The owner of the former Peters Dry Cleaning was found guilty in City Housing Court Thursday of violating housing codes, for failing to clean up the remnants from a collapse at the 316 Willow St. site in December.
Patrick McFall has argued that it has been too costly for him to raze the building.
City Judge Thomas M. DiMillo called the site a mess but said the real issue is clearing the property. And he rejected claims that McFall was without funding.
"In this case, a whole lot of stuff happened to you," DiMillo told McFall. "But what did you do? Not a whole lot."
McFall's decision to stop paying property taxes for three years and let the city foreclose was a "silly and stupid thing to do," the judge said.
"Maybe you should have been putting some of that money away, $3,000 to $4,000 a year," he told McFall. "You had it pretty good for those two or three years. You ran a business without any overhead."
McFall testified for more than two hours Thursday. He told the judge that he was aware when he purchased the property in 2007 that it was categorized by the state as an inactive hazardous waste site, because dry cleaning chemicals had been poured into the ground decades ago. He said the former owners had agreed to continue cleanup as part of the sale, something he said they recently stopped when they ran out of money.
Although he hadn't paid taxes or water bills for the past three years, McFall said he was paying a reverse mortgage to the Peters family until last year, when he learned they were not continuing remediation.
McFall said his attorney recommended that he stop paying his taxes and water bills shortly after purchasing the business in 2008, saying that he should let the city foreclose.
"He called it another Love Canal kind of thing," McFall told the judge.
McFall said he had noticed some of the building's instability and moved to a new site on Main Street in early November. He said he suspected drilling at the site by a company working for the state Department of Environmental Conservation may have caused the walls to buckle in the 30-by-40-foot cement block filing room that collapsed Dec. 15.
He said he was at the site the day after to clean up the rubble, but was stopped and required to test for asbestos, which was later found in the window caulking of the building.
"It needed remediation of an estimated $58,000, with taxes, to pick up a pile of bricks," McFall said. "I am trying to come up with the money, but there is no way to come up with that."
McFall's attorney, Jon Ross Wilson, called his client a "man of modest means" who was trying to find a way to address the issue, but was running into one frustrating roadblock after another.
Deputy Corporation Counsel Matthew E. Brooks said, "He doesn't have the money, but that doesn't invalidate the law. He basically is going to stick the city twice, going without paying the taxes, then the people [of the city] are going to have to take it back and clean it up."
DiMillo agreed, suggesting McFall's business plan was to "bury your head in the sand."
He told McFall he understood the dry cleaner wasn't sitting on a "bucket of money," but said McFall needs a cleanup plan. He delayed sentencing until June 14, but said that without such a plan, McFall could face excessive fines or jail time. "If I throw the book at you, the property stays the way it is," he said. "If I made the right decision, then the property will get cleaned up."