ONEONTA _ "Why is the city not enforcing the city code?"

That was among the questions a group of Center City residents had for the mayor and the Common Council on Tuesday night after a revelation last week that six college students are living in a home on 7 Walnut St.

Dwellings with more than three unrelated inhabitants are considered rooming houses under the city zoning code. Rooming houses are prohibited in much of the city, where single-family homes predominate, including Walnut Street.

Brody Smith, an attorney representing Robert Martella, the owner of 7 Walnut St., told the Zoning Board of Appeals last Monday that six college students live at the home. The ZBA ruled in favor of Martella's area variance request to finish the attic of the property to turn it into an entertainment space. At that meeting, ZBA Chairman Ed May said the board was only ruling on the attic issue and not matters related to occupancy.

The question on code enforcement was posed by Walnut Street resident Andrea Pontius during a public comment period at the beginning of the Common Council meeting. City officials are not required to respond to petitioners from the public during public comment periods.

But Mayor John Nader gave an answer to the question to The Daily Star after the meeting: "I don't know that we're not."

Nader said city officials, including city Attorney David Merzig, are in consultation "to see what avenues are available to us."

The city recently withdrew a request to inspect Martella's properties, including 7 Walnut St., Smith said at the ZBA meeting, after Martella presented case law to argue the city's code section on occupancy limits violates the state constitution.

Nader said he recognized the concerns of the group, and said he is proposing an eight-month moratorium on the issuance of certificates of compliance.

The moratorium designed to allow the city a chance to review its zoning code in order to preserve the city's housing stock in accordance with the comprehensive plan adopted last year. Although it would not deal with 7 Walnut St., it would prevent new properties from becoming rentals, Nader said.

Certificates of compliance are required by the city for the lawful use of residential properties as rentals.

Fourth Ward Alderman Mike Lynch said he appreciates the work the mayor has put into drafting the moratorium, but said he is skeptical of its effectiveness.

As of October, more than half of all residential, rental properties in the city lacked a valid certificate of compliance.

"It doesn't give me a lot of confidence, moving forward, that we are going to be able to enforce a moratorium," Lynch said.

During the discussion, Merzig said the Common Council needs to be mindful that there are people who make their living by renting out their properties, and actions of the city could be construed as unconstitutional.

Merzig said the city could enforce the moratorium by declaring properties unsafe or by taking owners to court to seek cease and desist orders.

But Lynch said some landlords are taking advantage of a recent boon in Oneonta's rental market that has seen nearly 40 new rentals in the city since 2007 when it usually sees only one or two new rentals a year.

"We have some of them who are making an exorbitant amount of money violating our laws, specifically our occupancy laws," Lynch said.

As of October, Martella did not have certificates of compliance for 7 Walnut St. and 12 East St., but also 45 Cedar St., 24 Columbia St., 38 High St., and 26 Spruce St.

Neither Martella nor his attorney, could not be reached for comment late Tuesday night.

Members of the group concerned about 7 Walnut St. said that the increasing number of single-family homes being turned into rentals is destroying the quality of life in their neighborhoods.

In other business news Tuesday, the Common Council approved a $18.3 million budget for 2009 that represents an 8 percent increase in spending from this year's fiscal plan. The city is planning to collect $4 million in property tax revenues to fund the fiscal plan. It is also planning to raise sewer and water rates.

City officials previously said a homeowner with an assessment of $85,000 would pay an additional $37 over the taxes he or she paid this year under the plan, which would increase the tax rate by about 3.6 percent. Under the plan, the tax levy would be about $170,000 more than this year, but below the amount budgeted for collection from property owners in 2005 and 2006. Water rate increases will include a $5 hike in the minimum step for city users and a $7 increase for town users. All steps past the minimum will be increased by 6.5 percent. Sewer rates, which are based on the amount of water used, will include a $5 hike in the minimum step and an $8 increase for town users. There will be a 10 percent increase for each steps past the minimum.

"¢ Aldermen approved five special-use permits authorizing the following off-campus Greek houses: Gamma Phi Delta sorority at 23 Elm St.; Phi Sigma Phi sorority at 6 Myrtle Ave.; Alpha Omicron Pi sorority at 17 Maple St.; Alpha Delta Omega fraternity at 62 Elm St.; Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity at 61 Elm St.

"¢ The Common Council voted to re-hire Danny Obergefell to work in the city's engineering department next year. Obergefell, the public service supervisor who retired two years ago, will assist the city on engineering projects, staff training and public work projects, among other duties. He will be paid $30-an-hour at a cost not to exceed $30,000, the maximum he could earn from the city due to his public sector pension.

"¢ Aldermen voted to re-hire Bruce Amadon as a part-time housing rehabilitation specialist at an hourly rate of $25. Amadon, who retired as housing rehabilitation specialist in March 2007, will Jeff House was hired as the city's full-time housing rehabilitation specialist in June. Amadon has worked part-time for city since his retirement. His new part-time term beginning Jan. 1 is scheduled to run until June 30 and is to not exceed $15,000 in wages.

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