Repair or tear down
SARANAC LAKE – The village’s new code enforcement officer has deemed a list of houses, apartment buildings, garages and other structures unsafe.
Matt Steenberge, who was hired in January, has issued compliance orders for at least 21 buildings that have been cited for numerous code violations over the last five months. Many of the buildings have also been declared unsafe structures “unfit for human habitation,” and their owners have been given a deadline to repair or remove them.
“I’ve heard a lot of complaints from village residents about run-down properties since I first started, and I’ve been keeping a close eye on all of them,” Steenberge said.
Many of the properties on the unsafe list have been eyesores and the source of complaints from neighbors for many years. Village Community Development Director Jeremy Evans said prior code enforcement officers have tried to do the same thing as Steenberge, but they also had other tasks on their plates.
“Tell me when there has been a village employee dedicated full-time to code enforcement, 40 hours a week,” Evans said. “Not part-time, not spread between the town and the village, not spread between two or three positions between the town and the village, not doing other things like housing rehab.
“From day one, Matt’s been 40 hours a week on code enforcement with no distractions. My intention is to keep it that way because I think it’s delivering some results that people have wanted for a long time.”
Steenberge, who lives in Malone, said he believes the village’s efforts will be successful.
“I care about this village a lot, too,” he said. “I may not live here, but I’m trying to make things better, like everyone else at the village.”
The cited properties are scattered around the community, although a half-dozen are located on Broadway, one of the village’s main thoroughfares. These include the former Dew Drop Inn and an apartment building that police last year identified as a known site of illegal drug activity in the community.
Under the state Freedom of Information Law, the Enterprise was allowed to review the files for each of the unsafe buildings that Steenberge has cited. Many had multiple violations like structural issues, broken doors and windows, and garbage piled up outside.
For example, at 29 Park Ave., owned by Gary Boyd, Steenberge found part of the building had collapsed and the rest of the structure didn’t appear structurally sound. After issuing Boyd an unsafe structure notice, Steenberge said the owner now plans on renovating the building.
One of the thickest files on Steenberge’s desk was for 43 Franklin Ave., a vacant house owned by Stephen and Katie Kirkpatrick. It was cited for more than 20 violations going back to August of last year. After getting no response from the owners, and following a public hearing in May, the village declared the property a public nuisance. It couldn’t be determined Friday what the village plans to do with the vacant house.
Steenberge said most of the landowners in question have voluntarily complied and said they will repair their buildings or demolish them.
“The majority of people in the village are extremely nice and easy to work with,” he said. “There’s a few exceptions.”
For property owners who haven’t voluntarily complied, the village has two options. If the building has been deemed unsafe under village law, Steenberge said the village board can appoint an engineer and independent inspector to assess its condition. If they determine it’s unsafe, then the village can seek an order from the state Supreme Court to repair or demolish the building at the owner’s expense.
The other option, Evans said, is to cite the property owner for failing to comply with the state property maintenance code.
“We have a local law that authorizes us to administer and enforce that, and within that local law we have the right to issue an appearance ticket (for local court) to compel compliance,” Evans said.
In some cases, the threat of court action has apparently been a motivating factor. Steenberge cited multiple violations at 155 Broadway, which the Enterprise last year labeled Saranac Lake’s worst drug house since it had a string of drug-related arrests. However, he didn’t file an unsafe structure notice because its owner, Bob Decker, agreed to restore the exterior of the building. Scaffolding has gone up since then but it doesn’t appear any work has been done in recent weeks.
“Voluntary compliance was going on, but I haven’t seen him working in a while and I intend on sending him many violations and going to court if we need to,” Steenberge said.
Dew Drop Inn
Down the street, the former Dew Drop Inn at 27 Broadway is one of five buildings owned by Ed Dukett that are on Steenberge’s list, the most of any property owner.
“The porch that’s located along the (Saranac) river is frequently under water, and wood rots when it’s exposed to water and dries over and over again,” Steenberge said. “Based on the load from the force of that water, I’d say it’s unsafe. The foundation on the back of the building, additionally, was in bad condition. It was cracked and beginning to fall apart.”
The “unsafe building” notice posted on the Dew Drop gave Dukett until July 3 to repair or remove the building. That didn’t happen, so Steenberge said village officials will have to consider their next steps.
“From this particular property owner there has been no compliance, and he owns multiple properties that have issues,” he said.
Dukett told the Enterprise Friday that he’s hired an engineer to review the code violations the village has cited at the Dew Drop and the other buildings he owns, many of which he’s put up for sale.
“The engineer is waiting for papers,” Dukett said. “He wants it on paper exactly what the village wants done on these buildings. He’s not going to take their word for it.”
Although he’s not the only property owner the village has cited, Dukett says he’s been singled out by Steenberge at the direction of Evans. Dukett listed a number of other code violations he claims to have seen in buildings around the community, which, he says haven’t been dealt with by the village.
Evans said the list of unsafe properties was created by Steenberge alone, not by him or any other village official or employee. As to Dukett’s claim that he is being singled out, Evans said, “There are certainly a lot of addresses on that list that are not his.” If people see potential code violations, Evans encouraged them to contact the village.
Cost of compliance
Another property owner questioned whether the village could back up the violations it has alleged. Greg Dennin, a Lake Placid attorney, was listed in Steenberge’s files as the owner of 206 Prospect Ave., which was cited for eight violations including a damaged chimney, collapsed front porch and deteriorating structural beams.
Dennin said he contacted Steenberge to tell him that even though he’s listed on county tax records as the owner of the building, he’s given up his interest in the property and sold it to someone else.
“I also commented, as an attorney, that a lot of these things are very vague,” Dennin said. “I get it that the village wants to clean it up. There’s no question it’s an issue over there, but there also have to be standards with these code provisions, and the ones they’re talking about are pretty vague.”
Dennin also said many of the run-down properties the village is targeting are over-assessed.
“You get into a situation where the taxes accrue and you wonder if the property’s even worth what’s owed on the taxes,” he said. “If it’s not, you’re not going to put good money after bad.”
Evans said he understands the challenge homeowners face about the cost of upgrading their properties.
“But I think there’s two things I would ask anybody to consider,” he said. “One is, how are my actions or lack of actions affecting people and property around me? For hundreds of years, governments have had the right to address nuisances, for health and safety reasons, but also because of the negative affects that can occur to property around. The bottom line is the village is charged by New York state to enforce the building code, which includes property maintenance, to protect the health, safety and welfare of its residents.”
Buildings at the following locations (listed with their current owner, according to Franklin and Essex counties’ tax records) have been deemed either unsafe and/or in code violation by Saranac Lake village Code Enforcement Officer Matt Steenberge. In some cases, but not all, the property owner has addressed or is addressing the problem. Ownership of several of these properties is in dispute.