“I understand the logic that the Department of Buildings wants to speed up the process,” said State Senator Tony Avella, “but what this has done is open the flood gates for unscrupulous developers to do illegal construction.”
Known as “self-certification,” the practice allows licensed professionals to examine their own plans and certify that they meet certain zoning and safety requirements in order to obtain building permits without review by the Department of Buildings (DOB).
“Time and time again, we find that self-certification means fraudulent applications, and then it is up to the community, elected officials and community board to fight that battle later on,” said Avella.
Avella's legislation would require that all permit applications be reviewed and approved by a plan examiner with DOB.
Avella was a vocal critic of self-certification when he was a member of the City Council, but he said there was little momentum to do away with the practice because of the influence in city government of the real estate industry, which is generally in favor of the process because it does away with some bureaucratic red tape.
The City Council would still have to pass what is known as “home rule” legislation asking the state to change the law, but Avella hopes members of the City Council will get on board if he can show the law has a real shot of passing at the state level.
“If we get some movement, then I can pressure some members of the City Council,” said Avella. “Given the fact that the real estate industry has less power in Albany, I think it's better to approach this from the legislature, and then force the City Council to do something.”
Avella says there has also been a lack of enforcement on the part of DOB, and that architects who abuse the self-certification process walk away with little more than a slap on the wrist and very rarely lose their professional licenses.
“To my knowledge, there has only been one person the city has ever gone after, and that is Robert Scarano of Brooklyn,” said Avella. “Until we eliminate self-certification, this is going to keep going on and on.”
Outside of his district office in Bayside last Friday, Avella was joined by several Queens civic leaders who said that self-certified plans have resulted in construction in their neighborhoods that is unsafe and violates zoning code.
“I don't think I could go to the Department of Motor Vehicles and say, 'My car doesn't need to be inspected, I can self-certify it,” said Michael Castellano of the Lost Community Civic Association.
Civic leaders said one issue is that architects self-certify plans that change dramatically after they have been filed with DOB.
“An architect will file plans, and then they go and build something totally different,” said Angela Augugliaro, president of the Queens Colony Civic Association “We had an issue where the zoning was in violation, but the plans they filed with the Buildings Department conformed to the zoning.”
“We have been after legislation like this for at least a dozen years,” added Tyler Cassell of the North Flushing Civic Association. “We’ve found too many times that plans that are self-certified are in violation of the zoning code or building requirements.”