ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
Since the dawn of time-from a cave to a tent and a trailer to a castle-a home has served as a shelter from the weather and a familial sanctuary.
But for a number of reasons, a small percentage of modern-day dwellings are abandoned, become an eyesore to a community and create a dilemma for local governments, such as those in Marion County towns of Burns, Lehigh and Hillsboro.
In the past three years, these three communities have taken aggressive measures to deal with nuisance properties, passed new nuisance-abatement ordinances and learned some valuable lessons in the process.
When Burns City Clerk Carolyn Koehn assumed her position in summer 2000, she found herself in the middle of an issue concerning an abandoned trailer on private property.
“That was still dragging on when I came in, and we were still dealing with it,” Koehn said. “We went to considerable expense, and we weren’t happy with how it went.”
The case eventually went through the court system.
“It got very expensive and involved,” Koehn said.
Working to avoid repeating similar litigation in the future, the Burns City Council chose to pass new ordinances that would give them the authority to uphold nuisance abatement.
“What we’ve been doing since, under the direction of City Attorney Mark Wilkerson, is dealing with nuisance abatement,” Koehn said. “We have an ordinance that states, on trailer homes, they cannot be left empty longer than 30 days.”
In addition to her duties as city clerk, Koehn has been appointed health and safety officer for Burns.
“I periodically do little tours though town, which is pretty easy with a town this size, and I bring (any possible violations) to the attention of the council,” Koehn said. “Then a decision is made whether to proceed with it.”
When a property has been identified as a nuisance, dangerous and accessible to children, a fire hazard or in disrepair, the city council sends the owner a letter advising that the property is violating a city ordinance. In the letter, council asks to meet with the owner to develop a schedule to repair the property in a timely manner.
A resolution is passed by council to set a hearing date, and a notice is usually posted on the property. Koehn said she will often enlist the help of a police officer to make sure the owner receives all the legal paperwork involved in the case.
“Under the direction and working closely with Mark Wilkerson, if they don’t contact the city council or meet with them, then we give them the 30 days,” Koehn said.
“I’ll also advise them that such action may include the demolition of the structure on the property.”
The procedures taken by Burns City Council through its new nuisance ordinances may take several months to resolve, but no case has involved any expensive litigation since the ordinances were passed, Koehn said.
It has been imperative to have all the legal loop holes taken care of by passing sound city-nuisance ordinances, she said. But another important extension of the issue is working one-on-one with those in violation.
“We just work it out here on a city level by establishing good communication with the owner, asking instead of demanding and working with them,” Koehn said.
“We try to work together and offer to help them to clean up that property. The city will spend the money. We have a street-maintenance contractor we work with, and he’s got the big equipment.”
Those in violation often lose sight of the danger their property poses to others and how it affects the real-estate values in the community, Koehn said.
“Sometimes, they don’t see the forest for the trees,” she said.
If the city were forced to go to the expense of tearing down an abandoned structure or removing an abandoned trailer left on private property, one option the city has to recoup those expenses is to put them on the owner’s tax roll through the county.
But since passing the ordinances, Burns City Council has not had to take it that far.
“This has worked out very well for us,” Koehn said.
“We’ve had some amazing cleaning here, and that’s translated to the rest of the town where they’re seeing what’s going on. The town is in great shape. People see we do react, we don’t let the junk place just sit there, and we’re taking care of what needs to be done.”
In Lehigh, the city council is currently dealing with an abandoned trailer that has been left on a city street for about one year.
In August 2002, the council met with City Attorney John Klenda about a proposed property-nuisance ordinance to replace the city’s standards board.
The abandoned trailer and other nuisance issues in town prompted city council to take proper legal channels by adopting a nuisance ordinance in October 2002.
The ordinance specifies the repair, demolition or removal of structures found to be dangerous, unsafe or unfit for human use or habitation.
The ordinance also enables the city to appoint one enforcement officer, who would investigate nuisance areas and report directly back to council. The council would then be held responsible for enforcing any violations.
Lehigh City Council is now in the process of finding and hiring a nuisance-control officer. But until that officer is in place, they still have to deal with an abandoned trailer.
Council officials have contacted the owner of the trailer, asked to have it removed and have been told it will be moved. But as of mid December, it remained on the street.
Because the trailer is on city property and not private property, council officials contacted Marion County Sheriff Lee Becker to ask for his help in removing the abandoned trailer.
“It does present a hazard to the public, not to mention the nuisance and the devaluation of property for everybody else,” Becker said.
By the second week in December, Becker was looking into the abandoned-trailer issue. As part of his procedure in such cases, he was planning to contact Hillsboro Fire Chief Ben Steketee, who is the acting fire chief for Lehigh.
“Obviously, if somebody’s left abandoned property on the road, I can have it removed,” Becker said.
“But I would like the owner to have the opportunity to remove it first. Then we’ll see about contacting the county attorney and that sort of thing.”
A few years ago, the city of Hillsboro passed new ordinances detailing the procedures for abatement of dangerous structures and other nuisance-property conditions within the city.
Upon approval by the mayor and city council, a public officer and a standards-hearing officer are appointed to investigate nuisance property, enter the premises, seek help of city employees and serve notices.
The property owner is notified of the violations under the nuisance ordinance and has no less than 10 days and no more than 30 days to file an answer and appear at a hearing to give testimony.
If the standards-hearing officer determines repairs can be made not to exceed 50 percent of the existing value of the structure, the responsible party is asked to do so. If repair costs exceed 50 percent, the owner is asked to remove or demolish the structure.
Should the responsible parties fail to comply, the property will be repaired or moved, and the cost will be placed as a lien on the property.
“We have to deal with very few people this way,” said Steven Garrett, city administrator. “A lot of times, they’re absentee property owners. But we have had several instances where we abated the problem and removed trash and junk.”
After being in place for three years, the Hillsboro nuisance ordinances are accepted as a standard rule of thumb in the community and have been successful, Garrett said.
“But it’s a never-ending process,” he said. “Soon as you get one cleaned up, you might have another pop up.”
When faced with nuisance-property issues, Koehn said her advice to any small community is threefold as follows:
n Make sure city ordinances are in order.
“Have your city attorney go through them and make sure they’re correct-that you have a solid leg to stand on, and you know what direction to take,” Koehn said.
n Hire a competent city attorney who will be available to answer questions and give guidance if anyone is in possible violation of a nuisance ordinance.
n Keep communication channels open between the community and its elected officials.
“Most important is good communication between the land owner and the city,” Koehn said. “That’s something we want to work for here in all areas-is to have team work.”