NISKAYUNA — On an otherwise festive parade route was a sign in the front yard of 1019 Van Antwerp that read: “Eyesore. Please help rebuild Van Antwerp.”
Notices posted on the front and side doors of the property proclaimed the house condemned. The notice is dated April 5, 2017 and is signed town Building Inspector Tom Hassett.
Neighbors said that although the house was recently deemed unfit for human occupancy, it has been an eyesore and health hazard for years with no meaningful remediation. The owner, Pompei Joll, died in April and now neighbors are afraid they will have to wait years for the estate to be settled and the property cleaned up or demolished.
Chief among neighbors’ concerns has been the smell coming off the property. They said Joll was feeding between 20 and 35 feral cats.
“We were essentially prisoners to our house,” said Lori Ferguson, who has lived two doors down for the last six years, and whose daughter is asthmatic. “When you go outside the ammonia from the cats was so horrendous it would cause an asthma attack. In the summer it’s at its worst. With so many cats, the urine is in the soil, it’s all over the house, it’s everywhere and it doesn’t go away.”
Even during the Niska-Day parade, more than a month after the house was vacated, the faint smell of animal waste was noticeable in the breeze. Ferguson reported seeing dead cats in Joll’s yard as well.
In addition to the cats, Ferguson and Lisa Zywot, Joll’s next door neighbor, reported seeing opossums, raccoons, skunks and squirrels go in and out of the front door, which was often left open, and through broken windows.
“Aside from the environmental situation, it’s a sad human situation — to know someone was living that way,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson said neighbors contacted social service officials but were told that they could not intervene if Joll did not want them to.
The animals were only part of the problem. Ferguson and Zywot believed Joll “was not well mentally.” One day, shortly after Ferguson moved in, Joll knocked on her door, soaking wet and holding a check.
“She was trying to pay her water bill,” said Ferguson, who then called 911. Ferguson wanted to offer Joll a blanket since she was wet, but police instructed Ferguson not to touch her. Joll was dripping with cat urine, but she refused medical care.
Neighbors also reported that there were no functioning utilities at the home and that Joll frequently “lived outside.”
Town Supervisor Joe Landry said that the town had not disconnected water service to the home and that Joll had access to water and sewer services.
For two years, residents say, a wrecked and inoperable vehicle sat under a tree in the front yard.
Neighbors reported that, following Joll’s passing and subsequent removal from the home, officials entering the house did so in full body protective gear reminiscent of hazmat suits.
The owner of a local restaurant who neighbors said would periodically check in on Joll did not return request for comment.
Frustrated by the condition of the property, the Fergusons and Zwyot met with town officials with a list of concerns and observed code violations.
“We followed the chain of command,” said Ferguson. “They tried to appease us. Supervisor Landry said he’d review our list. We were also told that the town had no right to tell anyone how to live and that it’s private property. After we met, someone came out and tried to spruce it up. They removed the car after much urging.”
While the town cannot dictate a resident’s way of life, there are codes in place to protect the well-being of residents and neighbors.
Among the town codes are requirements in subsection 139 requiring a property be free of hazards, broken machinery, overgrown vegetation and filthiness that “permits entrance by mice, rats or other rodents …”
Also contained in subsection 139 is a requirement that feeding non-domesticated animals, like the feral cats reported at the property, “shall be carried out in a manner that avoids a noxious impact on the premises or the neighborhood and avoids detriment to public health or safety.”
The house was ultimately condemned under the 2015 International Property Maintenance Code Section 108.1.3. Which reads:
“When the code official finds that such structure is unsafe, unlawful or, because of the degree to which the structure is in disrepair or lacks maintenance, is unsanitary, vermin infested, contains filth and contamination, or lacks ventilation, illumination, sanitary or heating facilities or other essential equipment required by the code, or because the location of the structure constitutes a hazard to the occupants of the structure or to the public.”
According to town code, violations may be punishable by fines or imprisonment.
“She was getting older and functioning at a level that was difficult for her to maintain the house,” Landry said. “She did not ask for help.”
Town building inspector Thomas Cannizzo last visited the property in 2014. Subsequent visits in 2015 and 2016 were made by fellow town building inspector, Hassett, based on neighbor complaints.
Hassett acknowledged that neighbors had complained, but reiterated that town officials cannot enter private property unless invited in. Hassett said when he visited, he would knock on the door, but received no answer and never made contact with Joll. He went on to note that when there were observable violations on the exterior of the property, he would leave a notice. Hassett said the code violations she was cited for were addressed.
Hassett made the determination to condemn the property based on photos of the interior of the home that police took following Joll’s death.
“Based on those pictures, I felt the property was unfit for human occupancy,” said Hassett who declined to describe what specifically he saw in the pictures. “What I saw led me to believe it was unsanitary and lacked maintenance.”
According to public records, the house belonged to Donald and Pompei Joll. Donald died in 2006.
The property is now in Joll’s estate and according to town officials, it is unknown if there is a will or an executor of the estate. Final resolution will likely come out of probate court proceedings. There is currently no timeline for resolution of the matter.
“We pay taxes and we’re forced to live this way,” said Ferguson. “I never would have bought this house had I known. It’s frustrating that the house has been like this for so long. We’re being told it would take a while (to resolve the estate), and for us, we’ve already been waiting forever.”
She said the cat odor is still present and rodents continue to go in and out of the vacant house.
In the meantime, the property remains condemned. Officials have screwed two-by-four boards over entrances to keep people out.