When Tai and Adele Aguirre renovated a broken-down home in upstate New York in 1994, little did they know that would mark the beginning of a three-year legal nightmare with New York City bureaucrats that nearly cost them their livelihood.
Tai and Adele moved from Queens to Putnam County, 100 miles from New York City. They purchased and began renovating a dilapidated two-bedroom bungalow. The couple work out their home, and the plan was to use their residence as a place of business as well.
They received the necessary approvals for the renovation work from the Putnam County Department of Health (PCDOH), the local zoning board, and the Building Department. The PCDOH and New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYCDEP) inspected the home’s septic tank on numerous occasions and found it to be in good operating condition.
Then, quite unexpectedly, the NYCDEP sued the Aguirres, claiming their septic tank did not meet the proper regulatory criteria. The NYCDEP argued that the septic system was insufficient for a four-bedroom house–but the Aguirres only had two bedrooms! They had added an office and storage space since there was no garage or basement.
The Aguirres were perplexed as to why the NYCDEP were suing them. The department had stated no objections to the septic system during the renovation process. Says Tai, “they sued us over a septic system that was examined by them and found to be working perfectly.”
The reason, it turns out, was to force upstate residents to pay for New York City’s efforts to clean up its water. During this period, the city was required by the federal Clean Water Act to spend billions of dollars for a new water filtration system to clean its drinking water. Instead of paying for a new filtration system, the city decided to show “compliance” by imposing highly restrictive land-use regulations on upstate residents. By suing the Aguirres, New York City hoped to set a precedent in state supreme court, allowing the city to regulate land use and development 100 miles outside its borders.
The Aguirres refused to back down, using their marketing skills to publicize the NYCDEP’s bullying tactics. Although they had to spend about $10,000 of their money, the Aguirres were able to put the city on the defensive. A spokeswoman for the NYCDEP severely hurt the agency’s credibility when she claimed that although the Aguirres’ septic tank was in good condition now, “Some day in the future a septic could break down.” Such unreasonable attitudes helped tilt the debate in the Aguirres’ favor.
In April 1998, the NYCDEP dropped its lawsuit and allowed the Aguirres to continue living in their home. “It’s ironic that the terms of the settlement stipulated that we pump the septic tank less frequently than we already have been doing,” says Tai. “So why all these years of harassment and waste of taxpayer dollars?”
John K. Carlisle is director of the Environmental Policy Task Force at The National Center for Public Policy Research. He can be reached at