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Kensington residents support vacant property maintenance bill

This month's fatal fire in the vacant East Kensington Thomas W. Buck Hosiery building that left two firefighters dead could have been much worse.

"Our whole neighborhood could have burned down," Sandy Salzman, executive director of the New Kensington Community Development Corporation told City Council's Committee on Licenses and Inspections during a hearing Friday. "This could have been so much worse and we need help from you all to make sure this doesn't happen."

That fear was echoed by residents who lived and worked nearby.

Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez sponsored a bill to address the issue of sealing residential vacant properties in response to a large number of foreclosures in her district which covers parts of North Philadelphia, Kensington and the Northeast. But after the fire she decided to amend the bill to include large vacant buildings.

"Philadelphia has a factory fire problem that it doesn't talk about," said Jeff Carpineta, president of the East Kensington Neighbors Association.

In 2007, an abandoned warehouse fire on H Street in Kensington wiped out seven neighboring homes. Residents told Council yesterday that drug dealers and users break-into abandon warehouses to conduct their business or steal scrap metal.

Quinones-Sanchez' legislation would require that large vacant commercial and industrial properties, foreclosed vacant residential properties be sealed with commercial-quality, rustproof steel security panels or doors to keep trespassers out.

Chris Kozicki, vice president of government affairs for Vacant Property Specialists, said the proposed sealing has long term benefits and would save the city money by preventing fire and other damages due to improperly sealing vacant properties.

Carpineta wondered how much this month's fire cost the city in damaged telephone poles, cleanup and investigations. But, Mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald later said the city is still conducting its cost assessment.

The committee approved the bill which also requires owners of vacant commercial or industrial buildings to pay for sealing or stabilization. It would allow the city to create a community partner program consisting of community groups to document violations via time-stamped photos that would be sent to L&I. L&I spokeswoman Maura Kennedy said the department will review the amended proposal.