Contractor loses license over carbon monoxide poisoning

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Last week, a full four years after Michael and Gay Snow moved into their newly renovated Bridgehampton home not far from the ocean, the couple succeeded in forcing Southampton Town to revoke the license of the contractor who did the work.

The Snows claimed last year that they could be exposed to a potentially fatal amount of carbon monoxide because of two furnaces installed by a subcontractor working for Bridgehampton-based Fountainhead Construction, which they say should be replaced. They also claim that Southampton Town should never have issued a certificate of occupancy because of the faulty boiler room.

The town’s Licensing Review Board listened to an extensive hearing on whether to rescind Fountainhead Construction’s license last November, and on May 14 the board refused to renew the company’s license for six months.

Mr. and Mrs. Snow filed a notice of claim last year against Fountainhead Construction, the company’s owner, Gary Seff, subcontractor Lowell Mechanical, and Southampton Town in State Supreme Court, hoping to recoup the expense of having the work re-done.

The Snows cite an October fire marshal’s inspection of their house as one of the prime complaints. At the time, the fire marshal said the vents for the gas-fired boilers were too close to a window, allowing exhaust to come back into the house through the window. Contractors told the Snows that the window must be open at all times because there wasn’t enough ventilation space for the boilers.

Mr. Seff said this week that the Snows decided to use the small boiler in the original house in conjunction with another small boiler as a cost-saving measure. Mr. Seff has worked on many major high-end construction projects in Southampton since 1989, and the town’s attorney handling the case said that he has never received a complaint before.

Mr. Seff maintained that a carbon monoxide detector outside the door of the Snows’ mechanical room has never gone off in the time they’ve lived there.

In the minutes of the Licensing Review Board’s November hearing, Chief Building Inspector Mike Benincasa said that while the vent was 4 inches closer to the window than the code required, “it really wasn’t a concern, although it didn’t meet the code exactly.”

The board based its denial of Fountainhead’s license on the boiler room’s deviation from blueprint specifications and also said that plumbing leaks and inferior shingle, deck and floor installation were major problems throughout the house.

Mr. Seff said that he believed he’d answered the board’s questions about the leaks, shingles and decking at the November hearing, and that he had not been made aware of the carbon monoxide issue until the hearing and had expected to address the situation during mediation. He said he still believed the Snows were planning to mediate the case as late as mid-April, when they suddenly rescinded their offer. Weeks later, Mr. Seff learned from a reporter that the board had denied his license renewal.

The Snows said that they and their two children had been living in the house without knowledge of the boiler problems for three years, though Gay Snow said she had initially been suspicious when subcontractors from Lowell Mechanical told her she must always keep the boiler room window and door open.

Mr. Snow is an investment advisor and Ms. Snow worked in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office and also for a private law practice during the 1990s.

“She’s a professional litigator,” said Mr. Seff, who added that Ms. Snow had threatened to sue him throughout the project over a litany of items that she believed were done incorrectly, including shingles she claimed had been installed improperly and a deck she said had been built with inferior lumber. Mr. Seff said that he normally maintains clients’ houses after he’s finished with the projects because of the trust he’s built with his customers. At the Snows’ job, he said, he was told to continue maintenance for free or she would sue.

“It’s the first time I’ve done a job for a litigator,” he said, adding that he bent over backward to accommodate the Snows before drawing the line at replacing their deck for free. He filed a countersuit for defamation after learning that the Snows had sued him last year.

Mr. and Mrs. Snow are also continuing to attempt to rescind Lowell Mechanical’s Suffolk County contractor’s license.

“This is a prime example of how government is so ineffective to the consumer,” said Ms. Snow, after the Suffolk County Office of Consumer Affairs refused to hear one of her complaints last week.

Ms. Snow believes the only thing that has kept her family safe has been the fact that they have followed the advice to keep the window and door open, even in the dead of winter, despite the drafts and enormous fuel bills. Since October, the couple has put a new chimney in the boiler room to keep the vent away from the window, but Michael Snow estimates that it will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace the boilers correctly.

The couple’s attorney, Garrett Lacara, said the town had also admitted that it had erroneously granted a certificate of occupancy, and that the Licensing Review Board should have issued a decision on the case within 60 days of the November 14 hearing.

Assistant Town Attorney Joe Burke, who is handling the case, said that the town code has no time frame restrictions for issuing decisions, but he noted that the board had actually held the hearing open until April, when it held a straw vote to not renew Fountainhead’s license. He added that much of the confusion surrounding the case stemmed from new staff handling the issue through a change in town administration.

The Licensing Review Board’s decision will prohibit Fountainhead Construction from seeking renewal of its license in the next six months, though Mr. Burke added that only the company’s license to do renovations will be invalid—Fountainhead will still be able to work on new construction. Mr. Seff plans to appeal the case to the Town Board.

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