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March 18, 2013

Oneonta enacted first building code 60 years ago


“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.

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