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Changes to Massena’s building code needed for revitalization

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MASSENA - Many residents and economic development officials believe the municipality will have to make significant revisions to its zoning regulations and village code in order to effectively revitalize downtown Massena with the help of state grant funds.

The Business Development Corporation for a Greater Massena is in the planning stages of how to utilize $250,000 from the New York State Main Street Grant Program to improve the village’s downtown corridor. Many have expressed concern that absentee landlords and owners of derelict buildings could undermine the revitalization effort.

The BDC’s consultant, Rick Hauser of In:Site Architecture, warned that derelict buildings are not only unsightly but may make investors less willing to invest in the downtown corridor. “You can’t be in a position where you’re opening up a business, and you have blighted and boarded-up buildings on each side of you. Your business there is compromised,” Mr. Hauser said.

He pointed out that as part of the Main Street revitalization effort, community members will form a committee dedicated to identifying ways the village can amend its code in order to address derelict properties within the village’s downtown area.

“The (code revision committee) is about the idea of creating a downtown people will want to invest in because they know it’s a downtown where their neighbors are held to a higher standard,” Mr. Hauser said.

The code revision committee, also called the anti-blight task force, is being led by resident Vance Fleury, owner of River Crest Enterprises, Inc. The committee is open to all interested members of the public.

At a meeting Wednesday on the downtown revitalization, Mayor James F. Hidy pointed out the village’s Board of Trustees is considering a public nuisance law that would aim to tackle both crime and derelict structures n the village. Mr. Hidy believes this law would force absentee landlords to maintain their properties and keep them up to code. He feels these individuals are largely to blame for why the village is in the state that it’s in.

“We’re about ready to adopt a public nuisance law that adopts a number of things under one umbrella,” Mr. Hidy said. “We don’t want to make it too drastic, but it has to be something with teeth. It’s going to ruffle some feathers but at this point we don’t care.”

At a village board meeting last week, Mr. Hidy presented trustees with information on a local law used by the city of Rome. If a “public nuisance” like the sale of illegal drugs or firearms, gang activity or assaults occur at a property more than once, the village could issue a court summons under the law for civil action.

“In light of everything that’s been going on - with drugs and a lot of crime activity out of rental homes - this could help address those issues affecting our community,” Mr. Hidy said. “This law blankets the whole idea of what we’re trying to do.”

If the building’s tenants or owner are found responsible for the continuing problems at the property, they could be fined. If the problems continue, the village could then issue a permanent injunction and control the building until the problems stop or are solved, Police Chief Timmy J. Currier said.

Aside from blighted properties, the code revision committee will look at ways to try to create a downtown with a more cohesive appearance. Mr. Fleury said the committee will look to create an “overlay” district, which applies specifically to the downtown area. Buildings that fall within this area will have to adhere to certain guidelines regarding color schemes, signage, doors and replacement of broken windows within a timely manner.

Massena Town Supervisor Joseph D. Gray suggested such requirements were long overdue in Massena. He pointed to the strict codes on building facades in the village of Potsdam; he feels those codes helped Potsdam’s downtown become much more attractive and more economically successful than Massena’s.

“Our downtown is a freaking mess because of that (lack of strict codes). Are we going to keep limping along looking like this?” Mr. Gray asked.

BDC Board Chair Daniel S. Pease said Potsdam faced a number of lawsuits because of its strict code. Mr. Gray said he would like to have a code that strikes a balance between freedom for the owners and strict requirements to create a cohesive-looking downtown.

BDC Executive Director Michael Almasian believes historic preservation should be an important part of any revisions the village makes to its code. “There are certain buildings, certain homes, certain community blocks that are what makes Massena Massena,” Mr. Almasian said.

One business owner, Paul Morrow, raised concern that if the code is too strict it might discourage new development rather than promote it. “The stricter the codes are the more people you turn away. I’ve done a lot of building here, and there’s a lot of restrictions, and restrictions cost you money,” Mr. Morrow said.

Mr. Gray replied that stricter codes were in the interest of creating a more attractive downtown, which could benefit all downtown business owners. “Why would you want to replace a broken window with plywood?” Mr. Gray said. “We have to force people to make those repairs.”

Others feel certain aspects of the existing code could be detrimental to revitalization efforts.

Ken C. Cornell, owner of Cornell’s Dry Cleaning Corporation, said the village’s current code doesn’t allow some storefront features such as certain types of signage and awnings. Mr. Hauser recommended awnings as an effective way to both make a storefront look more attractive and hide imperfections on a building’s facade.

“Is the village ready to make the changes to the building code so we can actually do these things? In order for the whole (revitalization effort) to work, we have to be able to do what they recommend and do it legally,” Mr. Cornell said.

Mr. Hidy said the village’s building code will also be revised to give more freedom to business owners seeking to use grant funds to revitalize their businesses.

“Some of the targets we’re going after intend to not just go after blighted properties, but to be more aggressive to let business owners buy into the program,” Mr. Hidy said.

Village board members hope to have a resolution for a public nuisance law prepared within the next few months. Being a local law, the village board would first have to hold a public hearing voting on any proposed changes to its code.

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