Better permit condition enforcement needed

WESTFIELD – The Planning Board hosted a scheduled discussion on how to beef up enforcement of permit conditions at its Jan. 19 meeting.

Also present were Mayor Donald F. Humason Jr., Council President Brent B. Bean II, City Solicitor Shanna Reed, Police Chief Lawrence Valliere, Police Lt. Kevin Bard and Building Commissioner Carissa Lissee.

Planning Board Chair William Carellas thanked everyone for joining them, and said as a board they have been dealing with a lot of enforcement issues, “some mundane, some serious. We’re trying to get a handle on how the city can be proactive, (have) better enforcement, and get businesses to understand the importance of complying with them,” he said.

Carellas said the planning board receives a number of calls about non-compliance, and doesn’t want to push them all onto Lissee to enforce because she doesn’t have the staff. He asked what the city can do to create a more business friendly environment, and also enforce compliance of regulations.

“If it becomes known by business people that we do enforce compliance, they’re going to comply,” said Planning Board member Jane Magarian.

Carellas said one of his proposals is to adopt language from the City of Springfield on enforcement that states no certificate of occupancy will be issued when there’s a violation of the ordinance. He said Northampton has similar language that no new permits will be issued if there’s an outstanding zoning violation on the parcel.

Carellas also asked whether the city could include a liberalization clause in the code, giving the example of the changing rules on electronic signs in the city. He said if the board relaxes a rule, such as allowing sign changes to occur every 10 seconds instead of 60 seconds, whether “everybody can tack on to that. It’s done in a lot of legal circumstances,” he said.

Bean said enforcement has been an issue for 20 years and wasn’t sure of the root cause, whether manpower, better understanding of ordinances, or special permit follow-through. He said the Council can strengthen ordinances to help.

Humason asked how many permits are issued in a year. City Planner Jay Vinskey said the number is not consistent, but there are two or three public hearings a meeting, and 20 meetings a year.

Carellas said when special permits are issued, there is often a delay before the project begins and conditions are forgotten. He said he is mainly concerned with actions that are gross and negligent, not all that are non-compliant. “99 out of 100 times when somebody sends someone a letter, they comply,” he said.

Vinskey agreed, saying the board puts steps and conditions in the permit, but when they are not acted upon for two years, some steps are forgotten.

Lissee noted that the Building Deptartment is a one-person department, and the city is still trying to fill a local building inspector position. She said for the past couple of years, she has been working with Ward 2 City Councilor Ralph J. Figy to implement rental property inspection for multi-family and college housing. “Ultimately, it comes down to staffing,” she said, adding that the department has a lot of requirements, including plan reviews and inspections, and trying not to hold up jobs.

She said when it comes to enforcement, Valliere and Bard have both helped with unregistered vehicles and blighted properties. “Regarding special permits, it’s going to come down to if we see an obvious violation or (when) it’s brought to our attention, we’ll send notice. As far as driving around and making sure they’re in compliance, I don’t have the time,” she said.

Planning Board member Philip McEwan said the penalty and enforcement section in the city code is more than 50 years old. He said the Springfield introduction explains what residents can be penalized for, and the next section discusses fines, which are separated into criminal and non-criminal complaints. “If we rewrite that section, it is the end of our responsibility, then it becomes enforcement responsibility,” he said.

McEwan said that East Longmeadow also has a simple complaint form with a description of the problem and the name of the property owner, which can be mailed to the building department, and which gives the city 14 days to respond.

Reed said that a similar complaint form is on the building department website. She said she gets quite a few a week, and won’t respond to anonymous complaints. If anybody calls, she tells them where to find the complaint form. “It has worked well. Some legal enforcement has come out of that complaint form,” Reed said.

Humason said he appreciated the chance to listen to the conversation. “I want to work with Carissa. I think it’s important that she has the staff necessary that conditions are met, especially if there are fines that are levied for people that aren’t abiding by the rules. That helps pay for the position while making sure conditions are met by everyone,” the mayor said. He said he would work with Lissee during this budget process, which is starting now.

“I’m in full support, including putting boots on the ground to make this happen,” Bean said, adding, “We have 13 councilors that get complaints. There are definitely some departments short on manpower.”

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