A Montauk couple has filed a lawsuit against East Hampton Town challenging the town’s right to inspect an artist’s studio on their property, and questioning whether a town law that demands access for regular inspections conforms to the U.S. Constitution and its Fourth Amendment protection against “unreasonable searches.”
Paul and Sarah Schroetter filed the lawsuit this month challenging the town’s right to inspect their property without any specific cause, other than the fact that it includes an artist’s studio.
The suit claims that the current homeowners should not be subject to the inspection demands in the town code, because they had no way to know that the artist’s studio on their property, built by a previous owner nearly 20 years ago, was subject to the inspection requirement. The property owner had agreed to a covenant that allows inspections, but it was never officially recorded and, therefore, not revealed when they bought the property.
The attorney representing the Schroetters, Jon Tarbet of the East Hampton law firm Tarbet & Lester, says that the town’s policy of demanding the right to an inspection, at the risk of a property owner losing the right to have the accessory structure, abuses its authority. “You can’t dangle something in front of someone on the condition that they give up their constitutional rights,” he said this week. “My people had no idea that there was a covenant, and then they get this notice that they have to allow the town to come in.”
Though the town has long had the authority, under the covenants, to inspect artist’s studios, they have rarely done so, Mr. Tarbet said. Officials said that this year, however, it sent notices to all artist’s studio owners that there would be inspections to ensure that each is being used as such—and not as illegal rental housing.
Mr. Tarbet acknowledged that if town officials did have a valid suspicion that the Schroetters’ studio was being used illegally, they could get a search warrant.
The town began allowing professional artists to build detached studios, exempted from typical accessory structure limitations, on their properties in 1990. In 2000, after abuses of the allowances, the town began requiring a covenant for annual inspections, at the town’s discretion, as a condition to being granted permission to construct them.
Mr. Tarbet said that among the flaws he sees in the law is that if a property is sold to someone other than a professional artist, it could mean the structure has to be removed entirely.
Town Attorney Michael Sendlenski said that the town is investigating whether the studio on the Schroetters’ property is being used improperly but would not discuss the town’s position on Mr. Tarbet’s claims in the lawsuit.
“We sent letters to everyone who has an artist’s studio, pursuant to what’s included in the law,” he said. “If you want one of these studios, you have to consent to the inspections.”
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