Scranton Could Appeal Decision To Lift Condemnation Order On House

August 6, 2018

SCRANTON — In a rare move, the city may appeal the Scranton Housing Appeals Board’s ruling that lifted a condemnation order on a Green Ridge property.

The board voted 4-0 during its July 26 meeting to remove a condemnation order against a property at 918 Grandview St., but the city could appeal the decision in the Common Pleas Court, assistant solicitor Joseph Price said.

The city’s Licensing, Inspections and Permits Department condemned the double-block property, which is owned by George Datto of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, because it had “garbage, furniture, mattresses, dressers and a bunch of debris in the front yard,” according to a Dec. 21 condemnation letter. The city also issued five citations against the property, which Magisterial District Judge Paul J. Ware dismissed.

Attorney Paul Batyko, who represented Datto, said tenants had placed furniture and mattresses outside the property. Datto had the furniture removed within 24 hours, he said.

“This is the case of an overreach,” Batyko said. “It’s an abuse of power. Properties don’t deserve to be condemned for minor issues.”

During the July meeting, LIP Director Patrick Hinton said the property was condemned because it has been a blight issue in the neighborhood for “years and years.” Batyko disagreed, saying there were no prior issues with blight.

During a May 31 appeals board hearing, Batyko and Datto agreed to a limited inspection of the property to lift the condemnation order. The inspection would consist of checks of entrances and exits, proper utilities, smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors as well as a visual inspection of general safety. The inspection would not include checking the wiring or plumbing in the property.

During the June 8 inspection, city officials and safety inspection contractor Northeast Inspection Consultants found an unsafe power outlet within six feet of a water source, Price said. When inspectors began looking at the power outlet, Batyko stopped the inspection, he said.

The outlet, paired with the inability to finish the inspection, “resulted in the condemnation not being lifted,” Price said.

The debate during the appeals board meeting came down to an interpretation of what an “obvious safety hazard based on visual inspection” entails, Price said.

Because inspectors were looking for safety violations, “it was within the scope of what we agreed to,” Hinton said during the July meeting.

Price defended the condemnation to the appeals board, calling it an obvious safety issue.

“It’s like a cop going into a house looking for a fugitive, and you see a big bag of cocaine,” he said. “What’s the cop supposed to do, turn a blind eye?”

After listening to arguments from both sides, board Chairman Gerald Smurl motioned to lift the condemnation, explaining that the board and LIP said during their May hearing that they weren’t going to look for electrical or plumbing issues, and “that’s the first thing they do.”

“We should never be that vague and say we’re not going to look at the electrical,” Smurl said.

The city stands behind the determination to condemn the property, Price said. Before lifting the condemnation, the city would have liked the outlet issue to be remedied for the safety of the tenants, he said.

Price could not comment on the board’s ruling because of the possibility of an appeal, he said, adding that he respects the board’s decision.

After being informed of the possibility of the city appealing the board ruling, Batyko said, “I’ve never heard of that before,” calling it a “baseless, unfounded appeal, and most importantly, a tremendous waste of city resources.”

As of Friday, Price said the city was most likely not going to appeal the decision, but he could not guarantee it.

The city has 30 days from the date of the board’s decision to appeal the ruling.

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