Condemnation ordinance under study

Published 10:37 am Monday, May 16, 2011

GATESVILLE – The initial steps have been taken to develop a condemnation ordinance for unoccupied structures in Gates County that pose a safety or health hazard.

The issue over instituting such an ordinance has been a topic of discussion at several Board of Commissioners meetings since last year. On May 4, the board studied the first written draft of a condemnation ordinance, one presented for consideration by Planning Director Morgan Jethro, Emergency Management Director Billy Winn and Director of Inspections Edgar Mitchell.

“The text has been drawn up, basically establishing guidelines and procedures which follow state statutes,” Mitchell said.

As noted in the proposed ordinance, the county’s Building Inspector, in consultation with the Gates County Fire Marshal, shall condemn structures as unsafe based on state statute 153A-366 (“The inspector shall condemn as unsafe each building that appears to him to be especially dangerous to life because of its liability to fire, bad conditions of walls, overloaded floors, defective construction, decay, unsafe wiring or heating system, inadequate means of egress, or other causes; and he shall affix a notice of the dangerous character of the building to a conspicuous place on its exterior wall.”)

The property owner will be notified by certified mail, advising them of a hearing on the matter. If the property owner cannot be located after due diligence, a notice of the hearing will be published in a newspaper of general circulation in the county.

Following the hearing, the Building Inspector may issue an order to repair, close, vacate or demolish the building. Upon learning of that order, the property owner has 60 days to remedy the defective conditions. If there is imminent danger to life or other property, it will be at the discretion of the Building Inspector to prescribe corrective action to be taken in less than 60 days. Failure to comply with the 60-day grace period will result in condemnation and demolition by Gates County officials. The cost of removal or demolition will become a lien against the real property.

The Gates County Board of Commissioners will serve in the capacity as the final authority and appellate board for the condemnation/demolition process. Once the property owner has received the condemnation order, they can file a written notice to appeal the decision within 10 days of the order being issued.

As part of the discussion over the wording of the ordinance, Commissioner Johnny Hora suggested the addition of all agencies involved. The policy, as currently written, states that, “Structures will not be permitted to be buried or burnt on site without a permit from the required agency (or agencies), including the North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources.”

“If I were involved in this, I would want to know who I’m involved with,” Hora said. “It’s kind of open ended (the way currently written). I may think I’ve done everything I need to, but, having a list of all agencies involved removes any doubt.”

Hora also suggested changing another portion of the proposed new policy. Under the current wording, it states, “the county may cause the building or structure to be removed or demolished.” Hora said he would feel more comfortable with “the county may initiate the removal or demolition of the structure.”

Commissioner Henry Jordan said he was pleased with the county taking steps to put such a policy in place in an effort to make Gates County more aesthetically pleasing. He did, however, have a few concerns over the way the ordinance was currently written.

For starters, Jordan pointed out that the current policy made reference to how a list of offending properties was generated. The policy states that list (which includes the address, owner(s), tax PIN number and photographs of each structure) is built from written citizen complaints as well as from staff observations. No anonymous complaints will be taken.

“I’m sure the thought process behind the part about no anonymous complaints being taken is to ensure that someone does not have a personal vendetta against another person,” Jordan noted. “But I do believe that complaints that come in should have at least a verification. If an anonymous complaint does come in, I would suggest (county officials) going to the property and verifying the condition for yourself.”

Mitchell said the purpose behind not accepting anonymous complaints was based on past observations of what he deemed as “neighbor feuds.”

“That’s not what this ordinance sets forth to do, settle neighbor feuds,” Mitchell said. “I guess we could add a sentence to say that we will take such complaints as long as they can be verified.”

“I think you’ll find some of those types of complaints will turn out to be legitimate,” Jordan stated.

Another concern for Jordan over the way the policy is currently worded was “priority will be given to sites that are on main highways (i.e. NC 32, NC 37, US 13, US 158) and based on its proximity to residences, schools and businesses.”

“We would like to broaden that,” Jordan suggested. “I would like to change it to say ‘those (structures) based on close proximity to residences, schools and businesses.’ The reason behind that is we have schools not located on main highways. If we just use the main highways as our main focus, it lowers the priority of these condemned structures on the back roads.”

“I’m all for this, especially when you have residents living side-by-side and one is taking care of their property and the other is not, but there needs to be exceptions,” Hora stated. “For example, there’s a 150-year-old farmhouse sitting abandoned in the middle of a field in a very rural area. It may have some sort of sentimental value. It may be an eyesore to some people riding by, but it’s not adjacent to any other structure. I would hate to have someone to point it out and say it’s got to go.

“I don’t know how you make a judgment call on cases such as these,” Hora continued. “I guess we could use Henry’s terminology of being in close proximity (to another structure).”

“In cases like that you revert back to general state statutes,” Mitchell noted. “Obviously, an old farmhouse sitting in the middle of a field is only a danger to rats, not people. That’s the main thing about this policy…it’s where a structure is a danger to people.”

Commissioner Jack Owens expanded on that subject, addressing old farm shelters.

“Some can look pretty sad, but they still serve a purpose to a farmer,” Owens said.

Owens also suggested placing the citizens’ complaint form on the county’s website where it could be printed, filled out and taken to the proper authorities.

“We also need to make sure that we communicate with our citizens that there’s a rule against burying the rubble of a condemned structure on their property,” Owens stressed. “We need to let them know they have to haul it away and properly dispose of the material. We don’t want to see them incur a costly penalty from an environmental agency because they were not aware of the policy that says they can’t bury the material.”

“The purpose of us doing this is to collect the data, you (commissioners) are the final appellate on such decisions (to proceed with ordering condemned structures demolished),” said Winn.

“You’re right, but I must add there will be a public hearing on each case before we move forward through this process,” Commission Chairman Graham Twine said.

The proposed ordinance does not address occupied dwellings.

“The intent of this ordinance is for fire-damaged, unoccupied dwellings, or those that have blown down for some reason and have become a hazard,” Winn stated.

A final draft of the ordinance will now be written and brought back to the commissioners for their consideration. Once the wording is finalized, the commissioners will hold a public hearing on the proposed ordinance prior to voting whether or not to adopt the policy.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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