Fix it or lose it?

Ancram seeks law to tidy up town

ANCRAM—If you own a building that is about to collapse on some unsuspecting passerby, you could be in violation of a new law the Town Board will soon consider.

Town Code Enforcement Officer Edward Ferratto came to the Town Board’s June 19 meeting with details about a proposal dealing with unsafe, condemned buildings, junk-strewn properties and lawns that look more like jungles.

Mr. Ferratto said there seems to be some “ambiguity” about violations and enforcement actions when it comes to these kinds of conditions and having a local law will spell things out for everybody.

New York State already has a Property Maintenance Code that addresses these types of issues, but Mr. Ferratto said his job and the job of town justices who are not all attorneys or familiar with state laws, would be made easier if the town had its own law on the books.

Mr. Ferratto also serves as the code enforcement officer (CEO) in Copake and the Town of Catskill, Greene County. Both of those municipalities have enacted such laws, enforce them regularly and have had success (mostly) with getting violators to comply, Mr. Ferratto said.

It usually starts with a complaint made to Mr. Ferratto about an observed unsafe condition. He then checks it out and if he finds that the complaint is valid, will issue a warning or an order to remedy the violation. The order explains the violation and specifies a date by which the condition must be fixed. It could be immediately if the situation is life threatening, or some number of days. Fines based on the duration of the violation could be imposed.

While most property owners are willing to work with him to come into compliance, the CEO said that sometimes that is not the case, such as when the property is in foreclosure or in a trust, when the owner lives out of the area, when the violation is extensive or the owner resists being told what to do on his property.

If there is no response after an order is issued the violator may be issued a ticket to appear in court and a trial could ensue or the violator could be ordered to appear at a public hearing before the Town Board. It all depends on how the law is written, Mr. Ferratto said. In the case of a board hearing, the violator could plead his case to the Town Board, which could give the violator more time, find some way to work things out or hire someone to demolish the unsafe building or clean up the junk and add the cost of the work to the violator’s tax bill.

If the violator did not pay up on his tax bill, like all unpaid tax bills, it would be turned over to the county, which “makes the town whole,” explained Town Supervisor Art Bassin. The county then deals with the unpaid taxes by arranging a payment agreement or seizing the property and selling it.

Do the other towns use the law and is it enough, Mr. Bassin asked.

The law is used often, said Mr. Ferratto, and sometimes when the word gets out about a particular case, someone may step forward to take down the building or clean up the junk at a lower cost.

Sometimes “just the presence of the law is enough to get it done,” said the CEO. “It works, it definitely works.”

Donna Hoyt, owner of the dilapidated former Porter’s Store in the Ancram hamlet, asked, “Isn’t it only the property owner’s liability? That’s what property insurance is for.”

“Not true,” said Mr. Ferratto, adding that the town is liable if an order to remedy is issued and nothing is done about it. He used the example of a roof that blows off and someone is hurt. The town will have a lawsuit on its hands because “it should have done something,” he said.

Councilperson Chris Thomas asked, “What if the property owner does not want someone on the property?”

It doesn’t matter,” said Mr. Ferratto, citing a recent instance when a whole house was taken down and hauled away over the owner’s objections.

The law would be “not for a specific property, but for the safety of all,” said Councilperson Madeleine Israel.

Mr. Ferratto said in a follow-up phone call this week that he will make a determination about whether a building is unsafe based on his inspection. But if an owner disputes his finding, that owner could hire an engineer to offer a different opinion and present a plan for how the building will be repaired or brought into compliance.

The new law would also contain specifics about when grass is too high or if refuse includes unregistered vehicles and refrigerators.

High grass growing near a structure is considered a fire hazard.

Councilperson Jim Miller said he had concerns about “old people” who are unable to properly maintain their property. Councilperson Thomas did not want Mr. Ferratto to “go out looking for” offending properties. Mr. Bassin said, “We do not want to terrorize homeowners.”

The board moved forward with Councilperson Hugh Clark’s suggestion that “it would be useful to have the attorney talk to us and rough-out a potential law.”

Mr. Bassin said he would contact Town Attorney Jason Shaw about a draft and a discussion with the board on the proposal.

The board meets next Thursday, July 17 at 7 p.m.

To contact Diane Valden email .

 

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