Saugerties town officials temporarily pulled a property maintenance law after more than a dozen residents expressed outrage over the plan at last Wednesday’s Town Board meeting.
The town is seeking to develop the law to make it easier to deal with derelict properties, unsightly conditions or poor maintenance in cases where property owners do not maintain their property.
But the language of the law, which includes provisions for the length of grass, requiring repairs to cracked sidewalks and driveways and addressing potential hazards for inquisitive children like poison ivy, did not sit well with a crowd of residents present at the meeting who agreed it was far too subjective. They also expressed concern that the law was sneaked onto the agenda just before Wednesday’s meeting with the board set to vote on it. Many in the crowd said they felt an “us- versus-everyone” vibe in the law.
Town Supervisor Fred Costello said the town never intended to pull one over on residents and he added that’s why they decided to not consider voting on the law at Wednesday’s meeting. He said the legislation has been in the works for nine years and officials will draft a new proposal before bringing it back again for a vote.
“It’s not easy to solve and there’s no consensus that makes it easy to pass,” he said.
Town Clerk Lisa Stanley said she wants people to understand officials had to have something and this version was already modified from the original version that had stricter provisions like a code restricting how firewood could be stacked.
Some present worried that it would allow inspectors to have free range to come inside their homes and check floors and walls to make sure they’re clean enough. Others worried there would be grass police who would call the town to complain about each other’s grass. Several called the law “unconstitutional” and likened it to an unreasonable search and seizure. Each time someone spoke in opposition to the law, members of the public in attendance cheered.
Samantha “Sam” Dederick, who also expressed concerns about the law at June’s meeting, said she was annoyed with how the law seemingly just turned up on this month’s agenda set for a final vote. “We’re all insulted by it,” she said.
“This law gives the Town Board the power to be the judge, jury and executioner,” one resident said during a public comment period that stretched just over two hours.
Another resident said the law would pit neighbor against neighbor by using potential violations as a way to air grievances. Others said the provision of the law that allows for a $1,000 fine and over five days in jail for not following an order from the code enforcement officer is too draconian and creates an undue hardship for those already undergoing hardship.
Another speaker said she likes to prepare food and beverages with dandelions and she said seemingly unsightly things like dead trees and more meadow-like environments with longer grass on properties can provide habitats for important pollinator bees. Multiple speakers said the law is heavily biased towards suburban landscapes.
Several participants raised their voices and got emotional as they spoke to the board.
Just one resident, Mike Meyer, who joined the hybrid meeting remotely, spoke out in favor of the law.
Town Code Enforcement Officer Alvah Weeks defended the law and said the law, in reality, does not apply to a tree that falls in the woods, as one speaker who lives in a more remote part of the town questioned.
He defended the provisions requiring gravel and stone driveways, noting this ensures fire engines and emergency services can access all properties as quickly as possible.
“Fire trucks today are three times bigger than 20 years ago, we need minimum widths to ensure they have clear access,” Weeks said.
Weeks said the town has had these laws, it just gives officials an easier mechanism to enforce than the traditional method of the courts, which can take years. He said the town recently spent three years in the courts to force a cleanup at a longtime town auto repair business.
Dederick suggested town officials should just enforce the New York state code regarding property maintenance. “The state code is not subjective, it’s only about maintenance,” she said.
Costello said such a local law helps the town when they deal with severe neglect. He said officials once dealt with a full dumpster at a rental property that allowed food waste to blow out onto a neighboring property. On another occasion, a neighborly dispute resulted in one neighbor blocking their neighbor’s driveway with junk cars, he added.
This also allows the town to deal with unsafe structures, he said.
Stanley said this law has been in the works for years and town officials are also dealing with issues that didn’t exist ten years ago like short-term rentals. Multiple speakers also aired complaints about loud parties at several short-term rental properties across the town.
Councilwoman Leeanne Thornton said she’s fielded numerous calls about this law and she added that she’s willing to take as much time as residents would like to have a conversation about it. “Let’s make it, we, not us and you,” she said.