Dealing with neighborhood eyesores not easy

Gaetano Romano of Farmingdale contacted the Community Watchdog Gaetano Romano of Farmingdale contacted the Community Watchdog because he and his neighbors have been trying to get the house next door to him cleaned of all the mold that has invaded the interior. (Sept. 14, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday/Gwen Young

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Judy Cartwright Judy Cartwright

Judy Cartwright writes the Community Watchdog column ...

We're almost halfway through spring, the time for blossoms and blooms -- and neighborhood eyesores. Yes, next to the beauty of the season, the sore thumbs of suburbia stand out in stark contrast: Junked cars on a property, yards that resemble jungles and, increasingly, abandoned houses left to deteriorate.

Neighbors of such unmaintained properties have been asking Watchdog what, if anything, can be done to bring them in line.

For overgrown yards and junked cars, the answer is fairly easy. But for abandoned houses, it's anything but.

In tough economic times, dealing with such sites means a town has to track down not only the owner but, if the property is abandoned, the mortgage holder as well. The town can't take any action -- whether to secure structures deemed hazardous or otherwise clean up a property -- until the owner or bank is notified and given time to do so.

So the process isn't speedy. But it usually gets some results: If the responsible party doesn't clean up or secure the property, towns will step in to do the work and charge the costs to the property's tax bill. But make no mistake: Those measures aren't likely to transform a true eyesore into house beautiful, or even house OK.

Towns follow procedures spelled out in state and town codes regarding property maintenance, so in most cases they'll mow the grass, board up or otherwise repair unsafe conditions and remove debris.

But Long Islanders who seek to have abandoned eyesore properties turned into good neighbors need an abundance of patience, as illustrated by two neighborhoods:

Case One: The Town of Brookhaven notified the owner of a vacant Patchogue house about violations, including an open dry well and litter and debris.

"The owner cleaned up the property and secured the hole," town spokesman Jack Krieger said. "The property is secure, safe and the trash has been cleaned up."

Still, it remains an eyesore: The exterior paint is peeling and the windows have been boarded up since last summer, just before Tropical Storm Irene arrived. And neighbor Kathy Ferrari is exasperated. "You mean to tell me I can live on a block where people can just board up the house and leave it that way?" she asked.

Apparently so. "All safety-related issues have been addressed" on the property, Krieger said, "and as long as the building is secure and the lawn is mowed, they are in compliance" with town code.

Ferrari said she's considering asking town officials to enact tougher property maintenance measures. "I can't imagine them living next door to something like this," she said.

Case 2: A house in Farmingdale was the subject of a complaint to the Town of Oyster Bay more than a year ago. The property was then cleaned up and the site secured, but the house itself remains an eyesore.

The property has been vacant for some time, according to town spokeswoman Phyllis Barry, and in March 2011 the town sent notices of violation to both the owner of record and the bank. A town engineer found significant deterioration, Barry said, and the bank responded by cleaning up the site and securing the house, including covering the roof with a blue tarp.

Since then, the property has continued to deteriorate. Most of the tarp has vanished -- "it's all shredded," neighbor Gaetano Romano said -- exposing a large hole in the roof.

Barry said a town engineer returned to the site last month and "the town has reached out to the bank to tell them the property is not being maintained."

For the neighborhood, the waiting has become tiresome.

"Everything is falling apart," Romano said. Roof shingles wind up in his backyard -- "they're so brittle, they fly away from the roof," he said. "Everyday I have to clean up what comes on my side." The bank recently sent someone to mow the grass and weeds, he said, which occupy small sections of the yard, most of which is covered with concrete.

Neighbors have gone so far as to discuss buying the property, Romano said, and approached the bank about doing so. But the bank didn't respond to their inquiries, he said.

In Huntington, efforts to deal with such sites led to adoption last year of a "blight ordinance." A property now qualifies as a blight if it accumulates at least 100 points on a checklist of 28 violations ranging from boarded-up windows (5 points) to peeling paint (5 points), junk vehicles (15 points) to "presence of vermin, rodent harborage and infestation" (30 points).

For a property that reaches 100 points, the town can impose an annual penalty ($2,500 for a residential property, $5,000 commercial) and, if the violations aren't addressed, authorize work to address the problems and add the cost to the tax bill.

So far 47 properties have qualified for the blight list, town spokesman A.J. Carter said, and nine of those have since been removed. (Six are in full compliance and three have begun work to meet compliance, Carter said.,)

At the other end of the scale: Five others have been referred to an administrative hearing officer to determine what actions should be taken to address the blight conditions. In some cases, Carter said, demolition may be authorized.

with Gwen Young

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