MOUNT VERNON — Buildings fall into disrepair for a variety of reasons. In some cases owners cannot afford to keep a building in the kind of condition it takes to pass building code requirements. Sometimes, because of foreclosure or other reasons, the building is owned by an out-of-town bank and is not kept in good shape for financial reasons, or because ownership may be in doubt for a variety of legal reasons. But whatever the reason, the building can soon become a blight on its neighborhood.
Dilapidated buildings can also be dangerous, especially if unsecured. These buildings often attract trespassers, especially juveniles, and the condition of the building can be a safety hazard to anyone who goes inside.
Perhaps the best-known example of this problem is the former high school/middle school on North Mulberry Street. This building has proved to be a major nuisance for the city for many years now. The owner is not local and responsibility for the building has been somewhat muddled over the years.
The city’s dilapidated building ordinance, passed in 1970, created a Dilapidated Buildings Commission. The commission is charged with declaring a building dilapidated and, based on information gathered by several agencies and departments, deciding what to do with the building.
The commission is to be made up of the Safety-Service Director Dave Glass as chairman; Administrator of Engineering for the city, Cameron Keaton; Mount Vernon Fire Chief Shawn Christy, and a representative of the Knox County Health Department; in this case, Brian Benick. The city code enforcement officer, Larry Fogle, also works with the commission. Fogle investigates complaints and is the person who has as much direct contact as possible with building owners.
The ordinance defines a dilapidated building as:
(a) Those whose interior or exterior bearing walls or other vertical structural members list, lean or buckle to such an extent as to weaken the structural support they provide.
(b) Those which, exclusive of the foundation, show 33 percent or more of damage or deterioration of the supporting member or members, or 50 percent or more of damage or deterioration of the nonsupporting enclosing or outside walls or covering.
(c)Those which have improperly distributed loads on the floors or roof, or in which the same are overloaded, or which have insufficient strength to be reasonably safe for the purpose used.
(d)Those which have been damaged by fire, wind or other causes so as to no longer provide shelter from the elements and have become dangerous to life, safety or the general health and welfare of the occupants or the people of the city.
(e) Those which have become or are so dilapidated, decayed, unsafe, unsanitary or vermin infested, or which so utterly fail to provide the facilities essential to decent living and are likely to cause sickness or disease, or injury to the health, safety or general welfare of those occupying same or of people at large.
(f) Those which have parts thereof which are so attached that they may fall and injure occupants or the public or property.
Properties with just minor code violations such as a lawn needing mowed, trash picked up or general disrepair with no structural problems do not fall under the purview of the commission.
The historic Curtis Mansion is one of these properties. Although the building seems to be sound, there is a general air of decline on the grounds and the exterior of the building. At this point in time, it does not fall under the definition of a dilapidated building.
At the commission’s November meeting, Fogle said 31 properties were repaired or demolished in 2009. Nineteen properties, ranging from a commercial building to homes, garages and sheds, were demolished. The remaining 12 properties were repaired to the satisfaction of the commission.
As of the commission’s December meeting, one property was slated for condemnation, three had demolition pending, another three had charges filed against the owner or owners by the city law director, and two had been referred to the law director for action against the owner. Two properties were previously condemned and the commission is monitoring an additional five properties, as well as the old middle school.
Glass said a property comes to the attention of the commission by complaint or by a report by Fogle.
“When the four members of the commission vote to condemn a property, the direction we are headed is to either get the property fixed or torn down,” Glass said. “We’d love to have everybody come in and fix up their property, but we don’t always get there.”
Glass said there are a number of circumstances that can make the process take longer than the commission would like. He cited a recent case of a dilapidated garage on East Hamtramck Street. The owner was elderly, and had been cited and charged. Some work was done by a volunteer church group, but the owner passed away before the case was concluded.
“We dropped the charges because [the owner] passed away,” Glass explained. “And we had to decide if we wanted to condemn the whole building or just go after a dilapidated garage. There were some issues with the house, too. So we voted to condemn it.”
Glass explained that once a vote of condemnation is made, a notice signed by all four board members goes to the Safety-Service Director, who initiates the action against the owner of the condemned building. The Safety-Service Director will then either try to work with the owners to come up with a solution or, if circumstances warrant, work with the court to force a solution. If the building owner will not or cannot make necessary changes to a building, the case goes to the city law director for court action; that is, charges are filed.
“As far as a time frame [for the process], gosh, I look at our list [of properties being looked at] and I see 20 different names,” Glass said. “And probably the scenario is different for each one of them. We worked off and on with [the owner of the Hamtramck Street property] and some of her relatives. Then Larry [Fogle] went out and found a church group to help out. So that one dragged out for about a year or a year and a half.”
Glass cited a property on Cottage Street as an example of what can happen during the condemnation process. That property had been in several different names over the years, and it was difficult to determine the owner and how to contact them.
“But we finally got to the point that that property will be torn down in 30 days,” he said. “When we do turn cases over to the law director, it means we feel we’ve reached the end of the line with them. That’s where the frustration level comes. We’d rather not see buildings torn down.”
Glass admits the process can be slow and frustrating, and there are those who think it is too slow a process. City Councilman Burt Hanson is one of those people.
“If you look over the last six months of the minutes of the commission, just look at how the same places are on the list month after month,” Hanson said. “And you see that there’s a deadline for this and a deadline for that, and it just passes. And it just keeps on going.
“But I think the solution is to solve the systemic problem and get a couple of citizen members on the commission,” he continued. “They could go around and look at some of these properties and press for something to be done about them. And I would say that maybe one of them should be the president of the landlords association. Because this kind of thing does nothing but give the landlords a bad name. And we do have good landlords in Mount Vernon who take care of their properties and take care of their tenants. And maybe someone from a historic preservation group.
“Dilapidated buildings has been a very frustrating situation for me and I think for a couple of other members of council,” Hanson added. “But I sure would like to see someone end up in court. I think that would be good for our community and it would certainly be good for the neighbors who have to look at that. It just is not right for the city to tolerate some of these housing situations because the neighbors, who are helpless about this, have to put up with it. That’s just not right.”