Burned-out and abandoned


The Altamont Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair

“It’s a big mess, it’s an eyesore, and it’s really unsafe. My taxes, with school and property, are close to $1,000 a month, and i have to look at that?” said neighbor Charles Fraley, who lives at 3512 East Lydius in Guilderland, next-door to the remains of a burned-out and torn-down mansion. He suggested that the town should compel the owner to clean up the property and take him to court if necessary.

As the town works to define “abandoned” in its law, three properties ravaged by fire remain vacant — a mansion reduced to rubble, a motel that still stands, and the shell of a home.

There’s a difference between safe and unsafe abandoned buildings, said Guilderland Supervisor Peter Barber at the town board meeting on May 3, by way of explaining why the town was taking action to demolish one burned and abandoned building, when other properties that met a similar fate have languished in town for years. Legally, the town can step in only when a building is unsafe, he said, not just when it is abandoned.

He was speaking at the May 3 town board meeting, about why the town was voting to give the homeowners at 7 Ayre Drive just one more week to respond to any of the town’s many letters and phone calls about the shell of their burned-out property before it would begin to take some action — even possibly tearing the structure down — to reduce the risk to area residents. “I don’t want to be reading tomorrow about some kid going into it and the house falls in on him,” Barber remarked at the meeting.

Guilderland has two other burned-out and abandoned properties  on which it is not currently taking any direct action. These are the mansion that once stood at 3494 East Lydius, which was demolished in a September 2013 fire and taken down right away — leaving a huge debris pile and a large open pit that once was the basement — and the Governor’s Motor Inn at 2505 Western Ave., which suffered extensive fire damage in June 2010.

If the town does tear down 7 Ayre Drive, Barber explained at the meeting, any associated costs would be levied against the property.


The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair
Bleak reminder: The town is moving forward with plans to raze the shell of the home at 7 Ayre Dr. in McKownville that was left after a devastating early-morning fire Jan. 24.


Barber mentioned the Governor’s Motor Inn at the May meeting, saying, “If someone were to break into Governor’s Motor Inn and spend the night there, we’re not worried about the building falling in on them. But we are worried about 7 Ayre Drive.”

He clarified later, “But in that situation, if the building department were to confirm that people actually had been breaking in and the owner had not stopped that by locking the building, etc., now that could be unsafe, because you’re not preventing people from getting into a building that doesn’t have heat, doesn’t have a fire alarm, doesn’t have a whole host of things that you’d want to have.”

So can Governor’s Motor Inn just stay there forever the way it is now?

Yes and no, Barber said. “Over time it seems to be creating more issues. At least the building inspector is over there on a more regular basis. But, for the most part, the property owner has been responding to those inquiries.”

Code enforcement officer Lou Vitelli said that the owners of Governor’s Motor Inn have been “actually very good about trying to keep up with it, trying to keep the thing secured, grass mowed and all that stuff. They’ve been definitely cooperating with us.” He added, “I think they are actively trying to sell it.”

The owner, Jimmy Patel of Paramus, New Jersey, confirmed this for The Enterprise, saying, “We are planning to sell it. You have any buyers?”

Referring to Governor’s Motor Inn, Barber said, “At this point it’s abandoned, but not unsafe. If it were unsafe, we could say, ‘OK, you’ve got to tear it down; if you don’t tear it down, we will.’

“You can’t take somebody’s property unless you have a justifiable cause,” the supervisor continued. “A justifiable cause under Guilderland’s town code would be an unsafe condition. It would not be a situation in which somebody’s not developing a property, or doing something productive with it.”

The laws

There are two town laws, Barber explained, that can come into play: the unsafe building law, and the newer vacant and abandoned property law. But neither one of these gives officials the right to decide to tear down a property simply because it’s an eyesore, Barber said. The guiding issue is public safety.

Barber said at the May 3 meeting that New York State law allows a town’s building inspector to take action directly to remedy building code violations that pose safety hazards. (See related story.)

For the house at 7 Ayre Drive, he said, Building and Zoning Inspector Jacqueline Coons has spent months, beginning soon after the January fire, trying to contact family members of the deceased owner. The home’s owner is listed on county records as the late Frances Morrissey. Her adult children, Daniel Morrissey and Christine Sawyer, were both living in the home at the time of the fire, as were Morrissey’s two young sons, Sawyer’s adult daughter Amanda Sawyer, and Amanda Sawyer’s two young sons.

Since the fire at 7 Ayre Drive, said Barber at the meeting, Coons has been “trying to get somebody [in the Morrissey family] to care,” to come to the town hall and fill out either a demolition permit or a construction permit, or at least return phone calls or letters.

“They [Frances Morrissey’s adult children] probably like the idea that we would come and clear the lot,” Barber said at the meeting. “It probably advances their interests too,” he said, meaning that the value of the land would probably increase with the removal of the burned-out shell.

At her discretion, Barber said, the building can also, instead of immediately acting of her own accord, ask the town board to sign off on the decision to step in, as Coons did in this case.

At the May meeting, Guilderland resident John Haluska — who often presses the town to do more about vacant buildings — submitted a letter to the town board, suggesting that it should take more definitive action against owners of vacant and abandoned buildings. He wrote that the board should add a new clause to the law on vacant and abandoned buildings, stating that any building that has been vacant for at least 36 months needs to be either put back into active use or demolished by its current owner, and that the town attorney should notify these owners that they have 180 days to comply or face either condemnation or eminent domain proceedings, with all legal and demolition expenses to be levied against the property.

Defining “danger”

Coons explained the current status of the three properties, and why the other two are different from the house at 7 Ayre Drive.

In the case of East Lydius, Coons said, demolition was done on the day of the fire, “so that there wasn’t any structure left, because it was unsafe that day, and it was in imminent danger of collapse. The town’s code enforcement officers periodically inspect the property  to make sure that there has not been any new activity there.


The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
The debris field at 3494 East Lydius Street. 


Asked if the debris field at 3494 East Lydius isn’t still an “attractive nuisance,” Coons said, “It is. It’s not ideal, but it’s not an imminent danger to anybody else. They would have to be trespassing to get to that, and something unfortunate could happen, but it’s not as dangerous as Ayre Drive, where you had a property in danger of collapsing within 10 feet of an existing occupied residence.”

At Ayre Drive, she is currently waiting for National Grid to get back to her with a confirmation that the utilities have been disconnected, Coons said. The town also needs to get the car out of the driveway. She said that she heard that the owners have not removed the car because they have been unable to get into it, since the keys were burned in the fire.

The violation that is currently ongoing at 3494 East Lydius, Coons said, is the open basement that is a fall hazard. She said, “It would be no different than someone having an incomplete fence around their swimming pool. It’s dangerous, but it’s not an unsafe-structure dangerous, it’s just code-violation dangerous.”

Coons mentioned that the code enforcement officer who has been working on 3494 East Lydius has had difficulty getting in touch with the owner, who “is out of the country.” The county assessor’s rolls show that the current owner is still — as at the time of the fire — William Selig.

Selig — who lives in Burma, where he is founder and CEO of  New Crossroads Asia Pte. Ltd., a boutique financial advisory firm — said in an email, “We are in the process now to build on it and are waiting on the builders’ plans to determine the best way to deal with this.”

Dennis Mason is the code enforcement officer who has been visiting 3494 East Lydius. He said he walks the property every other month. He also said, “We don’t pursue anything unless we have an actual complaint.”


Enterprise file photo
The work of an arsonist: An unoccupied 11,000-square-foot residence at 3494 East Lydius St. in Guilderland burned almost to the ground — and the remains were then bulldozed — in a fire in 2013.


He said that complaints can be anonymous. The last complaint the department  received about 3494 East Lydius was in September of 2014, he said, and was about illegal dumping. He went there but did not find any signs of dumping. His most recent notes from a visit to the property read, he said, “Field of debris, appears stable, we secured chain across driveway, will continue to reinspect.”

The fire at 3494 East Lydius was the result of arson, Captain Daniel McNally of the Guilderland Police confirmed. In May 2014, Matthew Woelfersheim, then 37, was sentenced to up to 12 years in state prison for arson and burglary. He was not charged with burning down the mansion, McNally said, but as part of the plea agreement, he confessed to it.  


The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Five years behind in taxes: The out-of-state owner of the Governor’s Motor Inn — which suffered fire damage in 2010 and is now empty and unused — hopes to sell the building.


Taxes on the Governor’s Motor Inn are five years in arrears, and a total of $160,282.19 in delinquent back taxes and fees is owed from 2012 to now, said Albany County spokeswoman Mary Rozak.

Lynne Buchanan, receiver of taxes for the town of Guilderland, said that the Lydius Street mansion was two years in arrears.

The town will hold a public hearing on Tuesday, June 7, at 7:45 p.m., to discuss a revision to the vacant and abandoned property law; the revision, Barber said, is to clarify the language, to define “abandoned building.”

When a building is abandoned, Barber said, code enforcement officials continue to visit, to see if any new violations arise. If they do, officials try to contact the owners to have them remedy the new violations.

As long as an owner then does something to remedy those violations, the building is still considered to be abandoned but not unsafe.

Reasons for vacancy

Onlookers don’t always know the reasons why various buildings in town become vacant, Barber said. Some are vacant because there were environmental issues. Some are vacant because there are disputes between owners about what to do with the property. Some are vacant because they’re being held for investment purposes. But, he said, the government’s not in the business of seizing people’s property.

The town could pass a law and start to seize properties that were abandoned but not unsafe, he said, but the town would have to be willing to pay damages, under a takings claim.

“The government would be taking someone’s property,” he said.

Haluska said recently, “It’s a complicated situation; I will agree with that. You do not want to put the town in jeopardy. On the other hand, is there not some kind of mechanism that can be developed that can work to residents’ advantage?”



Current status of other abandoned properties around town:


Jacqueline Coons, Guilderland’s building and zoning inspector, outlined the current status of several other buildings in Guilderland that have been abandoned for years:

‒ The small bank building at the corner of Routes 146 and 20, opposite Stewart’s:  “The town board approved a rezone last year for this property to be rezoned general business, and we expected a gas station to apply for a permit, but they have not submitted an application. So it is currently unoccupied, but not unsafe. We’re hoping that, with the development of the site, it will become a non-issue, because it will have to be removed,” said Coons.

Reached by phone, owner Thomas Burke, principal of Triway Services, said, “Frankly, we’re negotiating with a number of prospective uses at this time. I’m not at liberty to use their names, since we don’t have a signed lease, but we are actively engaged in discussions with various potential tenants for the site. We hope in the near future to have something positive in terms of development there.”

‒  Nedco Pharmacy at 3301 Carman Rd.: “Similar situation,” said Coons. “It’s abandoned, but it’s not unsafe. And they do the minimum maintenance to correct code violations as they occur.”

—The untended home at 1210 Western Ave.: This property is on the agenda of the town’s Planning Board meeting scheduled for May 25 at 7 p.m.. The agenda lists a “site plan review to allow the redevelopment of the site as a neighborhood shopping center” at 1206-1210 Western Ave.

‒  Master Cleaners at 2312 Western Ave., owned by Charles Bohl Incorporated: “Same thing: the building is structurally sound. It’s vacant,” Coons said. “There was going to be a development of the site ‒ a nursing home. It was going to be demolished, but the sale fell through, and we are now waiting for a new application to develop the site.”

—Elizabeth Floyd Mair 

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