Oswego Considering New Code For Vacant Buildings

OSWEGO, NY – “The Quality of Life Committee has been working on this particular code for a long time,” said chair Connie Cosemento.

Its purpose is to give city officials some solid standards to enforce a local law to deal with the issue.

It is the finding of the committee/council that buildings which remain vacant, with access points boarded over, are unsightly, unsafe and have a negative effect on their surroundings, she noted.

This is particularly troublesome in residential and neighborhood commercial neighborhoods, she added.

Unfortunately, many buildings, once boarded, remain that way for many years, she told the Administrative Services Committee at Monday’s meeting.

The purpose of this chapter (of the code) is to establish a program for identifying and registering vacant buildings, to determine the responsibilities of the owners of vacant buildings and structures and to facilitate the rehabilitation of the vacant properties, she explained.

Currently, the only part of the city code dealing with such properties states that a vacant property must be sealed, she pointed out.

Under the proposed code, a property that has been vacant for 30 days must be registered with the city and submit a plan as to what the owner plans to do with the property. It can be demolished, secured and maintained or returned to its appropriate occupancy or use by the owner (or sold to a new owner).

If the owner doesn’t abide by the requirements of the code, then fines start to kick in, Cosemento said.

“Some of our vacant property has been around for a very long time,” she said. “That affects the property value of every property around it.”

There is a property in the Seventh Ward where the owner died recently and it has become a popular hangout for kids, Council President Ron Kaplewicz said.

“It is problematic for the neighborhood and ultimately for the city,” he said. “This is what we’re trying to deal with through this code.”

In regard to the potential fines for violations, “Are we going to hold the city, the state, the county to the same standards as we hold the residents?” Councilor Mike Myers asked.

The city has some vacant properties it is trying to sell, Council Vice President Eric VanBuren said.

“Just like a landlord, who has a vacant property, as long as they are actively trying to sell it they wouldn’t face any fines. So if you’re actively trying to do something to change the status of the property, it’s OK,” he said.

However, Kaplewicz asked what if the owner puts a huge price tag on the property so no one could afford it.

“Wouldn’t that be a way to circumvent the process?” he asked.

“That would not be an honest asking price,” Cosemento said.

City Attorney Gay Williams concurred. The owner must ask the fair market value of the property, she said. The fair market value is determined by the other properties in the Port City, not according to real estate in places like Skaneateles, she added.

What happens if the owner wants to sell it, and not use a realtor, Councilor Myers asked.

“I put up a for sale sign in my yard. And, if I can’t sell it for the next 10 years than I’m alright? I’m covered?” he asked.

“I can think of at least one property right now that is just like that,” Kaplewicz said.

“That’s what I’m saying. I think there are some loopholes in this that need to be tied up,” Myers replied.

“What are we going to do? How do we do this without becoming too harsh? If we go in the direction of looking to regulate how long it can be on the market before something else has to be done … you can’t force someone to lower their price,” VanBuren said. “It can be on the market for 10 years at market price, then who are we to say you need to drop the price?”

“In talking with people in my ward, they said they’d far rather see a vacant building than a frat house next to their house,” Third Ward Councilor Mike Todd said. “They don’t want to see these houses rehabbed in any way, shape or form. I’d like to see about 500 of them torn down.”

Whether they get torn down or rehabbed, “a lot of our vacant properties are the result of renting to college students that have stressed out the buildings, the landlords choose not to fix it,” Cosemento said.

Todd suggested splitting the lot in half and charge $12,000 to tear down a house; then go to the two neighbors on either side and offer them the half lot for $6,000.

“Instead we bend over backwards to try to rehab these places. That does a couple of things. It causes us more problems in the neighborhood, it makes a glut of rentals and then it takes landlords who actually maintain their properties (we’ve got a couple of them here) and they have to charge less rent to keep their properties up – there is no incentive for them to maintain their properties right now because they have to charge the same rent as the people that don’t maintain their properties.

Until we get rid of the glut of (rental) housing, we’re never going to get market value for the people that are residents here or for the landlords that are maintaining their property.

“What we’re doing here is trying to prevent what we have right now, all these homes falling down literally; even some that are paying taxes, yet the roof is falling down,” First Ward Councilor Fran Enwright said. “This (code) is a step that is needed to catch any of these homes coming up in the future, prevent them from getting to this state.”

The committee took no action on the proposed new code.

Instead, it opted to give councilors and members of the public, another two weeks to read over the document and if they have any further questions or comments, they will be addressed at the next committee meeting.

If all the concerns are resolved then, it will be forwarded to the full council for consideration.