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Potsdam issued building permit in error; resident seeks its reinstatement

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POTSDAM — A property owner is seeking permission to add an apartment to his Market Street business after the village issued a building permit for the work that it later revoked.

In April, building owner and SUNY Potsdam professor Marc D. Leuthold received a building permit to add a partition, a kitchen and three new windows to the first floor of 1 Market St.

Mr. Leuthold got to work. He planned to turn the rear of the building into an apartment, leaving the front as a small commercial space.

Then the village realized his plans violated the zoning code. The law dictates commercial property must not be converted into residential space without a special permit. This law is based in a concern over slowly degrading the value of the village’s downtown business district.

“The loss of retail and commercial spaces to residential uses erodes the retail and commercial potential of the Central Overlay District,” the code states.

The village issued a stop-work order, and construction on the vacant first floor has been stalled since the summer.

According to village Administrator David H. Fenton, officials did not realize that Mr. Leuthold planned to turn the space into an apartment until some time after the building permit was issued.

“Once we realized what it was, some work had already been done,” Mr. Fenton said.

The building permit was issued by Larry J. Colbert, who served as code enforcement officer at the time. Mr. Colbert resigned in September after less than a year in the position, citing an overwhelming workload and a desire to re-enter retirement. He was replaced by Gregory Thompson, the village’s fifth code enforcement officer in less than three years.

“I wouldn’t have even gotten into this situation if it hadn’t been for that mistake,” Mr. Leuthold said.

Mr. Leuthold and village officials all declined to elaborate on the matter, since the case is still being deliberated by the Zoning Board of Appeals. However, according to the draft minutes of the board’s Feb. 13 public hearing, Mr. Leuthold said he had already spent $15,000 on renovations before work was stopped. A wall already separates the commercial space in the front of the building from the proposed apartment in the back.

The village code includes a four-part test that must be used to determine the validity of any request to convert a commercial property to residential space.

First, the applicant must be unable to get a “reasonable return” on his or her investment in the property.

Second, this must be due to a unique hardship that does not apply to other property owners in the area.

Third, any proposed changes made to the property cannot alter the essential character of the neighborhood.

Finally, the unique hardship cannot be self-created by the applicant.

Mr. Leuthold’s case will be heard on these four criteria alone, according to zoning board Chairman Wade A. Davis.

“Without it, we’re bound by law to deny,” he said, declining to speak further on the case while it is ongoing.

Mr. Leuthold and his lawyer, Robert Bogdan, argued that 1 Market St. is ill-suited to be used solely for commercial endeavors, because it is backed up against the Raquette River and lacks nearby parking, according to the Zoning Board meeting minutes.

Mr. Leuthold has received just over $42,000 in rent from the first floor of the building he bought in 2004 for $69,000. It has been vacant more than a quarter of that time, and Mr. Leuthold spent $87,500 on repairs, according to Mr. Bogdan’s account in the minutes.

The zoning board is expected to make its final decision at its next meeting on March 13.

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