Tipsters who alert county officials to zoning violations will have only limited anonymity from now on, County Executive Charles I. Ecker said yesterday.
"Everybody ought to be able to face their accuser," Ecker said. In the past, identities of people who tipped off the county about zoning infractions remained secret.
Now, everyone who seeks to alert the county to zoning violations will be given a choice: They can agree to have their names made public once the cases are closed or they can agree to drop their complaints.
The change doesn't mean that people who want to know who reported them will get a quick answer. If a case goes to court, it may not be closed for years.
Some violators "accused zoning inspectors of hiding in the woods and spying on them," Ecker said. "They asked us, 'Why are you sneaking around like this?' "
However, for years it has been department policy for inspectors not to address zoning infractions unless someone filed a written complaint.
The exception has been that if an inspector saw a violation that might affect public health or public safety, the inspector could cite the violator without first receiving a complaint.
Former zoning department employee Mary T. Ford wants the county to change that. She wants zoning inspectors to be "empowered to identify and enforce infractions," and has asked County Council members Darrel Drown, R-2nd, and Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, to sponsor an amendment to the zoning regulations. The amendment would allow inspectors to issue warning tickets and, subsequently, tickets for fines on their own initiative.
"We need to strengthen the county's ability to address violations before we experience further deterioration," Ford told the council members.
Drown and Feaga aren't sure that having inspectors act on their own is such a good idea. "It's something we'll probably look at," Feaga said. "But we haveto be real careful about giving that much power to anyone."
Drownsaid he agrees with Ecker that people "have a right to meet their accusers." Anonymous complaints could lead to "nit-picking," he said.
Drown says he prefers simple face-to-face confrontation.
"We're not a vengeful society," he said. Recently, Drown said, he confronteda commercial violator on Route 40, telling him that unless infraction were ended quickly, he would file a complaint.
"It was gone the next day," Drown said. Drown sits with other council members on the zoning board.
Ford said she is not looking for a return to anonymity. Indeed, she says disclosure may be a good idea.
"Most people don't intentionally violate the zoning laws," she said. "A person may have an unlicensed car in their yard that their teen-aged son is working on. When they're slapped with a zoning complaint, they assume it'stheir next-door neighbor or someone across the street. It may not be.
"I had a case once where the person was frantic, thinking the neighbors were out to get her. It was an in-law was holding a grudge. Iwanted to tell her that, but I couldn't because we had to keep the complainant's name a secret."