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Massena code violations escalate

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MASSENA - Mary S. Ryan has increasingly noticed the deterioration of nearby homes in her 11 years of living on Allen Street.

She has complained to the village about garbage languishing on a neighboring property. A house down the street has sat vacant with an overgrown front lawn for nearly a year.

Those examples are frustrating for Ms. Ryan and others who maintain their properties on the otherwise well-kept street.

“It’s enraging,” Ms. Ryan said. “ A lot of people don’t have much pride in their property.”

Tall grass, excess garbage and other quality-of-life issues are on the rise in Massena, according to village officials. In 2009, Massena’s code office issued a total of 30 tall grass citations. That number grew to 46 in 2010, 56 in 2011 and 107 to date in 2012.

The number of total code citations issued grew from 95 in 2009 to 111 in 2010, 160 in 2011 and 218 to date this year.

Those numbers are escalating for several reasons, according to Code Enforcement Officer Gregory C. Fregoe. When he started working for the village a decade ago, there were hardly any abandoned homes in Massena.

Now, there’s over 10, caused by either foreclosures and the faltering economy, former residents who have left the area or an elderly resident dying, he said. Those properties often turn into spots for neglect.

In addition, former owner-occupied homes are turning into rental properties, and many of the landlords don’t live in town, Mr. Fregoe said.

“We didn’t used to have complaints. The biggest problem we have is out-of-town landlords,” he said. “They’re renting it out or they’ve just abandoned them ... They don’t keep them up.”

In addition, Mr. Fregoe said he has received guidance from Mayor James F. Hidy to become more active in issuing citations. Police, village board members and residents are among those who call his office with complaints of blight and deterioration.

The number of citations issued in the first six months of 2012 is more than twice as high than in 2009, before Mr. Hidy took office. The growing number of notices are necessary to solve quality-of-life problems in the village, Mr. Hidy said.

“As more and more properties become abandoned, this is going to be a continuing problem in the village,” Mr. Hidy said. “It’s not something that’s isolated into one section of the village. It’s an epidemic all over.”

Grass has to be over six inches long for the village to issue a citation. At that point, property owners have five business days to solve the listed violation, or the DPW will step in and fix the issue for them.

On Allen Street, the DPW removed garbage from the home next to Mrs. Ryan’s, and mowed an overgrown lawn several weeks ago. It’s not work the department wants to be doing, according to Superintendent Hassan A. Fayad.

“It’s always been in existence but not to this degree,” Mr. Fayad said. “We’re not in the business of maintaining people’s properties.”

The work crowds the DPW’s schedule of maintenance and upkeep of public property, Mr. Fayad said. But as a fail-safe organization, the DPW has to step in on private properties when no one else will.

“We have to mitigate it,” he said.

The bills the DPW sends out for the completed work are also on the rise. Mr. Fayad said a typical job the village charges for costs $100 an hour. In the 2004-05 fiscal year, the village charged for 23 instances of grass cutting and garbage removal on private property, according to Treasurer Daniel E. Case. In June alone, the village billed for 20 instances of that work.

Property owners either pay the bill, or have the fee re-levied on their taxes, Mr. Case said. St. Lawrence County makes the village whole on unpaid taxes each year.

Not everyone is thrilled with the village’s policy. Carolyn M. Frazier received a tall grass notice earlier this spring for a vacant rental property she put up for sale on East Orvis Street. She was busy and didn’t complete the work within the time period the village provided her.

Ms. Frazier, a schoolteacher at Nightengale Elementary, was taking her class on a field trip to Albany when the village came to her property. In addition to mowing the grass, crews also destroyed her garden containing a berry bush, lilies and other flowers.

While the law is the law, the village may have overstepped its bounds in this case, she said.

“They chopped it all down,” she said. “I can’t understand in my own mind why they would even think they had to address those issues of the garden.”

Mr. Hidy said that frustration could have been avoided if Ms. Frazier had dealt with the issues in the provided time.

“She didn’t respond to the letter so we took action,” Mr. Hidy said. “Is this program going to make everybody happy? Probably not. It will certainly make the neighbors around them happy and improve the quality of life.”

The village Board of Trustees may soon discuss contracting with a private landscaping firm to alleviate the growing burden on the DPW, Mr. Hidy said. The village would pay a private contractor, then be reimbursed by property owners billed for the work or through re-levied taxes.

“The only way we’re going to get our neighborhoods back is through the code,” Mr. Hidy said. “We’re not going to get back on track without some angst. We’re getting back to where we need to be.”

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