Thi main issue is the fact that the town has already issued the warning notice. i am curious how they found out. Usually towns are reactive so if no one "squeals" then they do nothing. Furthmore if the building was totally family occupied then it might have passed muster. You see 2 family houses are treated alnmost like single family homes but once you get above 2 units its a whole new ball game. Zoning is different and you WON'T get a varience to have a 3 plus in a 2 family zone. The town and State require the building to be registered and inspected on a regular basis. In Jersey City for example there is rent control on 3 units and above and so on.
When you go to the building Dept - not the zoning office as hey are not involved - tell them the full story and that way they might work with you. Now they will not allow the continued non conforming use but they may ameliorate the fines and allow extended time for the work to be done. Bring your client and a very large box of tissues. Tears and knees are a great help in these cases.
But do not expect miracles - hias is CityHall and they take no prisoners.
My email is on my profile if you need any more info let me know.
It is most mportant that the owner go to the town construction official and discuss with them exactly how they want them to proceed. They will demand that the building be returned to its original authorsed use - i.e. a 2 family home. In all likelyhood they will require architect plans and estimates from a licenced contractor before proceeding. They way you describe it won't work. The letter you describe in all likelyhood put a cutoff date by which time the work has to be at least started and if that is not complied with then there are SUBSTANTIAL DAILY FINES.
You must emphasise to the homeowner that there are in very serious trouble. They are firmly in the sights of the town ofiicials and they cannot even lift a hammer without getting a permit. Furthermore they can face fines for all the undocumened work done on the property especially since a 4 family was involved.
Believe me - I work with people as a realtor in the area and I am a property owner myself and Ican assure you there is no way around this mess.
One other possibility, perhaps a long-shot: Have your client apply for a variance.
Joan Prout, MBA
RE/MAX Villa REALTORS
Jersey City, NJ