A contingent of 10 neighbors from the Kennedy and Harrison Street neighborhood in the village of Spencer attended the Aug. 29 meeting to demand that the village board take action to clean up the village, in more than one way.
Initially Erika Brown, a former board member herself, recounted instances of houses where local codes are not enforced—garbage strewn around, piled up, or spilling onto the neighbor’s property, numerous unlicensed vehicles sitting on a property possibly leaking oil or gas, scrap metal piled up, grass grown higher than 18 inches and not mowed, nuisance rodents proliferating, and “meth heads and heroin addicts coming in.”
Some of these unsightly and unsafe things are near the village line and are among the first thing prospective buyers see as they enter Spencer. Brown said she has observed some construction going on without building permits being issued by the code enforcement officer.
Brown also complained bitterly that a resident on her street was clearly a drug dealer, with cars driving in regularly for brief stops to buy drugs, frightening her family and other families with children living on the street. The property also has old vehicles and trash strewn about. “The code officer is not doing his job,” she said. “The problem is the codes already there that are not being enforced.”
Carol VanDeMark, who had approached the board in May of 2018 about trash and village appearance, asked the board when the code enforcement officer last attended a village meeting to make a report. “Last year?” was the answer. “If he never attends, we want him gone, and it’s your job to do it,” she declared emphatically.
Mayor Ken Sutfin and the board listened sympathetically and responded that they are aware of the conditions and are trying to address them. The problem is that Village codes, as currently written, don’t allow the Village to trespass onto private property to mow grass, remove garbage or junk or do other kinds of clean up and then bill the owner. To correct this, they have created a land use commission to recommend code changes. Also, if cars are registered, they are legal, even if there are many of them.
Ray Thornton of Ferris Street said he has similar problems. One neighbor impedes traffic on the street. and another has trash spilling onto his property.
Trustee Tim Goodrich said that the planning board wants to move directly toward a basic, simple zoning code that will allow the village to enforce safety and health provisions. Currently, the village can’t do much but issue a property maintenance violation ticket. The owner gets a misdemeanor on their record and a New York State fine, but nothing else happens. That explains some derelict buildings that continue to crumble because the taxes are paid but the owners will not maintain them.
Goodrich also said that the board is reading codes and regulations from other villages to see how they handle these matters.
“We are working on it,” agreed Sutfin. He also said that he will call the code enforcement officer and give him five to ten days to “move forward” on these issues or ask for his resignation.
Trustee Nicole O’Connell suggested that the code enforcement officer needs a job description so he knows that the board expects him to enforce local codes on property maintenance as well as state building codes, which he currently sees as his sole purview. “You have to do something for the safety and welfare of the village,” repeated Brown, and she asked the board to replace the code enforcement officer.
Village Police Chief Michael Monteiro was present to give them some good news, however. He had been aware of the alleged drug dealer on Kennedy Street for some time, he said, and along with the Tioga County Sheriff and the NY State Police Violent Gang & Narcotic Enforcement Team, he participated in a five-month investigation of the subject in order to get a warrant.
On the evening of Aug. 28, they executed the warrant and arrested a male subject on Kennedy Street and confiscated two handguns, heroin, and methamphetamines. When the neighbors at the meeting who complained about this individual heard this news, they spontaneously stood and applauded.
“I expect he will get a long prison sentence,” Monteiro stated. He later told Random Harvest that he really cares about the village of Spencer and investigations like that require many extra hours, but he believes they are important to do.
Monteiro also pointed out that no one can force a property owner to improve the appearance of their house. If finances or disinterest are the cause, an owner can let his property crumble, unless it is a rental, at which point health and safety laws for the tenants kick in.
In other business, the board heard that the Seely Creek will not be cleaned out this year. The mayor called to get a permit and was told by the DEC that it is listed as a wetland and needs a wetland permit to work in it, “even though the creek is dry right now.” It takes three weeks to process a wetland permit, so Sutfin said it was too late to try to do it this year. He will apply early next year to be sure it gets done during next summer’s dry spell.
As for the land use versus zoning distinction, Goodrich said he is in favor of minimal zoning and recommended the board consider that as the goal of the new Land Use Commission’s revision of local codes. After discussion, the board did not vote but agreed by consensus that zoning with lots of public information and education is the way they want to proceed.
The next meeting of the village board will be on Oct. 7.