Saturday, March 1, 2008

Razed home's owner takes step to sue city

$1M NOTICE OF CLAIM: Columbia Street residence, called 'the cat house,' was torn down after fire Nov. 12

The man who owns a home on Columbia Street that was referred to as "the cat house" by neighbors has filed a notice of claim for $1 million against the city of Watertown for razing its remains after a fire last year.

A notice of claim is a precursor to filing a lawsuit against a municipality.

Oliver J. Wisner is seeking compensation for the "arbitrary, capricious and malicious charging and billing for outrageous unnecessary work on the cleanup of ashes and debris" the claim states.

The Watertown lawyer owns the property at 1205-07 Columbia St., which burned down Nov. 12, forcing neighbors to evacuate their homes during the early morning hours. The heat from the blaze damaged nearby homes, one of which is still uninhabitable.

The city requested that Mr. Wisner remove the remaining debris from the duplex immediately following the blaze. In late December, the city hired Independent Commercial Contractors Inc., Lorraine, for $28,600 to clean the site and remove asbestos. Mr. Wisner was then billed for the job.

Mr. Wisner bought the home June 21, despite the previous owner not allowing him to completely inspect it beforehand, the notice states.

Once the purchase was complete, Mr. Wisner hired cleaners to clear debris from the home.

"The cleaners discovered more than 10 bodies of long-dead cats in the building," the notice states. "The odor from the house and the Dumpsters brought numerous complaints from neighbors."

In June, the city Code Enforcement Office found that an upstairs bathtub in 1205 Columbia St. was filled with cat feces, and cat skeletons were found throughout the apartment.The property was condemned and the tenant, Michael J. Sias, was removed.

Mr. Sias, 58, now of 536 Emerson St., Apt. 103, is facing an animal-cruelty charge on allegations that between June 25 and July 3 he deprived seven cats of necessary sustenance in his former home, "permitting unjustifiable physical pain, suffering and death," according to a city police document. He was charged Tuesday and faces prosecution in City Court.

Some live cats were taken from the home by the SPCA, others were euthanized and six frozen bodies that were found in an operating freezer were sent to Cornell University, Ithaca, for a forensics examination.

Mr. Wisner claims that "it was a matter of public knowledge that persons in the city of Watertown, New York, had called for the burning of the duplex." Throughout the notice, he maintains that an arsonist started the fire and that police did not properly follow leads.

The cause of the fire was never determined and police never made an arrest.

"My position is that there was no emergency and the demolition charges were unlawful and unreasonable and should be reviewed by a court and disallowed as an unlawful taking of private property," the notice states.

Mr. Wisner is asking for $100,000 for the loss of the house and $900,000 for "harassment causing great mental stress and depression." He plans to retain an attorney, the notice states.

City Attorney Robert J. Slye said he did not want to comment about the notice when contacted Friday afternoon.

"We'll certainly wait to see what Mr. Wisner has to say and if he files a suit," he said.

Times staff writer David C. Shampine contributed to this report.


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