More than one way to clear a house

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
When the Hillsboro City Council authorized the purchase of a private residential property at 213 N. Main Street earlier this year, members weren’t intending to involve the city in the real estate game.


Instead, according to City Administrator Steve Garrett, the council opted for what it thought was the simplest and most congenial solution to what can be a real headache for all parties involved: the cleanup of a nuisance property.


The alternative-to initiate condemnation proceedings according to legal ordinance-could have been more costly and cumbersome to the city, and with potential for a lot more rancor.


“If there’s ever a way to avoid the animosity that sometimes goes with things like this, I think it’s sometimes in the city’s best interest to take the route that avoids that,” Garrett said. “That’s worth cash dollars to me.”


This is the only residential property the city owns at present, and this situation was unique, Garrett said.


“The city probably won’t make a habit of buying residential private property because we don’t have the need for it,” he said. “It needs to be remain residential unless we had some sort of need for additional park space, or whatever.


“In this particular instance, we purchased the house at 213 N. Main because it needed to have something done to it,” he said.


Garrett said it wasn’t financially feasible to have the property fixed up, and the former owners weren’t interested in doing so.


“The policy we try to follow is that if it takes more than 50 percent of the value of the house to bring it up to code, it’s toast,” he said. “So when you have a house that’s dilapidated and its value has slipped below $10,000, there’s just going to be no way to do that.”


Garrett said the condemnation process can become as unsightly as a nuisance property itself.


The process begins with a complaint, filed either privately or by the city. Once the complaint has been filed, the city must declare a date for a public hearing so all interested parties can state their views.


Once the evidence is presented at the public hearing, a standards hearing officer makes a finding. If the finding supports demolition, the city can proceed and apply the costs of the project to the property tax-which usually by that time has been unpaid for years, Garrett said.


“So if you want to get those costs back, you have to wait until the property goes for sale or by legal auction,” he said.


Often, though, the process does not proceed so smoothly.


Often the property belongs to an absentee landowner. The city will try to locate the individual and send notice by registered mail. Often, the letter is refused or the post office can’t find the addressee.


“What has happened to me in the past in other communities is that you’re ready to move on (the absentee landowners) and then they sell the property to somebody for a buck-and you have to go through the whole 90-day process all over again.


“Condemnation is a long, arduous and ugly process,” he said. “We opted for a plan that if we could purchase the property for an amount we could live with, we would. That way, we would be in control of the situation.


“The owners wanted to walk away from it because it was a bad situation, and we were in a position to help them do that.”


What the city will do with the property once it has been cleaned up is up to the council, Garrett said.


It’s possible that if the property is sold to private individuals, the city might recoup the cost of the purchase, which included back taxes. But making a profit was not the motivation for making the purchase.


“The sole purpose in acquiring residential property was to eliminate a nuisance in the quickest and easiest way,” he said. “If we had done the process that’s outlined in the code, we could have gotten to the same result-but probably not as easily, probably not as quickly, and probably with a lot more hurt feelings on both sides. This was the quick, easy, feel-good way to do it.”


Garrett said this situation was unique, but if a similar situation arises again, he wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.


“It’s kind of a unique, Hillsboro approach,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s ever been done before, but I’ve never had the wherewithal to do it.


“I think it’s a nice approach. It didn’t break the city and I’m sure the property owners on either side of that house will be very happy that they don’t have to worry about it anymore.”

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