Pondering fate of 4 neighborhood eyesores

Neighbors Fred Lloyd, James Robinson and Nathan Bright

Neighbors Fred Lloyd, James Robinson and Nathan Bright stand in front of an abandoned property in New Cassel, which is hidden from street view by overgrown bushes that are full of poison ivy. (July 28, 2012) (Credit: Judy Cartwright)

Judy Cartwright

Judy Cartwright Judy Cartwright

Judy Cartwright writes the Community Watchdog column

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So, just what are the chances of converting a neighborhood eyesore into a good neighbor?

Watchdog tried to find the answer after the Town of Oyster Bay demolished an abandoned house in Farmingdale in June. Such a teardown is not typical, and that one was years in the making, coming after a town engineer deemed the house a hazard. The town got the go-ahead when it notified the bank that it intended to raze the site -- the house was in foreclosure -- and the bank did not object.

Properties wind up abandoned for a variety of reasons -- foreclosure, death of the owner, divorce are among them. And sometimes owners who have moved away just want to hold on to a property here.

The presence of such unmaintained houses is growing as the foreclosure crisis continues, said Christopher Niedt, academic director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.

And that translates into more and more neighborhoods left with an eyesore in their midst -- and residents wondering why more of them can't be restored or razed or even condemned by the municipality.

Most towns and villages we've spoken with say their goal is straightforward: to get code violations corrected. That means getting the grass cut, litter and junk vehicles removed, holes that let in rain and vermin covered. But even when violations are corrected, they often don't stay corrected, as evidenced by the properties we've seen.

In an effort to resolve problem properties more quickly, some towns and villages have adopted stricter blight ordinances that carry more severe penalties.

Still, the process can last for years, sometimes decades. To understand why, we turned to Niedt:

"There are legal requirements that provide safeguards to homeowners but that also delay local action against vacant homes," Niedt said. "And it's a difficult balance to strike."

So there is no easy answer. For now, here's a look at four properties in various states of distress and the prospects for their return to good neighbor status. They're just a few of the dozens that readers have flagged. Watch for more in coming weeks.

 

THE EYESORE: Vacant house on Huntington Road, Huntington.

THE HISTORY: County legislators have sent letters to neighbors since the 1990s saying they expected the owner, who lives in another state, to sell the property soon. The town has a file of complaints dating to 1991, town spokesman A.J. Carter said, and the owner has addressed specific violations, such as litter and boats kept on the property.

WHAT IT LOOKED LIKE ON A RECENT VISIT: A tarp covered one section of roof; holes were visible in an uncovered section as well as in eaves. Holes could be seen around the front porch and steps. Exterior paint was peeling. Neighbors say they have seen rats and raccoons around the house.

THE STATUS: The owner was in court for code violations in winter and the property was placed on the town's "blight list," which requires a score of at least 100 under the town's year-old blight law; this property scored 130, Carter said, and the owner faced a $2,500 annual penalty. The owner entered into a "restoration agreement" that required shutting off electricity and putting the property up for sale, Carter said; LIPA shut off power June 26, and the house was listed for sale on July 18.

Until the blight law was enacted, the property's condition allowed the town only to prohibit occupancy, Carter said. "We couldn't allow somebody to live in the house, but as something of an eyesore in the neighborhood there was nothing more we could have done," he said.

WHAT'S THE OUTLOOK? Promising -- if the property is sold. A new owner likely would raze the house so a new one could be built. For now, the owner needs to show good faith in meeting the conditions of the agreement, Carter said, or will wind up back in court.

 

THE EYESORE: Vacant canal-front house on South Hickory Street, Lindenhurst.

THE HISTORY: The property, with three buildings, has not been maintained for several years and the house was damaged by a fire a few years ago, according to Mayor Thomas Brennan. The village obtained a court order last year that allowed it to remove a rusted crane and barge. The owner has contested the $26,000 he was billed for the removal.

WHAT IT LOOKED LIKE ON A RECENT VISIT: A tarp on the roof of the house, which Brennan said was necessary to cover fire damage, was in tatters. Water was visible between gaps in the bulkhead/boardwalk, which was in disrepair. Waist-high weeds covered much of the grounds.

THE STATUS: The property has become a hangout for teenagers, according to neighbor Michael Calma, who fears for their safety, especially on the bulkhead. He has filed complaints with the village about the condition of the site.

Village Manager Shawn Cullinane said the village would arrange for another cleanup and a replacement tarp; such work requires authorization of the village board.

WHAT'S THE OUTLOOK? Uncertain. If property taxes aren't paid, Suffolk County could begin eminent domain proceedings, Cullinane said. No site in the village has reached that point, he said, as they typically are either brought into compliance or sold and redeveloped.

 

THE EYESORE: Two vacant commercial buildings, each with several storefronts, on a lot next to the Long Island Rail Road's Gibson Station in Valley Stream.

THE HISTORY: The property was purchased several years ago by a doctor who planned to develop condos, Mayor Ed Fare said. The buyer let the store leases expire, Fare said, but it took several years for the project to win approval and survive a court challenge; by then the economy had soured and financing was difficult to obtain.

WHAT IT LOOKED LIKE ON A RECENT VISIT: Broken windows were boarded up and a few shards of glass remained on the sidewalk; most graffiti tags had been painted over (though in blocks of white paint that doesn't match the exterior); the pavement between the buildings and the train platform had collapsed in two spots, each blocked off with a wooden frame, one of which was leaning. Weeds were high.

"It is one of the worst eyesores I have ever seen," village resident James Giordano wrote Watchdog. The mayor concurs: "It has become an eyesore and a blight."

THE STATUS: "He has approval for development, but hasn't been able to get financing," Fare said of the owner, adding that the village has tried to help arrange financing and find a new developer. The owner has addressed violations (such as painting over graffiti) as they occur, Fare said, and continues to pay property taxes.

WHAT'S THE OUTLOOK? Guarded optimism. The village has met with multiple developers interested in the site, Fare said, expressing hope that a deal could be reached. Still, he held out the option of eminent domain. The village has pursued that last resort three times, he said, and twice the specter prompted action.

Eminent domain has begun to attract attention nationally as a tactic to address housing blight, Niedt said, but hasn't been widely used because "there's no tradition of using it that way." Historically, eminent domain has targeted properties needed for roads and other public facilities.

 

THE EYESORE: Abandoned house on Second Avenue, New Cassel

THE HISTORY: Neighbors say the house has been vacant for several years. Neighbor Fred Lloyd said he has filed numerous complaints with the Town of North Hempstead.

WHAT IT LOOKED LIKE ON A RECENT VISIT: Overgrown bushes, filled with poison ivy, blocked the view of the house. Plants from the front and side yards extended across the driveway.

THE STATUS: The town is due to clean up the property soon, spokesman Collin Nash said. The owner had been notified of violations in July for overgrown weeds and grass. A copy was taped to the front door and another sent by mail, Nash said.

The town's procedure calls for issuing three such notices before the highway department cleans up the property. The cost of the work is charged to the owner.

The latest notices of violation follow one in April that cited the presence of litter, which Nash said had been addressed.

WHAT'S THE OUTLOOK? Uncertain. The town will use the property maintenance section of town code when the site has violations, said another town spokesman, Sid Nathan. The code calls for properties to be "maintained free from weeds or plant growth in excess of 10 inches. All noxious weeds are prohibited." The code permits penalties of as much as $1,000 for a first offense and higher fines for subsequent violations.

Nassau County is also involved with the property; it took over a strip along one side for nonpayment of taxes, county spokesman Brian Nevin said, and has been trying to sell it to get the property back onto tax rolls.