James Scala had seen enough.
The owner of a property on Easterly Avenue came to the April 15 Auburn City Council meeting to speak about issues that he, his tenants and others have faced with residences of a nearby property, 1 Easterly Place.
With the eyes of city officials fixed squarely on him, Scala said he has been hearing concerns from his tenants and the neighborhood watch in that area. He talked about drugs, needles, money and guns. He was told earlier that week that a magazine for a high-capacity rifle was found.
“This is just escalating,” he said. “It’s not getting any better. I think everybody knows about it. What can we do? That’s my question to you.”
This was the second council meeting in as many weeks that featured extended conversations on what the city can do about properties that generate frequent community complaints, including Easterly Place and 8 Delevan St. The latter location was the site of a homicide that led to murder charges in November 2019, and the subject more than 100 calls to the Auburn Police Department over the last couple of years. With city officials, APD officers and residents alike frustrated by the problem of nuisance properties, city government and law enforcement have discussed responses and taken actions this month.
City officials have been clear that they hear the concerns, and are already taking steps to tackle the problem. But they also stressed that it’s an issue complicated by legal restraints, including some that are connected with the coronavirus pandemic.
Finding new strategies
At a council meeting April 8, Auburn City Manager Jeff Dygert said there have been many issues at 8 Delevan St. and other “hot spots” in the city. Many years ago, he said, the council allowed for a nuisance board that would include the city manager, the police chief and the fire chief to “hear neighborhood issues or specific property issues when things came up.” While the board has long been on the city’s books, Auburn hasn’t used it. Dygert sought the council’s permission to activate the board so the city could “expedite some of these issues,” he continued, rather than use more traditional city court methods.
Auburn Assistant Corporation Counsel Nate Garland said there is an administrative process within the city’s code for the nuisance board.
“What needs to be brought in front of that board would be the same thing that needs to be brought in front of a court of law and the defendant or the homeowner would have an opportunity to be heard in front of this administrative body,” Garland said.
A defendant would have a chance to appeal that administrative action to the state Supreme Court in Cayuga County.
“With those caveats, it is absolutely more responsive and it seems like there is an appetite among the public and the police department to be responsive to these sorts of issues,” Garland continued.
Auburn Police Chief Shawn Butler told the council that he and the department support this new approach. He mentioned specific spots such as the area of Easterly Place, Woodruff Place and Bellevue Place, adding that the neighbors there are “basically pleading for help.”
“We work great with them, they want to see change, they want to be a part of the solution, but right now we’re just putting Band-Aids on it,” Butler said. “We do have several houses that are identified.”
City council members expressed support for the nuisance board program.
“In addition to 8 Delevan, I think we are starting to see some other problem spots in the city. In addition to that, I am deeply concerned with what’s going on in Syracuse, Rochester and Ithaca, and I’m worried about overflow into the city,” Councilor Jimmy Giannettino said. “If we can be on record that we’re not going to tolerate this here, it goes back to the ‘broken window’ theory. There is some validity to that.”
Auburn Mayor Mike Quill asked how the state moratorium on evictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic would affect this process. Garland said there is a remedy available in the form of closing the property, so the city would essentially ask the APD to put locks on the property and clear it of people. Garland said in an interview with The Citizen Friday that while these closings are similar to evictions, the city’s position is that closing the property and evictions are legally distinct matters. While there is a state moratorium on evictions until May 1, Garland said the city maintains that these property closings would not fall under those restrictions.
At the April 8 meeting, Dygert said he anticipates that he and the council will receive pushback on these efforts, but he believes they must be done.
“We’ve got to clean up some neighborhoods. It’s not good for those neighborhoods, it’s not good for the city as a whole, to have these neighborhoods in the condition that they are, and to have some of these activities going on,” he said. “We’re looking for opportunities to make sure that the good folks in our community feel safe in their home and can take pride in their homes.”
At the April 15 meeting, Dygert said the city recently received several emails about issues in the Easterly Avenue area, though the city was already aware of some of those problems and the APD and city code enforcement office were taking actions. He said those areas “are getting special attention,” and the city will be more aggressive in those spots.
Dygert added that he wants people in these affected neighborhoods to know that the city also gets frustrated with the lack of compliance.
“We’re doing everything we can to put some extra attention in those areas. We’re coordinating the best we can to see if there’s new ideas that we can apply in those neighborhoods,” he continued.
Director of Planning and Development Jenny Haines said there were was a cleanup crew out at 1 Easterly Place on April 13.
“There were a lot of needles there, I talked to the crew afterward,” Haines said. “We obviously have to be careful for safety of our own crew. They had what they need to be safe and do those cleanups.”
Councilor Terry Cuddy said the city is putting in efforts to help alleviate these neighborhood concerns.
“I think help is on the way and I’m glad that we are beginning to use these tools that are at our disposal,” he said.
Delays in the courts
For about two years, the city has been contending with numerous calls requesting police response to 8 Delevan St., including assaults, noise complaints, drug activity and a host of various warrants. A few months after the shooting death took place at that property on Nov. 15, 2019, the Auburn government began pursuing relief options for residents in that locality.
Butler personally issued a Notice of Public Nuisance and Opportunity to Abate Public Nuisance to the owner of 8 Delevan St. in May. That notice ordered corrective action halting criminal activity on the property to be taken within 30 days, or the city would file a civil complaint against the property owner, seeking year-long condemnation of the building. After those 30 days came and went with no resolution, the city filed a complaint in the state Supreme Court in Cayuga County in September seeking an injunction to effectively seize and shut down the property.
While property owner Brant C. Wright told The Citizen last year that he was trying to fix issues at the site, he did not file an answer to the city court complaint, Garland said on Friday. That lead to the city seeking a motion for a default judgement. Garland has filed that motion, which is set to be in front of Judge Mark Fandrich in the Supreme Court at some point. Garland noted the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed this entire process.
These legal notices and the death did not curb the calls or incidents stemming from 8 Delevan St. According to APD records, there have been over 130 calls requiring a police response at that single address from July 31, 2019, to April 14, 2021.
In an interview with The Citizen Friday, APD Chief Butler said he is frustrated with people in certain properties continually affecting quality of life issues for their neighbors, including drug activity, fights, domestic incidents, code violations and excessive waste.
To that end, Butler, members of the APD, the code enforcement office and the Auburn Fire Department walked around the neighborhood of Easterly, Woodruff and Bellevue last week. They engaged with “partner neighbors who were glad to see us and were able to give us some in-depth information about what’s going on there,” Butler said. They also knocked on the doors of properties with obvious code violations, spoke with a couple tenants and advised them of “their fair warning to them, face to face, that we will be back.
“Our full attention is on the neighborhood,” Butler said, “and if they’re willing to work on cleaning up the neighborhood, their property, we’re willing to work with them. However, if they do not, they will start seeing summons through the codes office, they’ll start seeing more attention from the police department.
“We’re done playing games and I’ll be quite frank with you, we’re not going to really beat around the bush anymore. We’re going to use every resource and tool at our discretion to help these good taxpaying neighbors that really want to live in a quiet, peaceful neighborhood,” Butler said.
He also said the city is going to be firm with neglectful landlords.
“Obviously they have responsibility and they have skin in the game, they’re not just going to collect a check from these tenants, they have a responsibility to make sure that these houses are kept up to code and clean and (maintain) cleanliness for the other neighbors, so they can have a peaceful neighborhood as well,” he added.
The chief noted city employees will be doing the same thing on Barber Street on Thursday, April 29.
Cleanup sweeps underway
On Friday and April 16, the city’s cleanup crews put notices up on every house in the area of Barber and Wall streets and more to inform residents that if there was any refuse on the property that was not put to the curb for trash pickup, the city crew was going to come haul it away, and then charge the property owner for the service, Butler said.
During such a sweep on April 16, more than 10 tons of bulk metal and municipal waste was collected.
Butler said Garland is looking into the logistics of the nuisance board and what that would look like.
“We as a whole city government, we’re pretty serious about this, we’re going to be pretty aggressive about it. It’s one of those tools that’s never been accessed in our toolbox and we’re gonna see how it works and (tell) people, ‘Here’s your fair warning, we’re coming. Enough’s enough,'” Butler said.
During the April 15 council meeting, Mayor Quill briefly interrupted James Scala’s public comments. While council rules prevent city officials from engaging in a discussion with speakers during the meeting’s public comment period, the mayor wanted Scala to know that the city is interested in what he was saying and that he didn’t want Scala to think the city doesn’t care.
Later in the meeting, after Dygert had a provided an update on the city’s efforts, the mayor again spoke directly Scala, who was watching from his seat in council chambers.
“Your request is not falling on deaf ears,” Quill said “We’re well aware of it. We’re looking, struggling for solutions, but we’re trying.”