Community Controversy Arises Over Village Law Interpretation

Photo by Max Sheidlower.

At a recent SUNY New Paltz Student Senate meeting, Adele Ruger of the New Paltz Property Owner’s Association informed senators of a New Paltz Village Board housing law passed in January that she claimed would limit non-biologically related individuals to no more than three persons living in a single residency.

According to Ruger, this occupancy limit was made possible in tandem with another law passed in 2013 that changed the legal definition of a “family” in the village zoning code. The current definition of “family,” amended April 29, 2013, reads as: “One person, or two or more persons related by blood, marriage or adoption, or not more than three persons not necessarily related by blood, marriage or adoption, who live together in a single dwelling unit and maintain a common household” (Village Code Section 212-5, Zoning Definitions). Prior to the amendment, Ruger said, the definition included the following text: “This definition shall not be construed to exclude a household which in every but a biological sense is a single-family.”

“The previous definition of ‘family’ gave legal protection to individuals living and acting as a ‘family’ household but who were not blood related; notably students renting a house or apartment together,” Ruger said. “With the January housing law, these non-blood related individuals are made to comply to the three person occupancy standard.”

An amendment to the village housing standards, the January law contains a clause stating, “occupants of dwelling units shall be responsible for compliance with the housing standards in regard to the following: 1. Limiting occupancy of that part of the premises which he occupies or controls to the maximum permitted by the housing standards” (Village Code Section 129-12, Housing Standards Compliance). According to Ruger, the language present in the clause grants the village legal authority to enforce the maximum occupancy limits as defined in the other chapters of the village code. Ruger said both the January law and the August 2013 definition change are intentional efforts of the village board to dissuade off-campus students from living in the village.

“It doesn’t take much to see that these two recent changes happened during the current [village] administration,” Ruger said. “I believe what we’ll see is a selective-enforcement of this occupancy limitation targeted at students living in the village in an attempt to reclaim the village for its long-term residents.”

However, New Paltz Village Mayor Jason West denied Ruger’s allegations.

“It has never been the intention of the village to limit student housing, not by a long shot,” West said. “Any interpretation that the laws in question are an attempt to get students out of the village is completely untrue.”

West said that the change to the definition of “family” in 2013 was something that “fell through the cracks” during a period where many legal definitions were being reworked. West also said that prior to the current controversy over the definition change, there were internal village board meetings that discussed again reworking the “family” definition because “it did not fit New Paltz.”

“The purpose of this definition is to avoid overcrowding of living spaces for health and safety reasons,” West said. “This recent confusion is proof that the current definition needs to be scrapped for a more appropriate one suited to the community. There are residencies [in the village] with the means to legitimately house up to eight people and we will need provisions in the new definition to address that.”

West said that he will be working with the village attorney and building inspector to draft a new definition of “family” for presentation to the village board within the next two months.

“What the village administration says and what they do, are two completely different things. During this election season, [Village Trustee and mayoral candidate Sally Rhoads and incumbent Mayor Jason West] are downplaying any of the legislation that has to do with student rights and their choice of living with who they want,” Ruger said. “The question is, what exactly was the purpose of changing the definition of family? If [West] says it doesn’t work, it’s because he made it not work, along with anyone who voted for it. If the definition doesn’t work, why now have a law that says it must be followed? Follow the actions, and not the words.”

Ruger was not the only one to criticize the village administration with accusations of a student targeting agenda. New Paltz Village mayoral candidate and owner of the Groovy Blueberry, Amy Cohen voiced her concerns with the village’s legislative action.

“[The village administration] claim that these laws have been enacted under the guise of ‘safety,’ yet this is a Trojan Horse to create laws that, in essence, push students out of the village and into a Park Point-like facility,” Cohen said. “The new housing law which requires tenants to adhere to the occupancy requirements based on the definition of ‘family’ would apply to all adults, not just students. This law was passed by Jason West. If he says that the definition of family does not work why did he change to this? It is not very easy to change legislation, so why did he change it to something worse than it was before?”

Mayoral candidate Tim Rogers also gave comment.

“I don’t believe Jason West is lying. I imagine any confusion that was created was unintentional,” Rogers said. “I think the problem here is more so a disorganization in law-making which administrators need to be aware of so these conflicts don’t arise.”