tax assessment records dating to the 1950s show the home has been taxed as single-family. The house, about a quarter mile from Jericho Turnpike, is a large, white structure with peeling paint, on 1.81 acres, and was sold to Cook and his partners for $400,000 according to Zillow.com, a real estate website.
Records show the home has a "letter in lieu" provided by the town in 1997 -- a legal document issued for structures built before town zoning laws were enacted. That letter allows the house to maintain its original structure and does not establish its use as single or multifamily. However, town officials say, if the property's original structure and use is changed, any protections offered by the letter cease to exist.
In 1981, town officials issued a certificate of occupancy for closing in a porch on the home.
Cook, a Greenlawn resident who owns an asphalt and concrete company in Westbury, purchased the home through a limited liability corporation established in June 2014 with Price, of Commack, an attorney, and Tim Cavanaugh, a Huntington real estate agent.
Cook, who owns rental properties in other areas of Huntington Town and elsewhere on Long Island, said in an interview he was advised by an attorney before purchasing the property in October that the home has always been multifamily.
Inspectors visited in '12, '13
A town building department file on the house shows that on at least six occasions, in 2012 and 2013, town inspectors visited the house in response to complaints about overcrowding, litter and debris. The owner at that time was told four separate times the home must be restored as a single-family dwelling or go before the ZBA for approval as a multifamily house, according to building department documents. The previous owners could not be reached for comment.
Cook, however, said he believes the 1997 letter in lieu affords them protection from having to do that.
Following the sale to Cook, a town inspector filed a report after observing work at the house that she believed required permits. She also noted a tenant told her work was being undertaken in all of its apartments.
The town issued a notice of violation to the owners in November, followed by a notice of demand for inspection in December, which included a warning that failure to act within 72 hours could result in an administrative search warrant of the property. Town officials have not executed the warrant and have declined to say if or when they will act.
Cook, Price and Cavanaugh said they never received the notices. Cook declined to say whether he and his partners would allow inspectors in the house.