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March 18, 2013

Oneonta enacted first building code 60 years ago

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The Daily Star

---- — There will be no parade, fireworks display or commemorative coins minted for the occasion. It might bring about a shrug or yawn from some, or invite some remarks from a landlord or two we probably couldn’t print here.

The occasion is a building code. It was 60 years ago yesterday that Oneonta adopted such a code for the first time in its history. While not cause for festive celebration, adopting the code was important, as local history proved tragically almost 30 years later in the city, when incidents at rental houses claimed the lives of three college students.

Common Council adopted the state’s new performance code for buildings Tuesday, March 17, 1953. Mayor Roger G. Hughes appointed Grover C. Lamphere as the first building inspector. Among Lamphere’s duties was to look after buildings within the city, inspection and enforcement of a recently enacted state multiple dwelling law, specifying safety factors in buildings housing three or more families, and enforcing the city’s zoning ordinance.

Actual inspections began Monday, Jan. 25, 1954, when Lamphere and Oneonta Fire Chief Joseph M. Scanlon began visits to the 365 registered multiple dwellings in the city, all to be checked on their degree of compliance with the state law. Property owners received reports on the inspections, and were guided in making any required alterations.

Code enforcement changed locally since the 1950s. The city later adopted a housing code in 1976. With the decline of Oneonta’s railroad industry, many single-family homes had been subdivided as landlords met an increasing demand for off-campus college housing. By 1982, the city had nearly 2,000 rental units.

With such a significant increase in rental properties, a call for more stringent inspections began after three deaths in 1982. Fires occurred at 116 Chestnut St. and 24 Cedar St., and a carbon monoxide poisoning claimed another life at 43 Center St.

“I’d be the first to acknowledge there are a lot of housing violations out there that I don’t know about,” Adolph Buzzy, then the city code officer, told The Daily Star on Nov. 8, 1982. Buzzy said the city was unable to conduct annual inspections of student housing, among others, to see that safety standards were being met. The only ones he could inspect were ones he got complaints about.

To inspect all dwellings, Buzzy suggested a five-person department consisting of three inspectors and two secretaries would be needed, at a cost of $250,000.

Taking action on inspections was needed. Oneonta Police Chief John J. Donadio said he had received threats from callers, promising that certain landlords’ buildings would be burned, due to what the callers said were substandard student housing. The threatening calls followed the Cedar Street fire Nov. 6, but none of the threats were carried out.

After more than a week of debate and protests in downtown Oneonta, Mayor James F. Lettis announced Nov. 15 that inspections would be vastly increased. Oneonta would require landlords to register with the city and have their rental units inspected periodically by certified electricians and plumbers. Lettis also assigned existing city employees to help Buzzy with initial inspections, including City Forester Jonathan Haigh and Housing Rehabilitation Specialist Peter Friedman. Under this new program, about 12 houses could be inspected per day. Just a little more than a year later, Friedman became the city’s code enforcement officer.

During the 1990s, many an article in the Star showed homes or buildings that were declared unsafe and named many landlords with building violations and fines. Several landlords commented how the code enforcement office had gotten out of hand with their aggressive efforts.

Most Common Council members felt the department was doing their job.

“You have to have penalties that are significant enough to force compliance,” said Margery Merzig in March 1995, then Second Ward alderwoman. “I happen to support what the code enforcement officer is doing,” referring to Peter Friedman.

Upon Friedman’s retirement in 2008, former Mayor John Nader called Friedman a “transformative” code enforcement officer. “In many ways, we live in a safer city than we did two decades ago,” Nader said.

This weekend: The start of home mail delivery in Oneonta.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.