ONEONTA _ The city Zoning Board of Appeals on Monday approved, 4 to 3, an area variance request from Robert Martella that allows him to finish the attic of his property at 7 Walnut St.

The divided vote came after several neighbors spoke for 45 minutes about parties and litter at the residence. They expressed concerns about safety issues at the property, the number of occupants living there and how the character of the neighborhood had deteriorated. Occupants have had parties with 50 to 100 guests, they said.

Georgia Basdekis, who lives at 9 Walnut St., said neighbors have spoken, to no avail, with the college students living at 7 Walnut St. about improving behavior and safety issues. Neighbors, expecting occupants to act responsibly, have approached residents directly instead of calling the police and fire department, she said.

Also, five letters complaining about activities and use of property were read at the meeting in City Hall.

Brody Smith, Martella's attorney, told commissioners the residence has six occupants in response to a question from ZBA Chairman Ed May. Smith said Martella intended for the attic space to be used for entertainment, prompting commissioners to review city code in reference to usage.

May said the board had a narrow question to consider _ whether Martella can sheetrock his attic. Factors related to occupancy weren't under review, he said, and are being addressed by the Code Enforcement Office and the city attorney.

Joining May in approving the variance were commissioners Robert Lawson, Louis Shields and John Rafter. Commissioners opposed were Edmond Overbey, Tom O'Brien and Chip Holmes.

May and other commissioners told neighbors to call the police and fire departments when occupants are disruptive or at times when a danger is presented, such as when the residents had a fire outdoors.

After the meeting, Smith said approval of the variance was ``the right thing to do,'' but he understands why the neighbors are upset about other occupancy issues.

Smith said he and Martella are talking with tenants at Martella's properties to prevent parties.

The city recently withdrew a request to inspect Martella's properties, including 7 Walnut St., Smith said, after he presented case law to argue the city's code violated the state constitution. The inspection request was prompted by an allegation that more than three individuals who aren't related were living at an unidentified property, he said.

City Attorney David Merzig, reached at home late Monday night, said he is reviewing case law and the city's code about unrelated individuals living together and the definition of family units. Merzig said he hadn't known that six individuals lived at 7 Walnut St.

In other business Monday night, ZBA commissioners denied use variances for two homeowners who wanted to have more than three unrelated people living in their properties. The requests were from Jason Gaddis, a State University College at Oneonta student living in a single-family home at 32 Center St., and from SUCO Professor Zanna McKay for a home at 7 Normal Ave.

Steven Z. Feuer, attorney for McKay, said the four college students living at the home will have to resolve the issue so that there are three occupants. McKay is in Vietnam, he said.

The city established a limit on unrelated people allowed to live in individual housing units when it instituted zoning in 1975. Then, five unrelated people were allowed to live in a dwelling, city officials said, and the limit was later changed to four, then to three in 1986.

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