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Oakland fire shows importance of code enforcement

December 15, 2016
Editorial , Lake Placid News

North Elba and Lake Placid leaders are now having an important conversation about code enforcement, due to the recent retirement of longtime Code Enforcement Officer Jim Morganson. In doing so, they think they will have to hire more staff in addition to his successor.

We agree. It should remain a joint town-village service, but with two officers. It's too much for one person to monitor. North Elba is the most populous town in the Adirondack Park, with about 9,000 year-round residents, but more importantly, it has tens of thousands of annual visitors and an amazing amount of construction, apartments, lodging and restaurants to inspect.

Property owners often chafe at building codes requiring them to maintain structures in a safe, healthy manner. That can be costly, so a certain amount of judgment should be exercised in enforcement. Property owners also tend to complain about the code enforcement officers, whom they sometimes consider to be harassing.

But what can happen when scofflaws get away with ignoring the rules entirely has been demonstrated in Oakland, California.

There, an old warehouse converted into apartments caught fire during a party Friday night. Thirty-six bodies have been recovered from the "Ghost Ship," as the ad hoc art colony was called.

Reports on the building make it clear it was a tragedy in the making. For one thing, used shipping pallets stacked atop each other were being used as a staircase.

City officials have said they were in the process of trying to inspect the building but had not been able to gain entrance to it.

Some have said Oakland's ongoing gentrification had squeezed out low-income artists like the ones who lived at the Ghost Ship. That may be a mitigating factor. Park benches and the space under bridges don't meet code, either, and those may have been these people's only other options.

But to invite the public to parties in such an unsafe building clearly crosses a line. City officials must regret they didn't stop it sooner.

Occasionally, officials in the Adirondacks react to health and safety hazards by issuing orders to repair or demolish a building. Property owners are given time to make necessary improvements. If they fail to do so, they can be ordered to demolish the affected buildings. One recent local example is the former Dew Drop Inn in Saranac Lake. Its former owner made a few repairs in order to dodge the wrecking ball and has since sold the property.

Building inspectors should not view themselves as property owners' adversaries. Issuing expensive orders or collecting big fines for relatively minor infractions often does little to solve the problem or to help the community.

When clear and present dangers exist, however, decisive action is warranted. Had that occurred in Oakland, at least three dozen lives would have been saved.



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