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Hilltown Archives The Altamont Enterprise, February 16, 2012
Westerlo considers revising unsafe-buildings law
WESTERLO Looking back on inspections of hazardous buildings in town, Code Enforcement Officer Edwin Lawson came to the town board last week to discuss an update of the local law that manages unsafe or abandoned structures in Westerlo.
“We have a couple situations in town right now that need to be addressed, and we don’t have the mechanism in place to really address it,” Lawson told board members. “One is a burned out building that nothing’s happening with, and I’ve been queried by neighbors as to what the town intended to do, and I told them the town really doesn’t have a lot of options. Another situation is, neighbors complaining about garbage, and the potential for rodent infestation in this house.”
In most cases, Lawson said, buildings that have been deemed unsafe have either been foreclosed on, abandoned by their owners, or badly burned in a fire.
“What they have is people in there vandalizing the property, taking out all the copper pipes, and the heat, and the rest of it destroying the property more,” Lawson said. “This law is an attempt to address those types of situations and hopefully give us a mechanism to take care of those situations.”
While the current law defines a livable structure, attorney Aline Galgay said that it is “archaic.” And, while she saw no indication of when the law was passed, it appeared to be from the 1970s, she said.
“It’s unwieldy, and it requires us to get Supreme Court action,” Galgay said. “For all intents and purposes, it’s useless.”
The board will hold a public hearing on the updated law at the beginning of next month’s regular town board meeting on Tuesday, March 6, at 7:30 p.m.
Councilman Edward Rash expressed concern over accountability for these buildings, but Galgay told Rash that ownership can be tracked by checking deed history. But, as was discussed later, issues of title become more complicated in cases of burned buildings.
“It’s my understanding that, when the fire department responds to an incident,” Councilman R. Gregory Zeh said, “when the fire department arrives, they assume ownership of the property, for all practical intents and purposes…They then fill out a form that gets sent to code enforcement, that requires the homeowner to get an inspection to get occupancy again.”
He asked Lawson, “When does title actually transfer back to the property owner?”
“Typically,” Lawson said, “we make the determination right then and there.”
Said Galgay, “In many instances, the insurance companies are waiting for there to be a determination by the town.”
Addressing an ongoing case in town, she went on, “The town hasn’t stepped in and made any declaration as to the severity of the damage to the structure, so the insurance company is waffling on what they’re willing to pay out.”
Rash asked Galgay what happens when an owner flees the property.
“The taxes generally get paid by the bank, the bank eventually takes ownership of it, and the bank will sell it,” said Galgay. “Either way, we get paid that’s what we’re worried about.”
Still, Rash was concerned that the town would get stuck paying for repairs to bring an abandoned building into compliance.
“If they don’t do the repairs,” Galgay said of property owners, “or undertake to deposit money with the town for the town to take on those repairs…the only option you have is for the town to undertake whatever the remedial action is, and then levy that cost against the taxes, to be recouped at the time those taxes are paid.”
She went on, “If you did the repair work in December; you levied it against the town taxes; in January it comes out as part of the town tax bill just like an overdue water payment.”
“The way we get our money,” said Zeh “is, we collect the taxes from the residents of the town. When we collect those taxes, we collect the apportionment of Albany County property taxes and town of Westerlo taxes. We then need to remit that money to Albany County. The town clerk nets those monies due to us out of what we remit to the county.”
Added Galgay, “So, we remit less than what is due when owing to the county.”
So, the longest the town could go without having that money, Zeh and Galgay said, is 12 months.
Councilman Alfred Field, a newcomer to the board, said that, if the law requires a town board vote before action can be taken on an unsafe building, he thinks all five town board members should visit the site.
“If you’re going to make a judgment on something, you should at least know what you’re judging,” Field said.
“It’s almost like saying, ‘When a State Trooper stops somebody for speeding, he’s got to have the superintendent come down and verify that he actually stopped him for speeding,’” said Lawson. “The other thing: If that’s in that law, I think you should write a report on what you saw, so that it goes jointly with mine.”
Said Zeh, “I don’t want to see town board members making a determination because we’re not educated in the property maintenance code.”
Rash asked if board members would be trespassing in making these site visits. Galgay replied that it would be “problematic,” but that she is more concerned with the idea of board members making determinations on whether or not a building is unsafe.
The board agreed to re-word the law so that board members “may” visit the site, but it would not be mandatory.
Lawson said that the law should address contacting utility companies in case there is a need for an emergency disconnection, and eventual reconnection, of electricity.
“On a typical fire, I have to go there and actually see if it’s safe enough to reoccupy, based on what started the fire, what’s going to continue it, all that stuff,” Lawson said. “We’ve had instances in town where Councilman Zeh had to help through his resources to get an electrical service reconnected, around the holidays, because the utility wouldn’t do it.”
Zeh said that, in that case, the utility company was waiting for the firemen, who had requested the power disconnection for their safety, to authorize the reconnection, despite Lawson having inspected the building, and having approved the reconnection.
“The people are there, wanting to get back into their house, and we have nothing to do,” said Lawson.
The desire for the new law to have “teeth” for enforcement, but to also be specific, was echoed throughout the discussion.
“Before we pass a law, that’s what I’m worried about the execution of that process,” Rash said. “Every time you pass a law, you take away a freedom.”
In other business at its Feb. 7 meeting, the town board:
Heard from councilmen Anthony Sherman and Field that they want to interview Doyle Shaver before his appointment to the planning board. The other town board members, who were in office prior to 2012, had already interviewed Shaver. Supervisor Richard Rapp said that he wanted to appoint Republican Chairwoman Dorothy Verch as planning board chair, but the rest of the board wanted to interview her as well;
Scheduled a meeting for Feb. 23 at 7 p.m., at which the board will begin revising the employee handbook, in executive session;
Agreed to develop a policy for groups and individuals who wish to make use of Town Hall for non-governmental activities, including cost and other guidelines;
Voted to borrow $73,000 to purchase a new truck; and
Heard from Councilman Zeh that the town has paid off all debts, other than for $476,000 borrowed to purchase trucks.
By Zach Simeone
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