NORWICH – Community stakeholders collected at the Commerce Chenango conference room Thursday for a roundtable talk about the city's growing number of nuisance properties that beckons the question: What now?
“There's a lot of these types of properties. I don't know what to do when we have all over the city these pockets of blight,” said Commerce Chenango President and CEO Sal Testani. “What can we do to fix it? I'm wondering what can be done next, what the next step is.”
Thursday's roundtable was a continuation of talks moderated by Commerce Chenango that seek a solution to Norwich's troubled image, primarily in dealing with the downtown area. Testani said the challenge is assembling the right teams that can form a remedy to some of the city's most complicated issues. Discussion included concerns of downtown business owners, the county public health department, elected city reps, and city public safety officials.
“Some of these issues are global, like systemic poverty. These are issues that we aren't going to see short-term gains out of,” said Chenango County Public Health Director Isaiah Sutton, one of the attendees of Thursday's meeting. “But you can make short-term inroads out of specific issues. A lot of these issues take a lot of time, money and resources, and that's something the city has to decide if they want to invest in.”
Sutton said that while there may be targeted areas of concern in the City of Norwich, the county codes enforcement office, which he oversees, is a “complaint based” department, meaning it's more likely to act when there's a high volume of complaints against a certain proprietor.
Thursday's discussion quickly turned to select commercial and residential properties on North Broad Street that have been in repeated violations of city codes and zoning ordinances, at least one of which is in the midst of a half a dozen eviction proceedings, according to Norwich attorney Adam Spence, another attendee of Thursday's meeting. The building that once housed the Blue Bird restaurant on the corner of N. Broad and Fair streets was pinpointed, as were a couple adjoining properties on the same block.
“If we, as a business community and the downtown district, say these are the areas we would like to target for improvement because they appear to be in the biggest violation of codes, they appear to be the biggest eyesore, what's next?” said Testani. “If we identify those attractive nuisances, who goes after those and says they're going to fix this?”
The answer may fall to the city's planning and zoning boards to dictate the standards for property owners. The responsibility would then fall on the property owners to address concerns.
“Unfortunately, that's about five degrees beyond what we're talking about,” said Spence. “What we're talking about isn't something that simple.”
Stakeholders also floated the idea of eminent domain, a complicated legal process in which the city would take control of private properties like those on North Broad Street.
“If we're getting to a point of thinking about condemning those buildings because of the number of citations and code violations, why can't we just go through the process of eminent domain and taking those properties over?” said City Alderman Robert Jeffrey, arguing that the city needs to think about the next step if private properties don't change hands or current proprietors don't address violations. “Binghamton did it. Ithaca did it a couple decades ago, and Oneonta did it recently. If we're in a position where we're trying to figure out what the next step is, these are discussions we have to have with the rest of the city council.”
“I think it's time to sit down with the city attorney and ask those difficult questions,” said City Alderman Bill Loomis. “If we take these buildings, what is the city's responsibility as far as any outstanding mortgages that exist … We have to sit down and ask those questions and come to a group like this that can match a developer for those buildings.”
Spence said it's possible that a class action lawsuit be brought against property owners who neglect their properties and lower neighboring property values as a result. But that gets into the legal weeds and would require a plaintiff, he said, and that's something many property owners are often reluctant to do.
“The affidavits that neighbors submit have to be bland enough for plausible deniability,” Spence said, stressing the desire of most neighbors to remain anonymous. “And then they would have to pay for it, which becomes another issue.”
Thursday's roundtable ended with Alderman Loomis and Jeffrey agreeing to contact the city attorney while Spence said he would look into further information regarding possible class action lawsuits. The group will convene again in September.