On a clear, crisp Thursday morning in late December, a demolition crew arrived at the site of a condemned property on Vernon Street in Farmington.
Overseeing the project was Tim Porter, Development Services director for the city.
It didn’t take long for the process of razing the property to begin and perhaps even less time for the house to be leveled to the ground by the hydraulic excavator. It’s quite a sight — and one Farmington citizens are sure to see more often as the city continues its attempt to remove derelict properties from within the city limits.
“[The city] started the process in 2016,” said Farmington City Administrator Greg Beavers. “The property at the time was owned by a gentleman who had an address here in Farmington. For tax records it was under his name, with the mail going care of Doug Bruce in Colorado Springs, Colorado — but the owner was Jeff Wright. We properly noticed Jeff Wright, in care of Doug Bruce at that address. We called a dangerous building hearing session and [received] an order to abate the nuisance and condemn the house.
“Just prior to us performing the condemnation in 2017, we were notified by Doug Bruce that he was, in his words, the owner in equity of the property. In other words, he believed that he had ownership rights because he had apparently provided the funds to purchase this property out of foreclosure. He requested additional hearings which were provided to him telephonically because he was not able to travel from Colorado to Missouri.
“The condemnation order was upheld by our building commissioner. [Bruce] subsequently sued us in the St. Francois County court to prevent the condemnation of his home at that property. He has never lived there. He has never been on the property. We prevailed in that suit here locally. He filed an appeal. We prevailed with the appellate court. So when that was complete, we then started moving forward with getting the condemnation taken care of. It just took a while.”
Ramping up the process
Beavers emphasized that the city of Farmington is serious about addressing derelict properties around town and have even ramped up the process over the last couple of years.
“Sometimes we get in those situations where we have an out-of-town property owner or a property owner that believes that the home is not of a condition that we demonstrate and prove that it is,” he explained. “That it is a danger to the community and adversely affects the property values of the surrounding property owners in our town and it creates a public nuisance.”
According to Beavers, the derelict properties are often a haven for animals and sometimes children and teenagers enter the properties to perform what he described as “elicit activities.”
“So, [the homes] just need to go,” he said. “They are a public nuisance. Through our enforcement efforts in the last two years we have affected about 20 properties in Farmington. Each of them taking a different path to resolution. In some cases the properties were sold or they were demolished by the property owner on their own. In some cases they were sold and then somebody moved forward to fully restore the home.”
It’s a natural reaction to feel sympathy for the property owner. What if it’s a family’s home and they are unable to afford to buy another place to live, leaving them homeless? That may be the case with some properties in other cities or states, but certainly not the case with this property owner on Vernon Street.
“In this one it’s just that the individual we were dealing with has a long history of distressing communities in Colorado by purchasing property and just letting them be derelict properties,” Beavers said.
This is no overstatement. In fact, the truth about this particular property owner couldn’t be more sordid. According to the Colorado Springs Gazette, anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce, the author of the Colorado Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, is no stranger to foreclosures.
According to a Nov. 2018 story appearing in the newspaper, Bruce pled for an early release from prison in 2016, saying he would sell his properties, pay overdue taxes and “lead a quiet life” in retirement in Colorado Springs. But of the dozens of properties he owned across the country, Bruce has sold only a few while tax liens and fines have multiplied.
In 2015, Bruce owed more than $80,000 in delinquent property taxes, liens and fines.
By November 2017, his debts totaled more than $120,000. In Ohio, three counties had foreclosed on a Bruce house, and a fourth foreclosure was pending in King County, Washington.
Bruce was convicted in 2012 of felony tax evasion, filing a false tax return and trying to influence a public servant. He ended up serving 104 days in jail.
The Gazette article goes on to say that Bruce was also sentenced to two years in the Delta Correctional Facility for violating his probation. He reportedly served less than six months in Delta, gaining early release that September since none of the debts violated the terms of Bruce’s parole, which he reportedly completed last June.
Beavers said he “has no idea” how Bruce came to own the property on Vernon Street, but he believes “there’s some tax angle on it.”
“He bought this property in Farmington out of foreclosure, sight unseen, found a local individual to put the property in his name in care of Doug Bruce,” he said. “I think Doug Bruce provided the capital to buy the property with. I’m not sure how that was supposed to work and operate, but that appears to be what happened. Beyond that I can’t really speculate. All I know is what I told Mr. Bruce on a phone call one time — his home is a danger to our community and we will take whatever steps are necessary to get rid of it. It just took a bit of a process.”
Each case different
The city of Farmington has demolished several homes over the last couple of years and every case is a little bit different.
“We’ve compelled other people to demolish some,” Beavers explained. “We have a working list of other distressed properties in Farmington that we’ll continue to work on. Hopefully we’ll get cooperation out of our folks because it is a significant community development matter for Farmington. We need to insure that neighborhoods are reinvested in our community and part of that starts with just getting rid of the derelict properties that are left by folks — some residents, some non-residents.”
Barring financial limitations, Beavers vows that the city has only begun to condemn and demolish derelict homes in Farmington.
“We’re going to continue working on it as long as our budget allows us,” he said. “We incur anywhere between $5,000 to $8,000 depending on demolition of the property and we file a special tax lien against the properties, which in many cases we’ll never recover it because the property is going to sit there. At least the derelict home is gone. The property owner still owns the underlying property. All we do is abate the dangerous building from the property.
“There are several homes around town where the ownership situation is always a little different. Sometimes you have a deceased person who had no relatives or the estate was never opened, so it was already sitting there with a property tax bill. We go in and assess additional liens against the property for the cost of the demolition. Hopefully where we tear these houses down someone will get good title to the property and build a new home in its place.
“That has real implications in a positive way for a neighborhood. If we eliminate derelict property off of a street and it gets replaced with a new home, the impact on every property value of the surrounding homeowners is positive. That’s our preferred situation — that we don’t have to go to the step of the city demolishing the property. That we will call the problems to the attention of the property owners and they will handle it themselves.”