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What a Dump

The city of Albany is a slumlord, complains a Fox Run Estates resident, and now she will have to find a new place to live

By Elizabeth Knapp • Photos By Leif Zurmuhlen

Paula Spratt knows exactly when someone enters her neighborhood. She seems to have a trained ear and jumps to her feet at the distant sound of an engine humming or footsteps thumping on the ground, dropping whatever it is she’s doing to get a closer look. She put herself on “unofficial guard duty” sometime in 2004, shortly after moving to Fox Run Estates, a mobile home park in the town of Colonie. She worries about her own safety, and that of her mostly elderly neighbors.

This time, it’s the middle of the day, and the trespassers are runners—from the University at Albany, she guesses. She evaluates the young men before they get any further. “Well, they’re a little skinny, but they’re runners, so I guess it’s OK,” she says, joking that she has the best view in the park. “Look at them! This is every single girl’s dream, right here.” Joking aside, her trailer’s placement at the entrance of the park certainly allows her to have a good, albeit sometimes disturbing, view of the goings-on in her neighborhood. When the sun goes down, the park is frequented by a different kind of crowd entirely.

The entrance to the park is an unmarked road that’s easy to miss. The ill-lit, nearly half-mile stretch of potholed pavement leading to Spratt’s home seems to offer delinquents the perfect place to conduct business under the veil of darkness. When still awake at odd hours of the night, Spratt has been witness to countless drug deals, visits by addicts, drunks and other “vagrants” who ask her for money and food. She has witnessed the dumping of illegal cars, firearms and garbage. She has made several calls to the Colonie Police Department, she says, reporting these incidents.

She has also made countless calls to the trailer park manager. For nearly six years, she has been fighting to put an end to illegal activity on the property. She is unsatisfied with the living conditions park residents are exposed to and distressed by the lack of concern demonstrated by her landlord: the city of Albany.

Since her complaints about the state of her neighborhood continued to go unanswered, Spratt decided to try a different tactic. In an act of protest, the self-proclaimed ex-hippie chose not to pay her rent for 22 months. “I wanted to pay,” she said, “I really did. But I wanted them to do what’s right.”

The city retaliated in 2008, when Spratt was served with an eviction notice for nonpayment. She says that she was glad to meet the city’s lawyers in court with a payment plan in hand. She would agree to pay the money she owed if they would agree to take care of her neighborhood. However, instead of addressing the safety issues raised by Spratt or the matter of nonpayment, the city’s representation focused on the legitimacy of Spratt’s residence in the park—she was neither the trailer’s owner nor a leaseholder on the property.

Last week, the ongoing battle between Spratt and the city finally came to an end.

In a way that Spratt calls “deceptive and manipulative,” the city has forced her to vacate the trailer that sits on lot number 77 in Fox Run Estates.

In 2000, the landfill-adjacent property on which the trailers sit was purchased by the City of Albany. Residents were offered a buyout of $25,000 to relocate within six months. Many of the older residents stayed. It was more affordable to stay, considering many of their trailers would not have survived a move. Those who did stay were asked to sign a lease modification and extension agreement detailing the city’s ownership, which expires in 2015. Tenants were promised $1,000 per year, paid in two installments, as mitigation for any disturbances that the ever-growing landfill might cause, such as odor, noise, truck traffic and the unsightly and growing mound of solid waste.

“The city bought this property with one thing in mind,” says Spratt. “And that’s to dump more garbage on it.”

The Rapp Road Landfill has been expanded several times into the Pine Bush, a globally rare pine-barren ecosystem inhabited by federally endangered species like the Karner Blue butterfly. The city proposed to expand the landfill for the fifth time in 2005, in order to fully meet the city’s solid waste disposal needs.

For decades, every expansion has been met with controversy, as environmentalists worry over the destruction of the Pine Bush and legislators and taxpayers argue over the cost to expand. Save the Pine Bush, a volunteer nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the native habitat, has been fighting against every City Hall decision to increase the landfill’s size. In recent months, legislators have been voting against the bonding measure the city must take in order to expand the landfill.

The 2000 buyout of Fox Run and the city’s expressed desire to expand the Rapp Road landfill seemed to go hand-in-hand. It was right there in the new lease: “The City received a permit from New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (the “Department”) dated February 29, 2000 to further expand the Landfill . . . The Department has required as mitigation and enhancement for the expansion, that the City purchase approximately 60 acres of land which includes Fox Run Estates, and dedicate the property to the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission.”

If the city dedicated the land to the preserve commission as it stated in the lease, the trailer-park property would be used solely for restoration, which is intended to preserve the ecosystem and its endangered species. However, the city did not dedicate the land after it was purchased, and originally proposed an expansion that would allow the landfill itself to extend into Fox Run.

Save the Pine Bush protested, as this violated the tenants’ leases and overlooked the restoration requirement included in the permit the city received from the DEC to expand the landfill. Save the Pine Bush’s objection prompted the city to dedicate the trailer park property to the preserve as it should have done initially, and instead plan a westward expansion. This was objected to as well, since the land to the west had already been dedicated to Pine Bush restoration and legislators had failed to follow through on a plan to remove it from the preserve.

The city finally introduced the current plan of eastward expansion, which requires the Solid Waste Management facility to relocate some of the buildings that lie on the landfill’s east side and use the preserve’s trailer-park property to restore the land back to the native Pine Bush.

“It’s mitigation for their destruction of 15 acres of Pine Bush that the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission has designated for protection,” explains Save the Pine Bush’s Lynne Jackson.

“It’s an interesting thing for us,” says Albany Assistant Corporation Counsel Bradford Burns, “because in 2000, we were forced to become landlords. The city wanted the entire area dedicated back to the Pine Bush Commission. So we were thrown into an area that a city isn’t normally thrown into. And we’ve been figuring things out as we go along.”

The lease is signed by Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings. The residents are instructed to make their checks payable to the Albany city treasurer. The contact number is Albany’s solid-waste manager and manager of the Rapp Road landfill, Joseph Giebelhaus.

Spratt has filed complaints with Giebelhaus, who has yet to address them.

While they live on land coveted by Solid Waste Management, a division of Albany’s Department of General Services, the tenants’ basic wants and needs are in the hands of their waste collectors. Spratt insists the only service they receive consistently is the weekly garbage pickup, their park manager’s main business.

“We’re paying $335 a month,” she says. “And what we get on a steady basis is garbage pickup once a week. Well, you can buy one big-ass dumpster for $335 a month.”

As the acting trailer park manager, Giebelhaus is responsible for handling tenants’ complaints or concerns. After determining whether the complaint is valid, he is expected to delegate specific duties to one of their private contractors or a different branch of the DGS.

“The person in charge of Fox Run,” says Burns, “dare I say ‘landlord?’ No, the city is the landlord, but the face of Albany for the residents of Fox Run is Joe Giebelhaus.”

While representatives of Albany point to Giebelhaus as the park’s primary caretaker, Giebelhaus insists “the entire city fulfills a certain role.” The way in which these roles are separated between the involved entities is blurred, and the umbrella term of “the city” is constantly used by those entities when identifying the park’s landlord. Yet even the commissioner of DGS, Nicholas D’Antonio, tells Metroland that while the entire city is responsible for maintaining the park, “Joseph Giebelhaus is the one to call for the upkeep.”

Giebelhaus manages the city’s waste and recycling collection, oversees the operations of the Rapp Road landfill and plays a vital role in the restoration project. Maintaining a property such as Fox Run Estates does not seem to fit his job description of solid-waste manager. His control over Fox Run is purely circumstantial. And he is virtually unreachable when it comes to matters concerning the property. The hours of operation of Solid Waste Management are from 7 AM to 3 PM. During this time, calls from Metroland are consistently directed to Giebelhaus’ answering machine, and days lapse before he responds.

Spratt complains that this is typical. “Talk to Giebelhaus, if you can reach him. It’s always a recording over there.”

When asked by Metroland how residents can contact him, Giebelhaus said it is his office number they are supposed to call, although the nature of his job requires him to be away from his desk often throughout the day. “There’s a lot of field work involved,” he said. “So if [residents] leave a voice mail and it’s an emergency, I’ll get right to it.”

Spratt says that she has complained to Giebelhaus about numerous issues that have yet to be resolved.

Unlike most landlords, the city entered the agreement knowing its responsibility was temporary. It was clear from the beginning that the number of Fox Run residents would dwindle and eventually the park would no longer exist as a residential property, thus terminating Giebelhaus’ role as a property manager.

“The city purchased it with the intention of turning it over to the Pine Bush Preserve,” says Giebelhaus. “We agreed to maintain the property, and we started out with over 90 tenants. Now we’re down to a handful. Nine, I believe.” Of these nine trailers, five stand in the way of the restoration plan. The remaining four are to remain in the park under the city’s control until 2015.

Directly in front of Paula Spratt’s trailer sits a deteriorating wooden hut that shelters the residents’ mailboxes. The current state of the hut is more of a danger than a protector, with wooden beams splintering off from the ceiling, leaving holes in the roof. Spratt claims she never gets her mail at night, since the mailbox hut hasn’t had lighting while she’s lived there, and she would have no idea what obstacles she might face inside.

She points to the entrance to the park, which is riddled with potholes, some of which are haphazardly patched, only making it worse in the winter and nearly impossible to drive through.

In December of last year, a black garbage bag was dropped off at the entrance of the park, after the trash had already been collected for the week. This wasn’t unusual to see, as most intruders treat Fox Run as if it’s a dumping ground. The next week, before piling it on the truck, the two men collecting garbage could tell something was different about this bag. Spratt ran out to investigate and was warned that its contents may be disturbing. Inside the bag were the bodies of four cats, in various stages of decomposition. After further investigation, the bag was connected to an address previously recognized by police for animal cruelty.

Spratt says the installation of lights at the entrance would be a great help. She wants Fox Run to be recognized as a functioning place of residence. Visibility might deter criminal activity, and allow residents to feel safer.

According to the city attorney Burns, there are two documents that distinguish the responsibilities of the city, and those of the tenants: Fox Run Estates Rules and Regulations, which was given to each tenant upon signing their renewed lease in 2000, and Section 233 of the New York State Real Property Law.

Section 233 of New York State Real Property Law consists of the “Manufactured Homes Program,” wherein it states “the occupants of such manufactured homes if rented shall not be subjected to any conditions which would be dangerous, hazardous or detrimental to their life, health or safety.”

According to Fox Run Estates Rules and Regulations, the city of Albany entered an agreement to maintain the property at the city’s expense—mowing the lawns, plowing the roads and providing a number for tenants to call to report operational problems. “Upon being contacted by a resident, the city shall take such steps as may be reasonably necessary to address such problems and inform resident of the investigation and outcome.”

By simply ignoring every complaint made by Spratt, the city appears to be violating both the terms of the lease and the New York State Real Property Law.

Andrew Martin, property manager of Hometown Real Estate, and Bob McRae, president of Capital District Association of Rental Property Owners, both own and manage properties in the Capital Region. They agree that a typical property is likely to be shut down by the city if it is not well maintained. The city’s ownership of Fox Run Estates seems to be the loophole.

“It’s funny, because here Albany is getting bad landlords to comply and sometimes hassling good landlords,” said McRae, “when they themselves are running a property that’s in disrepair.” The fact that Albany owns the property “doesn’t excuse them with forgoing routine maintenance. Not when it’s a safety hazard like the lighting and extent of the road conditions.”

Martin manages mobile home parks in Glens Falls and Troy and says, “The bottom line is, landlords have to let their residents feel safe.”

Lou Luciano lives behind Spratt with his wife, Doris, who recently suffered a stroke. There are three trailers next to theirs, towards the back of the park. There are five on the other side of the road, closer to the landfill. It’s conceivable that this park was at one point a nice place to live; modest and quaint, tucked away from the city’s clamor.

Luciano reluctantly answers his door and hesitates before stepping out onto his porch, where he leans on the railing for support.

The Lucianos moved to Fox Run in 1995, when, according to Lou, it was well-maintained. They intended to live simply, in a place where they felt at home.

Though he wasn’t particularly fond of the previous landlord, Luciano couldn’t deny that the park was in better condition then than it is now. He has called Giebelhaus a couple of times, for insect-related problems that were attended to initially but not consistently.

“It’s tough to try to get them to take care of anything,” he said. He points to the dying trees, and the ones that have been half-eaten by birds and other animals, leaving the bottom branches bare. “Eyesores,” he says.

The inside of Spratt’s trailer is a testament to a life spent collecting: an amalgam of possessions and souvenirs. Among some clutter, however, is immaculate paperwork, some of which dates back to 2004, when she moved in. In separate labeled and dated folders, she keeps record of every interaction she has had with Giebelhaus, the police, lawyers, and the Albany Common Council regarding her home.

She keeps track of what she says are the city’s inconsistencies and inaccuracies.

The proposed eviction gave Spratt the attention she wanted, but it did not go exactly according to plan, as Spratt is not the home’s owner and Fox Run leaseholder. Instead, the lease is held by Richard Hazen, who, according to Spratt, offered her the trailer to stay in. He was looking for someone to care for his property while he stayed with his mother, who was very sick.

Hazen handed her the key and Spratt decided to take him up on his offer. “The whole thing was done in a handshake,” says Spratt. “And that’s how humanity should be.”

In 2005, Spratt attended a meeting to discuss the future of Fox Run, during which Giebelhaus discussed more buyout figures. Spratt, equipped with a handwritten note from Hazen, detailing their arrangement, spoke out about the park’s poor management.

The city had a problem with their agreement: What Spratt calls a legal caretaker arrangement is seen by the city as an illegal sublet, as detailed in the lease.

Spratt argues that she has lived and made payments on the property with the city’s knowledge since 2005. After she was called into court in 2008, Spratt complied with the law department’s request and exchanged the handwritten note for a durable power of attorney stating she was the trailer’s caretaker. It was agreed to by a Colonie judge that she had the authority to make decisions regarding the trailer and its lot.

Although it was the city of Albany’s law department that requested Spratt to file a power-of-attorney document, they failed to honor it. In their eyes, Spratt was still living in the trailer illegally. After several attempts to remove Spratt from Fox Run, the city went directly to the source. They located the trailer’s owner and sent him a buyout letter—the same one the other four trailers had received.

Hazen is a 75-year-old security guard at an upstate hospital. He agreed to take the $40,000 buyout in order to retire. This means Spratt will have to leave the park in 30 days. Although she says she does not agree with the way the city has handled anything in the past six years, she bears no resentment toward Hazen.

Her anger, she says, stems from the fact that the city makes more of an effort to eliminate their residents than care for them.

“As far as my future, hey, it’s just as bright and sunny as it always was. The only bitter feelings I have are toward these hypocrites that stand up and say, ‘Oh we’re thinking about you people, and we’re doing our best for you people.’ Wrong. They are liars and they are thieves. How can these people collect a paycheck? How do these people sleep at night?”

Around the time Spratt started receiving press for her court date in March, the city seemed to take more of an interest in the park. A contractor came on Giebelhaus’ orders to evaluate the state of the mailbox hut and the lack of lighting that Spratt had been talking about for six years. He took the row of mailboxes off the wooden stand, and propped it atop a garbage can—where it still sits today. He examined the wires, but was not able to connect a light to an electricity source. According to Spratt, no one has been back since.

As 2015 looms over the remaining residents of Fox Run, the city is preoccupied with matters concerning the landfill and its accompanying restoration project. After 10 years, it seems unlikely that the living conditions of the park will improve.

“There were all kinds of promises made,” Luciano says. “Not in the contract, but verbally. They’ve always said they were going to put in street lights. I don’t know what they’re planning on doing anymore.” He pauses to gesture toward the landfill; a mound of compressed waste that juts through the horizon just a few hundred yards from his porch. He shakes his head and laughs.

“Look at that,” he says. “This place is a dump.”

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