Code enforcement welcome, and overdue

Saranac Lake is finally doing what it should have done many years ago, especially after 16-year-old Paul Schlitt died in a fire in an apartment house on Depot Street in October 1995. It’s starting to seriously enforce New York building codes.

The village has freed up its new code enforcement officer, Matt Steenberge, to do nothing but live up to his job title, 40 hours a week. In the past, village code enforcement officers were either part-time or overburdened with side duties. While we appreciate that village officials have to keep expenses tight, the result of not having a full-time code officer is that much of Saranac Lake’s commercial building and housing stock has gotten worse. This discourages people from investing in property here and therefore dampens chances of an economic recovery. It’s hard to make the numbers work for a severe fixer-upper.

Also, in recent years the village gave its code enforcement officer the necessary legal tools for the job. Imagine if police officers weren’t allowed to write tickets for speeding. The code enforcement situation here was like that until not long ago. Those who used to hold Mr. Steenberge’s post didn’t have the legal authority to write tickets for violations. Instead, they either had to get the village board to sue the building owner, an expensive and unlikely prospect, or use whatever leverage they could to get the owner to do something. This worked better with some owners than others, and slumlords continued to stay out of reach.

Now, though, Mr. Steenberge can issue a compliance order to the owner of a building he thinks violates codes. The owner then has to show up in court and can be made to pay a fine. That’s a huge improvement, but we still needed an officer out there on active patrol.

It sounds too good to be true, but now we have one. We hope he keeps up the good work, and we hope the village board and residents give him their full support.

One way villagers can do that is by reporting violations. Don’t cry wolf, but when something is really questionable – maybe a sparky appliance, blocked exits or hallways stuffed with flammable material – call the village offices at 518-891-4150 or stop by there on the second floor of the Harrietstown Town Hall, 39 Main St. A code enforcement officer can’t just go barging into people’s homes at random, looking for violations, but he or she can go into an apartment at a tenant’s request to check out something that doesn’t seem right. That, however, requires tenants and neighbors who stand up for themselves and don’t tolerate unsafe conditions.

Mr. Steenberge appears to not just be targeting a few particularly worst landlords, despite some of their cries about selective enforcement. His list of properties in violations is long, varied and comprehensive. That’s good because if he only goes after the worst ones, new ones will soon take their place.

One of the people claiming unfairness is Ed Dukett, who owns the building Paul Schlitt died in. In 1998, a legal settlement required Mr. Dukett to bring all his properties up to code by Dec. 16 of that year, but no one ever made that stick – even though by 2002 there had been several more fires in his cruddy buildings.

This isn’t just about cleaning up eyesores or setting that stage for an economic recovery, although those are also good reasons to enforce codes. It’s also to prevent squalid housing from breeding other forms of squalor, such as drug dealing – and the village has a serious problem with that. Mostly it’s about keeping residents safe and following the law. We don’t want more preventable deaths.

Meanwhile, the house Paul Schlitt died in still stands, with battered foam for siding, void of people but stuffed with objects. As an eyesore, it stands out even more now that its surroundings have been improved: an attractive carousel across the street in William Morris Park, a made-over Stewart’s Shop next door and a renovated train station a few doors down. It’s an ugly, constant reminder that the village still hasn’t gotten on top of this problem.

But now that building is on a list of properties in violation, so there’s hope.