By PHIL NOBILE
Citing safety issues and communication concerns, the town publicly proposed a new law that would require the majority of rental property owners to register their contact information with the town. The law would include lofty fines for not complying and broader power for the Building Department.
Although presented with the purpose of protecting neighbors and past safety issues like contacting property owners in the case of emergencies, Town Council members and residents alike contested the issue, citing discrimination and unfairness because the legislation would only affect certain landlords and not all property owners, and the potential daily fines for not complying.
“A law is a powerful thing, and this shouldn’t be one,” Harrison resident Rob Porto said. “This looks like it wants to give Harrison the hammer to come in and put the screws to people that are violating the law.”
At the April 1 Town Council meeting, Village Attorney Jonathan Kraut presented local law 169, titled “landlord registry,” to town officials and the public for comment.
According to the law’s language, owners of two-family rental properties and larger in Harrison would be required to register their property with the town’s Building Department and would be entered into a database for the town to easily access when needed. The registration would be a one-time thing for both commercial and rental properties, not something subject to annual renewal, according to Kraut.
As the law stands, regular homeowners or single-family rental properties are not required to participate in the registry, neither are condominiums and co-ops.
According to Kraut, other municipalities in the area, like Mt. Kisco and Port Chester, have had “much success” with their own versions of the law, and said it would be important for administrative and emergency situations.
“Other communities have adopted very similar if not identical laws enabling them to have the tools that we are asking for,” Kraut said. “We need to be able to promptly locate the property own, whether for service of process of for emergency reasons.”
The law also calls for steep fines if a landlord is found not compliant for not registering the required information. It states any owner found to be violating the law is “subject to a civil penalty in an amount no less than $250 and not to exceed $1,000. Each day’s violation shall constitute a separate and distinct charge.”
It was the possibility of daily fines and the question of to whom the law should ultimately apply that caused debate amongst Town Council members and Harrison residents.
Initially, Building Inspector Robert FitzSimmons recommended that all rental properties in the town be included.
“A lot of these properties are buried in corporations or have absentee landlords,” he said. “There’s no contact information to reach out in the event of an emergency.”
Councilman Joseph Cannella, a Republican, agreed, adding the “local firestorm” of protest when the same law was initially proposed in 2009 was not “effectively justified,” thanks to a fee that came with registering in the old law.
Despite the newer version of the law not including the fee, not all council members were convinced about extending the law’s reach further.
Councilman Stephen Malfitano, a Republican and former Harrison mayor, asked his fellow town officials to “think about the consequences” of the proposed law if it were to include every property owner in town.
“If you go that far with it and require all properties to register, I want you to think about what the consequences of non-compliance are,” Malfitano said. “I think requiring a single-family homeowner to register his home when he occupies it is something I would not support.”
Members of the community agreed with the former mayor’s all-or-nothing stance, saying if the law were to ultimately pass, it should include every property owner in the town.
Former Harrison Fire Department Chief Vito Faga, Jr. said the safety reasoning used by town officials isn’t exclusive to two-family or more rental properties, and should be implemented widespread.
“There have been past instances with not being able to get in touch with people in emergencies, but bottom line is emergencies concern everybody across the board: all homeowners, one-family rentals and more,” Faga, Jr. said. “It should apply to everybody because safety is an issue for everybody.”
Admitting he wasn’t fond of the law in the first place, lifelong Harrison resident Richard Dionisio said the only way to bring balance to the law would be requiring it for everyone in the community.
“It’s pertinent that, if this were to pass at all, that everyone register to keep balance to this, because it’s one sided, as is,” Dionisio said. “You want an updated system or an updated law, do it right and make everyone do it.”
Whether or not the Town Council will adopt the legislation any time soon remains to be seen. The public hearing was continued until the May 1 Town Council meeting, at which further public comment will be allowed.