OLEAN — Three city boarding houses cannot continue to operate as such once they are sold.
The City of Olean Zoning Board of Appeals on Thursday unanimously denied three use variances for existing boarding houses at 321 N. First St. 125 S. Barry St. and 111 N. Clinton St., all owned and currently listed for sale by 92 Astor Place LLC. following two sessions of public hearings on each site.
The meeting Thursday, lasting more than two hours, continued public hearings on the variance requests from May 27.
‘At the first meeting, around a dozen neighboring property owners and tenants called upon the board to deny the variances. The neighbors noted multiple police calls to the sites for drug use, property damage, and threats from tenants.
Board members said a report from the city police department indicated 21 calls to 125 S. Barry St. in the last 12 months, with nine to 111 N. Clinton St. for disturbances. Officials also noted a drug overdose on Barry Street earlier this week.
Applicants did not attend that meeting, with board members adjourning the meetings to Thursday to give them a chance to answer the accusations from neighbors.
Howard Hanna real estate agent Paul Pezzimenti, the listing agent for the properties at around $400,000, said the meeting was originally planned to be a virtual meeting and he was out of the state at the time. Also attending the meeting Thursday was 92 Astor Place principal Brett Sikora.
Sikora said he was not the cause of the problems at the sites, insisting city police were to blame for not arresting squatters on South Barry Street — including two he and others claimed had assaulted a lease-holding tenant and moved into her room.
“Everybody was happy with what was going on before,” he said, indicating issues only began during the COVID-19 pandemic. “The reason for selling is I don’t want to deal with these issues.”
Sikora also blamed the city’s codes office for allowing him to purchase the properties in 2016.
“I couldn’t even get financing without the city saying they were grandfathered,” he said. “I only bought them on advice of the city.”
He claimed that he was told by a former code enforcement officer in 2016 that the properties could be used as boarding houses at their current capacity — with nine rooms per building on South Barry and North First streets, and 11 on North Clinton — despite a local ordinance passed the year before limiting boarding houses to just six single rooms.
When questioned about the code, Sikora said he was unaware of the capacity limit before the meeting, blaming city officials for not notifying him.
Board members doubted Sikora’s contention that city officials agreed to allowing the boarding houses to continue operation, indicating he could not provide documentation to that effect.
Codes office officials reported, at the request of the board, they were searching their records for any documentation between the last meeting and Thursday and could not find any to indicate any inspections or other reports beyond a 2019 city-mandated landlord registration.
Sikora said he was open to converting them to three-apartment structures, which is allowed under city code for the zoning in those neighborhoods.
“The homes will still sell … they still trade at the same price,” he said.
Board members referred to the statement several times during the meeting, using it to show that there was no unnecessary financial burden.
Under state law, use variances may be granted if they meet four criteria — the owner cannot receive a reasonable return on a property without the variance, the property has unique circumstances that would not apply to other properties in the city, the essential character of the neighborhood would be unaffected, and the hardship is not self-created. All four are required to allow a variance.
Sikora also asked the board for how to proceed in shutting down the boarding houses.
“If you have a way to get every tenant out of every property, I’m all ears,” he said.
“I take a certain umbrance to the at least insinuation that we are evictees,” said board Secretary Tom Enright, noting the board is looking out for the public health and safety of the city and the neighborhood. “We are watchdogs for the community.”
Several neighbors spoke Thursday, indicating the problems are not just about squatters and had been going on for years and involved lease-holding tenants.
“They’re threatening our tenants,” said Mike Foster, who co-owns a neighboring apartment building on North Clinton Street.
He also said he went through the property recently, noting if he bought it he could convert it into apartments that would meet city code and resolve the problem at that site.
“”The rooms are stacked up — I think they have turned every possible room they could into a (bed)room,” he said, adding he doubted that city inspectors would allow the sizes and lack of emergency exits in several of the units to be occupied.
The issue could possibly come back before the board, members said.
“If you make the necessary changes, you can reapply,” said board member Otto Tertinek, noting the current conditions are “deplorable.”
“The place is a mess — it’s a dump,” he said, reviewing photos taken of the South Barry property.