Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

February 21, 2013

In-zone inspections under way

By Joyce M. Miles
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — Parcel-by-parcel building inspection is under way in the Impact Zone.

In two weeks, three building inspectors looked over the exteriors of 73 properties and sent out written notice of code violations to 46 property owners.

Cited property owners will have 30 days from the time of inspection to correct violations or present a work plan to the building department before their cases are forwarded to City Court for prosecution, Chief Building Inspector Jason Dool said.

Because of the timing of the first impact inspections — in the winter “off” season — an exception to the compliance rule is being made for owners of property that needs painting. Through the end of winter, they’ll have until April, at least, to get going on painting projects, Dool said.

The city last month announced the launch of a multi-agency Impact Team Project to cut crime and property blight in most-troubled areas of the city.

Based on a recent, localized spike in police service call rates, the first “impact zone” is the neighborhoods between Erie, High, Transit and Walnut streets.

While Lockport police ramp up patrolling and general law enforcement in the zone, building inspectors giving a visual once-over to every property. About 1,000 single- and multi-family homes, business properties and vacant lots will be inspected by the end of August, according to Dool.

Impact zone inspections are being done in clusters of 35 to 40 properties per week, in blocks rather than street by street. For example, the first week inspectors went over a group of roughly adjacent properties on Orchard Street, Park Place and High Street; last week they inspected a cluster on Orchard, Park Place, High, Waterman and Genesee streets.

The suggestion to inspect property in clusters arises from inspectors’ experiences in housing court over time, Dool said. The thought is that when properties in view of each other are all inspected at the same time and the owners are all facing the same deadlines to fix problems, fewer owners can claim they’ve been singled out for code enforcement.

Inspectors are not anxious to write up any and all code violations they come across, according to Dool. The team is trying an informal approach — in-person verbal warnings to property owners, instead of official violation notices — when single, less egregious violations are seen. Official violation notices, which start the clock running on the code prosecution process, are going to owners of property with multiple or imminent issues.

“We’re not being overly picky, but if there’s a violation involving public health and safety, we’re going to let you know about it,” Dool said. “As we talk to (property owners), we’ll try to encourage them to do more than the minimum repair effort. If we see (a code issue) starting, we’ll point it out and suggest you to take care of it now, so we don’t have to come back and see you again in two years.”

Over the past three years, roughly one of every four code violation cases opened by the department has ended up in City Court, because the cited property owner didn’t respond to the 30-day warning letter, didn’t seek re-inspection to prove violations were corrected, or didn’t get any repair work under way.

Dool anticipates the Impact inspection program will generate housing court cases at the same rate. Cases arising from the first week of Impact inspections will start to hit City Court in early March, he said.

There are no special programs or conditions for settling code cases in the impact zone, according to city prosecutor Matthew Brooks.

The city attorney’s office is continuing to explore ways to get code compliance from non-local property owners, he said this week. These cases remain the most difficult to close out because the city doesn’t have the means to get owners into court who don’t reside in Niagara or an adjacent county. It’s not legal for the city, or the court, to hire contractors on an absentee property owner’s behalf and have bills sent to him.

Concerning rental properties held by absentee owners, Brooks said he is looking into the pros and cons of receivership, in which the court would appoint a local “receiver” to intercept rent payments and use the money on code correction work.

A receiver was appointed in at least one case involving rental property in Lockport housing court, several years ago, but the landowner was a local resident who came to court and consented to the set-up.

•••

The impact zone was relatively calm during the week of Feb. 7 to 14, according to Lockport Police Department’s latest Project Impact report.

During the period, officers:

• Made 105 service calls, mostly in response to calls to the station. Only 40 calls were “self initiated,” meaning they resulted from increased patrolling in the zone. The prior week officers made 158 service calls in the zone, more than half self-initiated.

• Made eight arrests on criminal charges including grand and petit larceny, robbery, criminal mischief, contempt, menacing, harassment and marijuana possession. The prior week, 18 people were taken into custody on a similar range of charges. To date, 45 arrests were made in the impact zone charging 94 alleged crimes.

• Conducted 40 traffic stops and issued 27 tickets for vehicle-and-traffic law violations. The prior week, police stopped 67 vehicles and wrote 49 tickets. To date, about 220 tickets have been handed out in the zone.

• Wrote 43 parking tickets. The prior week, 57 were issued. To date, 229 parking tickets have been handed out in the zone.

• Picked up three individuals were were wanted on arrest warrants. Last week police located 12 wanted persons in the zone. To date they’e picked up 25 wanted

persons.