An East Hampton jury found Springs resident Rian White, 53, guilty of five of six counts of town code violations Friday, including failure to maintain his premises free of litter and not having a building permit or a certificate of occupancy for a shed on his property at 11 Hodder Avenue. The jury found him not guilty of displaying a non-conforming sign: a six-foot hot dog statue, with arms, legs and a smiling face that he stores in his backyard.
Mr. White said he will appeal. He charged that Judge Lisa R. Rana had kept evidence from the jury, including the details of an incident in October 2007, when the town sent a crew to remove litter from his property but ended up leaving empty-handed, concerned about the legality of the operation. Two months later, Code Enforcement Officer James Smith returned to Mr. White’s property and issued a new summons for littering.
“I’m not necessarily a slob but I don’t think it’s right for the government to tell you what to do on your property,” Mr. White said outside the courtroom Friday evening, after the day-long trial, during which he wore a yellow tie depicting a little boy urinating. “I’m really bummed out about the littering thing because, I mean, I put my cigarette butts in my pocket. I’ve never littered in my whole life.”
Friday’s trial was the culmination of six years of battle between Mr. White, angry neighbors and the town. Madeleine Narvilas, the assistant town attorney who prosecuted the case for East Hampton, said that it had always been the town’s hope that Mr. White would plead guilty to the charges and “get into compliance,” so that the case would never have had to go to trial. Even after the jury was impaneled Friday morning, the town gave him one more offer to plead guilty to the charges and not have to pay any fines, as long as he remedied the violations.
But Mr. White refused. “If I pleaded guilty and they got that break, I think everybody suffers because you’re going to lose certain, inalienable rights. I don’t think what I’m doing is criminal,” he said Monday in a phone interview.
Neighbors of his who attended the trial disagreed.
“We’re pleased with the outcome,” said Vincent Wolfe Jr., the grandson of Mr. White’s 96-year-old next-door neighbor. “But what happens next? It’s the opening of the next chapter, if the town is able to turn this verdict into action and bring his property into compliance.”
Ms. Narvilas is seeking maximum fines, $1,000 for each of the five charges on which Mr. White was found guilty, and the requirement that all violations must be cleared up. The sentencing is scheduled for Thursday, March 5, at 2 p.m. in Town Justice Court.
Mr. White’s attorney, Trevor Darrell, described the trial as a conflict between what some may consider to be litter versus what others might consider as valuable items. “Just because you have things on your property, it’s litter?” Mr. Darrell asked during his opening statements.
Later, in an interview, he said, “I think the definition of what makes something litter in the town of East Hampton is highly vague. If it makes the property unsightly, that could be litter, but who says it’s unsightly—the officer who shows up? If you went and walked around the property, Rian could tell you what everything was and what he was going to do with it.”
According to the East Hampton Town Code, “the owner or person in control of any private property shall at all times maintain the premises free of litter.”
Litter is defined as “Garbage, refuse, handbills, newspapers and rubbish … and all other waste materials which, if thrown or deposited as herein prohibited, tend to create a danger to public health, safety and welfare or render the streets, private grounds or public places unsightly, including household waste and construction and demolition debris.” The code also gives detailed definitions of what constitutes “refuse” and “rubbish.”
The town’s prosecutor, Ms. Narvilas, called two witnesses during the trial, Ordinance Enforcement Inspector Joshua Stewart and Enforcement Officer James Smith. Pictures they took of Mr. White’s property were submitted in evidence to prove her case.
“There’s nothing subjective about these offenses,” Ms. Narvilas said during a phone interview on Monday. “The code enumerates them.”
“The town code has pretty strict regulations on how you’re supposed to maintain your property,” said Don Sharkey, East Hampton Town’s chief building inspector.
During the trial, Officer Stewart testified that he had visited Mr. White’s property on two occasions, the first time on September 14, 2006, in response to a neighbor’s complaint about the litter and debris on Mr. White’s property.
“When I arrived, I observed a shed at 11 Hodder Avenue and a lot of unsightly litter and garbage thrown throughout the property including newspaper, broken construction debris, household garbage, empty food cans, and beer bottles,” Officer Stewart testified.
He also said he had seen “wood, plastic, metal, lawn mowers, motors, cans and garbage” overflowing from the shed. On returning to his office, he checked in the town database to see if Mr. White was the owner of the property and whether or not he had a building permit or certificate of occupancy for the shed. He did not, Mr. Stewart said.
“I had a conversation with Mr. White, telling him he was in violation and would go to court, so he should start cleaning up,” Officer Stewart testified. “I went back to the property on January 25, 2007 and it was the same. Nothing had changed.”
Officer Stewart again issued him a ticket for not having a building permit or a certificate of occupancy.
During the trial, Mr. White’s attorney, Mr. Darrell, argued that “shed” is not defined in the town code, and that the structure on Mr. White’s property is not a shed or any type of structure that requires a building permit or certificate of occupancy, because it’s attached to two trees.
“Our argument is that it was not a shed, it’s not attached to the ground, and so not attached to town property and thus never a set structure,” Mr. Darrell said.
There was a twist in the case in the autumn of 2007, after the East Hampton Town Board passed a resolution on September 4 that warned Mr. White he had 10 days to clean up his property or town officials would do it for him. On October 3, about 15 code enforcement and public works officials, police officers, and workers from Mickey’s Carting showed up outside Mr. White’s property. After a huddle, they decided not to remove anything, unsure of what was litter and legal to remove.
“Make no doubt about it, once we review it, and it hasn’t been cleaned up, we will be back, and we will remove what should be removed,” East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill McGintee pledged after the incident.
Ms. Narvilas, in an interview, said the town had the charges against Mr. White dropped after the inspection. “At that point in time, town code officers determined that there were no violations in the realm of failing to maintain the premises free of litter,” Ms. Narvilas said. “When Officer Smith returned in December 2007, there were violations.”
Officer Smith testified during the trial to what he found on December 5, 2007. “The property was covered with litter—garbage bags, mannequins, cans of food, TV sets, a giant hot dog and other types of refuse,” Officer Smith said. He also testified to having seen frayed electrical wires running from the hot dog truck in the driveway to the house, which he said posed a public safety hazard.
To the dismay of Mr. White and his attorney, the judge did not allow any testimony about the October visit of a town crew to Mr. White’s property because, she said, it was not relevant to the charges that were filed after it.
“My hope was that the jury would have heard the totality of the situation,” Mr. Darrell said. “Clearly, the prosecutor deemed that what was on his property was not litter on October 25, then three months later he was charged with litter?”
Stuart Vorphal, a commercial fisherman from Montauk, who observed the trial in support of Mr. White, said during a lunch break outside the courtroom that Judge Rana was suppressing evidence by not allowing the details of the October incident to be explained.
Mr. Vorphal said he thought the case against Mr. White is unfair. “Live and let live,” he said.
“Live and let live until you burn the whole neighborhood down,” Susan Lish, a property manager who also lives on Hodder Avenue, told Mr. Vorphal.
Ms. Lish said she was concerned that the stuff on Mr. White’s property was a public safety hazard.
“The thing that man needs most is to be left alone,” Mr. Vorphal said. “That’s the American way.”
“No, the American way is respect for your neighbor,” Ms. Lish said.
In his closing arguments, Mr. Darrell argued that the town was trying to make Mr. White a criminal for being different. “It’s trying to legislate forced aesthetics,” he said to the jury.
Ms. Narvilas countered that this was not a case about aesthetics. “It doesn’t matter whether you agree with the law,” she said. “The town of East Hampton prohibits you from having certain items on your premises.”
The jury apparently agreed after two hours of deliberation, although it let him keep his hot dog man.
Mr. White is an artist and has worked as a carpenter and photographer for the last 30 years that he’s been living on the East End, he said in an interview. He has lived at his current address for 19 years. He has one son, Tyrone, who grew up in Plattsburgh, New York, with his mother, who is a belly dancer. Mr. White hopes his son, who plays in a heavy metal band called Look What I Did and lives in Tennessee, will visit soon to help him sell some of his things on eBay.
“I’ve lost a lot of friends over this,” Mr. White said. “People have said why don’t you do what they want you to do. But I’m so disgusted, I haven’t kept up my property to the degree I would have if I hadn’t been dragged through all this crap and bullied around.”