The Department of Buildings has not put itself in the good graces of homeowners across the borough affected by Hurricane Sandy.
A growing number of residents and elected officials have been decrying the agency’s distribution of violations for trees toppled on homes since the superstorm hit on Oct. 29. The DOB attributes the perceived headaches to a semantic snafu tainting well-intentioned attempts to tally Sandy’s damage.
More than 1,100 borough trees fell onto homes as a result of Sandy, according to Queens Parks Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski, who spoke at a Borough Cabinet meeting Monday night. She added 21 were still atop houses, with a majority concentrated in Queens’s northeast quadrant.
Elected officials from the affected areas have been fielding an increasing number of complaints about the DOB’s tree-wallop tracking method. Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) and state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) have both complained about what they characterize as a lack of empathy on the city’s part.
Homeowners like Fresh Meadows’ John Callari were first greeted by an arboreal mishap in the form of a city tree landing atop his home as the storm swept through the borough. With a 70-foot oak resting atop his house, he began the arduous task of negotiating a combination of Parks Department notifications, as well as haggling with his insurance company.
Then last Sunday he was greeted by a DOB tag on the door, saying the city-owned tree atop his home was a violation.
“There are people a lot worse than we are,” he said. “But we don’t need this.”
The violations do not carry a fine, at least not initially. The DOB is using the tickets as a tracking method to assess the damage caused by the tree, as well as maintain a record of Sandy’s effect, according to agency spokeswoman Ryan FitzGibbon.
The agency has two types of violations: an Environmental Control Board citation which carries with it heavy fines and is typically associated with construction sites facing stop-work orders. The latter, DOB violations, carry no fines and are “administrative in nature; they’re used to document circumstances,” according to FitzGibbon.
The antiquated system is DOB’s only tracking method, she added.
“It’s an old document that we use to do this. It’s not a violation,” she said, conceding the term “violation” itself isn’t helpful.
Indeed, at the heart of the controversy may not be a city-versus-little-guy dynamic. When asked if changing the name of the agency’s door tags from a violation to something more innocuous would change their minds, an overwhelming majority of homeowners said yes.
Yet some homeowners, such as Patricia Safina, are skeptical of the DOB’s promises the violations won’t eventually carry a fine.
The Glendale resident was awaiting some sort of assistance from the city, but was instead met by an inspector who who suggested she employ her “strong husband” to take down an awning damaged by a fallen tree. Safina isn’t married.
She claims she made an effort to contact the DOB after the tree was removed from her home, but hasn’t been able to reach anyone. The agency’s inspector put a wrong number on the violation. Safina said she made a good-faith effort to reach the DOB. She has since moved on.
“I had to put that out of my mind,” she said.