At the end of the recent Park Hills City Council meeting, City Attorney Ed Pultz broached the subject of dangerous and abandoned homes, which the council has discussed multiple times in recent meetings.
“What I’d like to do tonight is throw out some ideas, give you guys a chance to discuss them and then I’d like a little more time to fine-tune some things,” Pultz said.
Pultz said in his research on the possible ways in which cities can legally and economically see abandoned homes torn down or fixed up by their owners, he has discovered that it seems to be a problem faced by many cities. Before offering his ideas, Pultz asked Community Development Director Robert Sullivan to speak on the issue briefly.
Sullivan said many of the situations that have been brought to the city’s attention begin when a home is damaged or destroyed in a fire and no information is obtained from the homeowner.
“If there is a fire, my department will be called out as well,” Sullivan said. “Not necessarily to fight the fire, but to take some pressure off the fire department to deal with people, get their information and their contacts so we’re doing that right then and not trying to catch them later after they’ve left the scene.”
Sullivan additionally said once his department begins pursuing legal action against homeowners of derelict or abandoned homes, certain timetables must be met throughout the process. If there is a breakdown in the process and something is missed by a deadline, the process is often set back several stages. For this reason, Sullivan has requested an additional employee in next year’s budget to maintain staffing levels to keep up with such processes.
Additionally, Sullivan said the city must direct his department on how aggressive they wish the city to be in pursuing actions against owners of abandoned or derelict properties when they pose public safety concerns.
“That comes from you all,” Sullivan said. “What level of enforcement do you all want? Whatever level of enforcement that is, we’ll make that happen. A lot of it is political … it’ what the city wants. Not just you guys, but our constituents.”
Sullivan said the city could take a very aggressive approach on all houses in violation of city code on one end of the spectrum, could do very little enforcement on the other end or could find a middle-of-the-road approach that could satisfy as many parties as possible.
“I’m a middle-of-the-road guy,” Sullivan said. “You reach up too high, you get the outcry of governmental overreach. If you’re down here, then nobody ever does anything. I don’t want to be down there. I want to find the middle of the road and I think, together, we can do that.”
Pultz pointed out that four years ago, the city had adopted an international property maintenance code, which required that properties must be maintained to certain standards to make sure the property doesn’t pose a danger to the public. Using that code, the city could potentially bring property owners before the municipal code for violating that code, which Pultz and Sullivan said the city has not done as of yet.
Pultz next described several measures cities can take, which he said don’t necessarily strike at the heart of the issue, but may provide some reprieve. These options include charging semi-annual fees to owners of vacant properties after they have been vacant for a certain amount of months, passing an ordinance allowing the collection of attorney’s and office fees during legal actions against property owners and pursuing a “dangerous building hearing” process, by which property owners would be brought before the city administrator for a hearing and ordered to abate their dangerous properties.
Ward 2 Councilman Larry LaChance said he would like to see a process implemented which provides some more certain timetables, as many of the dangerous homes in the city have sat vacant and in states of disrepair for years.
“I understand that the person who owns that property doesn’t think we should tell them what they should do with it,” LaChance said. “But if I’m building a house next door, I’m going to have a hard time selling my house for what I want for it because the next-door neighbor’s house is falling in.”
Pultz then suggested the council or city staff providing some sort of list of priority regarding houses, if there are houses that are particularly dangerous. Mayor Daniel Naucke suggested a straightforward, chronological approach.
“Why don’t we start with the oldest house that we’re aware of and start working ourselves back to where we’re having problems today?” Naucke said. “It’s going to take a while, but at least it’s a start.”
Ward 4 Councilman Steve Weinhold observed that however the process is pursued, cleaning up the residential areas of the city would have nothing but beneficial effects for the City of Park Hills. He also suggested establishing a community service project to help those honest citizens whose properties have fallen into disrepair but cannot manage to fix them.
The council agreed to discuss the issue at the next council work session, when Pultz would return with more information for the council to select possible options from.
Jacob Scott is a reporter with the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 573-518-3616 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.