The Common Council on Tuesday discussed a proposal for the city’s first-ever vacant building regulations.
Tony Casale, the city’s corporation counsel, presented the two proposed ordinances to the council and explained Mayor Michael Cinquanti’s plan for the vacant building rules. He said the ordinances will require public hearings before they can be adopted.
“This would require the owners of vacant buildings to pay fees for certain vacant buildings. Now, keep in mind the objective here is to make these effective Jan. 1 , so they are being introduced now,” Casale said. “[The council] does not necessarily have to schedule the public hearings tonight, but the goal is though to have the new chapters of the city code up and running by Jan. 1.”
Casale said if the council decides to adopt the ordinance changes it should do so with enough time to allow for the proposed system, which will include new duties for the city’s code enforcement personnel and new record keeping requirements.
“There’s going to be some level of changes that will need to be effectuated within city hall to implement these changes, and that’s not going to happen with a snap of a finger,” he said. “That needs to be carefully planned out over the next several weeks and months.”
“What kind of changes?” asked 4th Ward Councilman Stephen Gomula.
“Well, there’s going to be a vacant building registry, there’s going to be a fee that’s collected for vacant buildings and there’s going to be a form that’s filled out and collected — there will be different moving parts to it,” Casale said.
The two proposed ordinances were included in the publicly released council agenda.
Some of the details of the proposal include a requirement that the city establish a registry of vacant buildings, and for property owners to pay a vacant building registration fee to be set annually by the council, with failure to register a vacant property resulting in an escalating series of fines.
Owners would also be required to submit building plans to the city explaining what they plan to do with them, some options being: demolition, a plan to maintain a property as vacant, or rehabilitation into a residence or business.
Under the proposed ordinances, if a building isn’t rehabilitated or occupied within a year of its registration a vacant building fee of “not less than $50 and not more than $250” would be imposed for each day of the violation. The proposed ordinance also allows for up to 15 days in jail if the fines aren’t paid.
Amsterdam currently has no regulations for vacant buildings, but many other cities do, including a vacant building ordinance recently implemented in Gloversville which closely mirrors the proposal the council discussed Tuesday night.
First Ward Alderman Patrick Russo said it is his understanding that the vacant building program in the cities of Johnstown and Gloversville have both been successful.
Casale, who is the city attorney for Gloversville, said he believes the vacant building ordinance in that city has been successful.
Second Ward Alderman David Gomula asked if the program had anything to with property taxes.
Russo explained to David Gomula that the proposed ordinance does not relate to property taxes.
“It’s people who sit on these empty properties and don’t do anything with them, or banks that don’t maintain them, so the idea is that you need to do something with it, you need to have a plan, and we’ll give you a year for the plan to be completed,” Russo said.
Deputy Mayor James Martuscello, a Democrat who represents the 5th Ward, voiced concerns about the proposal.
Martuscello said he can already hear his constituents calling him objecting to a fee system and accusing the city of hypocrisy for not dealing with the approximately 300 vacant properties in its possession.
“I’m going to throw you a nice fastball right here,” Martuscello said to Casale, who chuckled in response. “How about the vacant properties we own?”
“Those would not be vacant, they are city-owned,” Casale said.
“They aren’t vacant? We own Dudka’s Garage,” Martuscello said.
“We have a plan for that though,” Russo interjected.
Casale said in Gloversville the situation is different in that foreclosed properties are owned by Fulton County because the county assumed control of the city’s foreclosing power years ago.
The city of Amsterdam has maintained its foreclosing power, although its independent auditors EFPR Group have recommended the city give that power to Montgomery County in order to avoid a recurrence of the city’s financial problems. The city failed to foreclose on any properties for a period of about six years, a contributing factor to its approximately $7.7 million accumulated budget deficit.
Martuscello said the city owns a lot of vacant buildings and parcels it has acquired through foreclosure, and he needs to know how to answer the questions of his constituents.
Russo said the city has a plan for dealing with its vacant properties.
“We are actively trying to get rid of our vacant properties,” he said.
Martuscello said he will hear pushback from constituents complaining the city has not properly maintained its vacants.
“You’re talking about two separate huge problems — one of the reason the city owns so many properties is because the city has been participating in this in rem foreclosure proceeding process for the last several years, which is fraught with problems, and even though we’ve prosecuted some foreclosures these problems have gone largely ignored for the last several years,” Casale said. “So then, to say because of this problem we’re not going to have a vacant building regulation because we own all of these vacant properties ourselves, that doesn’t make sense to me, but I’m not an alderman.”
Some businesses and property owners in the city have complained about the state of some of the vacant buildings.
Parallel to the vacant ordinance process, the city is also looking at a form-based code reform as part of its $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative process.
Casale said the council should consider scheduling the public hearing for the proposed vacant building ordinance for the first meeting in November at the earliest, so the members of the council and the public enough time to provide feedback on the issue.
Martuscello said he agrees that holding off on scheduling a public hearing for now is the right move.
Cinquanti said he’s been working on the vacant building ordinances for awhile, and he said his administration does have a plan for dealing with city-owned vacant properties.
“This is part of a larger piece,” he said. “I have a plan. James, the only thing that has slowed me down is the pandemic. I have a plan to address the vacant buildings that the city owns. We aren’t penalizing people who have vacant buildings with this. We’re trying to better manage the whole system, and at the same time it’s generating income to help us manage our vacant buildings better.”
Cinquanti said responsible owners of vacant buildings will not be hurt by the proposed ordinances.
“I’m not doing this to penalize good property owners, people with good properties that are fixing those properties and that have plans for those properties — this is going to support them,” he said. “This is for the people who are coming in and exploiting or speculating or slum landlording that we’re going to go after. You’re not going to be able to buy a piece of property in our city and just leave it there and let it fall down in the hopes that somebody else is going to come in and grab it off you and pay you more than you paid for it. This is a piece of how we’re going to deal with that.”