Saranac Lake tackles zombie properties

SARANAC LAKE — New state laws and some grant funding are helping the village of Saranac Lake to either revive or lay to permanent rest some 40 “zombie” properties within its borders.

In October 2016, the village received word from state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office that it was getting $75,000 to help kill or revive the zombie properties.

So far, Saranac Lake has received the first of four payments. The initial disbursement of $26,000, said Code Enforcement Officer Paul Blaine, has been used to get the process started, first by collecting data and setting up a system to keep track of the zombies. Some of the money was also used to pay for a part-time code enforcement officer before Blaine was hired two months ago.

“I canvassed the whole village by driving from street to street,” said Blaine. “There are approximately 40 zombie properties on our initial list. Twenty-five days later, we do a second inspection.”

Blaine said the second inspection verifies that what looks like an abandoned property really is one.

That’s the easy part. Once the village has identified which properties are critical, remedying the problem has been difficult in the past. Although properties with unpaid taxes can be seized by the county and sold at tax auction, as long as the taxes are paid the village can’t just take over a property.

The new state law gives village enforcement some teeth, however: If the village determines that work is needed on the property to bring it up to standard, and the owner doesn’t respond, the village can now perform the repairs and add the cost to the tax bill.

“Some of the monies we have from the grant is for legal services, to make sure the laws we have in place are appropriate,” said Blaine. “The village doesn’t want to incur any expenses for maintaining properties. We want to make sure that the village will get reimbursed.”

The Abandoned Property Relief Act of 2016 lists possible proofs of lack of occupancy, such as overgrown or dead vegetation; accumulation of newspapers, circulars, flyer or mail; past-due utility notices, disconnected utilities, or utilities not in use; accumulation of trash, refuse or other debris; absence of window coverings; one or more boarded, missing or broken windows; the property is open to casual entry or trespass; or the property has a building or structure that is or appears structurally unsound or has any other condition that presents a potential hazard or danger to the safety of persons.

“There’s a need for more resources for this,” said Blaine, who recently attended a meeting in Albany about the problem.

Zombie properties are considered a statewide blight, and part of the problem is government itself.

For instance, a property’s listing on the tax rolls doesn’t always contain enough information for the village to contact the owner. If the property owner doesn’t respond to letters, it’s difficult to know whether the owner is deceased, ignoring the letters, or what else.

Further, some zombie properties are created by foreclosure, when banks become the owners of the buildings but don’t maintain them.

In the meantime, Blaine has a priority list of the worst properties, and the village is moving ahead.

“The most serious ones we’re hoping to address right now,” said Blaine. “We’re really trying to get these properties viable again.”

The new law also creates some assistance for homeowners facing mortgage foreclosure and places obligations on mortgage holders to maintain foreclosed properties. The law will also create an electronic vacant property registry and establish a Consumer Bill of Rights. Citizens are encouraged to contribute to the zombie property database by calling the state Department of Financial Services at 800-342-3736.