Cleanup Concerns

GLOVERSVILLE – The glove and leather industries once brought great benefits to the local economy.

However, the decline of those industries has left several old, privately-owned buildings in the area that municipalities are loathe to take possession of due to the potential cost of cleaning up the site.

City Department of Public Works Director Kevin Jones said the fact Fulton County and other municipalities don’t want to handle those buildings is a problem that needs to be addressed.

The issue arose recently when The Fulton County Board of Supervisors tabled a resolution to use the county Demolition Team to raze a building at 7 Hill St.

The city is trying to gain approval from the county as soon as possible, as demolition is part of a larger city-owned Hill Street Bridge repair project.

A county board resolution in 2001 established a policy that the team, designed to demolish municipally-owned structures, should not raze private buildings.

Jones said the county is concerned with potentially spending taxpayers’ money to demolish the property, which could allow the landowner to theoretically benefit from it by selling the property.

However, both Jones and City Attorney Anthony Casale said the city has the ability through an ordinance to sue and file a lien against the property, which would keep it from changing hands permanently until the lien is paid.

The city attorney is in the process of drafting an indemnification letter to present to county supervisors that would remove liability to possibly take down a hazardous building on Hill Street so the bridge project can move forward.

County Administrative Officer Jon Stead said with buildings like Hill Street and others that aren’t owned by the city, there is a legal process the municipality has to go through to do anything with a property that doesn’t belong to them.

He said both the city and county attorney are going through the records to make sure that process has been followed.

Jones agreed with supervisors that the county taking a job to cleanup a privately-owned building may set a precedent.

However, he believes it’s a precedent the city and surrounding communities need to address the larger issue: there are dangerous buildings in the community which neither the county nor city presently want to handle.

In some cases, the buildings are collapsing and filled with asbestos, while chemicals in the soil could lead to an expensive environmental cleanup.

“There is an environmental liability with these old mill sites,” Jones said. “Over the sands of time, they would dump waste out the back of the building, and then have a good year and decide to build an addition on top of the junk.”

When a municipality takes ownership of those properties, he said, it is “on the hook” for the cost of the environmental cleanup.

Complicating matters is the fact the former owners of the site – individuals or corporations – may no longer exist or simply refuse to respond to court orders, which could leave the demolition and cleanup costs with the municipality.

Jones said the city is going to the county for the work at 7 Hill St. because the current property owner of a building at 7 Hill St., Mark Vrooman of Utah, has been served with numerous tickets, notices of hearings and condemnation letters but simply refuses to answer.

“We have done everything possible to make him responsible for this,” Jones said. “But after he continuously doesn’t this becomes the responsibility of the city.”

Stead said the real issue in dealing with these abandoned privately-owned properties is within state law.

“That is one of the shortcomings in New York state law,” Stead said. “There was an effort many years ago to have some of the laws and regulations changed so when a municipality through no fault of it’s own took one of these properties and had interest in developing them or making them better that they didn’t get into the chain of custody of this huge environmental liability, but the state of New York never changed those laws.”

Jones said he understands the county’s concern about the risk of using taxpayer money to demolish a privately owned building but ultimately the taxpayers will be footing the bill either way.

He said the county can do the job much cheaper than an independent contractor. If the county refuses to demolish the building and be completely reimbursed by the city in the amount of about $25,000 the city will have to bring in a private contractor to do the same job for about $150,000, Jones said.

Jones said in both cases the city DPW would finish the demolition once the asbestos material has been removed which would be about $15,000 although the majority of that is already paid for within their expected wages in the budget.

Jones said because the city is fully behind paying for all personnel, cleanup, fuel and equipment cost the county may encounter in the Hill Street endeavor with the County Demolition Team, it would be the cheaper solution for all municipalities to utilize to address “a problem which has no feasible solution.”

Jones said there are about seven privately-owned buildings that can be considered potentially dangerous throughout the city which could be addressed in the future.

The environmental issues beneath the soil at these sites would still be an obvious concern but if municipalities could get the potentially dangerous asbestos ridden buildings taken down it would be a more appealing sight for the taxpayers and those traveling through the county, Jones said.

“We really just want to make the buildings go away and we’re not going to dig a hole and get into whatever issue there could potentially be,” Jones said. “Neither the county or city would take ownership of the property which eliminates us from the potential environmental responsibility. If we can just get the building to go away and get some grass growing we’re heck of a lot better off than we are right now.”