August 29, 2015

Abandoned church’s future uncertain

ChurchJoe McIntyre/staff photographer
City officials say it’s up to property owners to either renovate or raze the vacant church at1 Church St. in Cortland. The 5,000-square-foot building, which dates back to the 1880s, was used by members of the Congregational Church in the 1950s and ’60s.

Staff Reporter

The vacant church that has fallen into disrepair at the corner of Church and Elm streets in the city continues to be an eyesore with an uncertain future, but city officials say it is up to the property owners to either renovate or tear down the building.
The building, located at 1 Church St., dates back to the 1880s and was home to members of the Congregational Church in the 1950s and 1960s. The 5,000-square-foot property, assessed at $48,400, was purchased by Stanley Bustamante in 2002.
Bustamante was not available for comment by press time on Friday, but has said in the past that rehabilitating the building is cost prohibitive.
A 2002 report filed with the city’s Code Enforcement Office estimated the cost of renovations to the property would be between $200,000 and $300,000.
Meanwhile, city officials say there is little they can do about the church.
A 2012 study conducted by Newark Valley-based engineer Steven McElwain shows the building is structurally sound and there are no safety concerns. Absent those concerns, there is not enough to call for its demolition, Director of Code Enforcement Bill Knickerbocker said Thursday.
The property is up to date on taxes, according to City Director of Administration and Finance Mack Cook.
Knickerbocker noted Bustamante is behind on vacantregistry fees, a penalty designedto ensure property owners keep their buildings up to code. However, those fees are incorporated into the amount of the following year’s property taxes, so itcould not be determined bypress time Friday how much is owed or whether they would ultimately be paid.
The only two ways the city could take over the building would be if it is deemed a safety hazard, or if demolishing it would serve a stated public purpose.
Cook explained that public purpose could have been argued to be the expansion of Clinton Avenue.
In 2013, the city slated the church for demolition as part of the Clinton Avenue corridor improvement project that called for converting that intersection into a traffic roundabout.
However, those plans have not proceeded because the city has been preoccupied with other aspects of the Clinton Avenue project. The roundabout would also require a lengthy discussion with the state Department of Transportation since it has jurisdiction over that intersection.
More options to take over the property would be available to the city under state Real Property law if the property was residential, but since it is commercial, they do not apply, said Cook.
The city is a member of the New York Conference of Mayors, a lobbying group.
“The New York Conference of Mayors did try to have the law amended and expanded so that it can deal with commercial properties in the same way that we can deal with residential properties,” Cook said. “Legislation was introduced the last two years but it wasn’t adopted.”
As part of his proposed 2016 general fund budget, Mayor Brian Tobin has suggested allocating $70,000 toward the rehabilitation of vacant and abandoned properties which the Common Council would then decide how to use.
But Tobin said it is unlikely the city could legally fund the rehabilitation of the church, adding even if it could, he would have some reservations.
“I would not be supportive of putting money toward a problem unless there’s a tangible solution,” Tobin said. “(And) I would not be supportive of using that money to develop property on private (land). There has to be some need or public good.”
Tobin said he recognizes that similar commercial properties in the city could be put toward a better use, but said the city’s options are limited as far as providing financial incentives to get building owners to rehabilitate theirproperties.
“The issue is that most commercial properties are a much more significant investment as opposed to the residential properties,” he said. “When there’s bigger projects, a lot of time it falls outside the realm of what the city can accomplish.”
Entities like the Central Regional Economic Development Council can apply for state funding which could potentially trickle down to the city for specific projects, Tobin said, but the ideal situation would be to get the state Real Property law expanded so the city can deal with commercial properties on its own.
“Hopefully, we’ll see some movement on that,” Tobin said. “But (until then) we’re kind of between a rock and a hard place.”

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