ITHACA, N.Y. — The properties owned by a Groton landlord are causing concerns about increased criminal activities along Main Street. But is the village's nuisance law — which at this point could fine the landlord over a million dollars — constitutional?
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"I knew this was unconstitutional, I just didn't know how," attorney Russell Maines said in court Friday morning.
He's representing landlord Norfe J. Pirro who owns residential properties along Main Street in the village of Groton. Within the past few years, he changed the units from single-family homes to by-the-bed rentals with 14 people living in each home.
Residents say the influx of people willing to rent the beds has led to more crime in the area.
In response to the crime, the village created a point system for "nuisance" complaints — such as prostitution, loitering, disorderly conduct — and gives the village the authority to take civil action against property owners who repeatedly violate it.
Maines said even if the law were constitutional, it would still not be applicable to Pirro's property and it's not being implemented in a legal way because the term "nuisance" is used ambiguously, among other reasons.
For instance, the law is applicable to any facility that provides merchandise or services.
Attorney William Troy, who is representing the village of Groton, said Pirro's property is covered by the law because the landlord ensures residents are provided with services such as maintenance, electricity and water.
Troy went on to say that the city has tried repeatedly to solve this issue without bringing the matter to court, meeting with Pirro and offering him suggestions to improve monitoring the behavior of his tenants. Some of those suggestions, he said, included suggestions to hire an on-site manager, uniformed security guard or have residents create a dialogue with police about problems at the homes.
Pirro, he said, did not do those things.
"They waited almost 11 months to do something," he said about village officials.
Several complaints against Pirro have been filed since September 2014.
Maines also said the points are being applied in ways that are not legal. For instance, if a woman who lives at the residence is assaulted by a man who does not live at the residence, then points are still incurred at the homes.
He gave an example of an instance when a property incurred four points:
Two men were arguing about God and the Bible. One of the men eventually got in contact with police. The officers arrived at the residence and verbally mediated the argument.
Maines said no crime was committed and there was no probable cause, yet the points were still added to the property.
"The problem is that the law absolves discretion to...a police officer to what a nuisance is and what a nuisance is not," he said.
Troy argued that a court would ultimately decide if the nuisance points were legitimate.
"If there's no nuisance, there's no nuisance," he said.
Maines said after court that if Pirro is found in violation of the law, he could be fined up to $1,000 a day per day he's been in violation. Since complaints date back to 214, the total amount of fines possible would well exceed $1 million.
The decision from Judge Robert Mulvey could take as little as six weeks to as long as several months to be decided.
Correction at 2:30 p.m.: The sixth paragraph has been modified to more accurately reflect Maines' defense argument.