As Port Chester housing inspectors work their way through hundreds of parcels, some trustees have taken to repeating a grim punchline about the village's current predicament: There are scheduled, methodical inspections, and then there's "code enforcement by fire."
The latter has become particularly alarming over the past year, with several major fires attributed to things like poor electrical wiring, precariously-placed space heaters, makeshift modifications and amateur repair work. In some cases, the buildings were scheduled for inspection. In others, landlords had ignored notices from inspectors or found ways to stall their efforts.
Inspectors were working on a preliminary report on the Olivia Street house that was the site of Thursday night's fire. It was likely sparked by contractors using open flames to repair old pipes in the home's basement, according to fire Chief Kevin McFadden.
Here are the details from several recent fires involving dangerous housing conditions:
June 6, 2011: 142 Oak St.
An Oak Street home caught fire, leaving 20 people homeless. The subsequent the home "had makeshift, exposed electrical wiring, fuel-burning equipment that wasn't vented and 'non-habitable space' used as sleeping quarters."
More fallout from the investigation: The home had previously passed a fire safety inspection in April of 2010, a month before former building inspector Frank Ruccolo was suspended amid a criminal investigation into the building department. Documents show a housing inspector expressed reservations about the property, but Ruccolo vouched for the landlord and the house passed inspection.
(Ruccolo, who earlier found himself in trouble for telling the Westmore News that some Port Chester residents were from "Third World countries where they live in mud and paper shacks," retired a few months later and collects a pension.)
The revelation about the passed 2010 inspection prompted new reviews of old records, and staff unearthed similar cases where homes passed inspection despite serious violations.
The findings prompted Assistant Village Manager Christopher Steers to weigh in, sounding exasperated: "Everything I've been doing since I've been here is to clean up these messes and to help fix these problems. They're significant. More significant than I imagined."
July 7, 2011: 44-48 N. Main St
Faulty electrical wiring sparked a blaze that left 16 people homeless. Inspectors found "dozens upon dozens of fire safety and building code violations including multiple electrical hazards and possible illegal units."
The fire also impacted local business owners, who were forced to close for several weeks as the landlord straightened out records with village hall and called in contractors to perform repairs.
The building was closed off to the public and tenants were supposed to be out, but a month later a police bike officer saw a three-year-old girl hanging out of a third-floor window. Alarmed, authorities took a closer look and found owner Harry Hedvat had started repair work without getting permits, while tenants were still using the building.
Sept 7, 2010: 17 Willow St.
Ten people were left homeless when a building caught fire on tiny Willow Street. Attributed to faulty electrical wiring, the fire prompted an investigation which revealed overcrowding and illegal modifications, such as a front porch that had been enclosed and converted into a living space.
The investigation the home was co-owned by William Oxer, a former fire chief in the village. After originally pleading not guilty to charges, Oxer paid $4,000 in fines, while co-owner William Horton paid $5,000. Oxer was also on the village payroll as a DPW employee. Three months after the fire, he was suspended in a separate investigation into mass theft from Port Chester's parking meters.
Jan. 8, 2011: 206 Irving Ave.
In a first-floor auto parts store, a fire was sparked when several pieces of wood were left too close to a boiler, spreading flames to several upstairs apartments. Authorities said 25 people, including a family of 13, were left homeless.
The building was on an inspection list, but the visit was held up when the landlord failed to pay the entire inspection fee, according to village hall. Days after the fire, the landlord was still MIA as most of his tenants were looking for new homes and living in a Red Cross shelter.
Aug. 24, 2011: 67 Grace Church St.
In a scenario similar to Thursday's fire, a contractor used an open-flame torch to seal the home's foundation in an effort to prevent flooding in an illegal basement apartment. The Grace Church Street home caught fire when the contractor got too close to wood paneling, sparking flames that quickly spread to the rest of the structure.
Four families were squeezed into a two-family home, which was illegally modified with an apartment in the attic as well as the aforementioned basement dwelling. Less than a week after the fire, owner Anna Maria Blass tried to start repair work without permits.
Steers said that's typical behavior of Port Chester landlords, who operated for decades with a complicit building department. When they're told "no," the landlords "look for a different answer and they look for a work-around."
CORRECTION: Village inspectors visit three-family homes and commercial buildings, but don't conduct regular inspections of homes zoned for two families or less.
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