By Paul Hackbarth
Missourian Staff Writer
Washington officials will consider new and amended ordinances that will give the city more authority to clean up unsightly properties in town.
During Wednesday’s city council administration/operations committee meeting, City Counselor Mark Piontek said he would draft new ordinances and offer amendments to existing property maintenance codes.
Piontek offered his advice after city council members noted many properties throughout town that do not meet property maintenance codes.
Some property owners are using their backyards as junkyards, they said, and there are homes that have condemnation notifications posted.
While Piontek offered some remedies with his proposed changes to the codes, he stressed that there are not many property maintenance issues in Washington.
“I don’t think the problem is as widespread as you were led to believe,” he said.
In his recommendation letter, Piontek stated the property maintenance codes establish procedures, including condemnation, for structures deemed unsafe, unfit for living or unlawful, but the codes don’t authorize building officials to take any action to repair unsightly buildings or clean up debris.
The council was shown pictures of three properties in the city.
A house on Roberts Street had windows knocked out, no shingles on the roof and the porch was falling down. One shed in the backyard is collapsing and the other needs repair.
City Administrator Jim Briggs said he talked with the owner’s brother who said the owner did not have the money or resources for the needed repairs. Briggs said he learned the owner only stays there during the day and spends the nights elsewhere.
Piontek said it would be difficult to say a building needs to be condemned or will collapse purely based on its exterior.
“You don’t know what the interior looks like. You need some degree of authority,” he said.
However, it was noted that both fire officials and water department crews have been inside and said there were leaks and standing water in the basement.
Another property on East Main Street had overgrown vegetation and a third home with foundation problems had a condemnation notice on the door which was dated from 2008 or 2009. Both of those properties have sat vacant for many years.
Piontek questioned why the condemnation notice has sat for so long and said while the code requires the property owner to repair it or tear it down, after a certain period of time, the city has the right to go in and demolish it.
Councilman Steve Sullentrup said the property owner’s family planned to make a decision on whether to repair the home or have it demolished by the end of May.
Piontek said the city currently has a weed ordinance that allows the city to clear weeds over 1 foot tall and charge the property owner for the work. He said the code could be amended to allow the city the same authority to remove trash.
Piontek also said he could draft an ordinance that allows city crews to remove overgrown vegetation and “obnoxious weeds.”
Councilman Jeff Mohesky asked if the penalties for violating property maintenance codes are adequate.
“The objective should not be to see how much money we can get out of them, but to get the problem resolved,” Piontek said.
He added that in many court cases involving unsafe buildings, the owner simply doesn’t have the resources to repair or demolish it.
Piontek said there are several successful cases in which a resolution has been reached with the property owner, but that it takes time.
He noted that out of 15 recent court cases involving alleged violations, one was corrected and five were found not to be in violation.
Councilman Tim Brinker said these dilapidated or unsightly properties are both a safety concern and a threat to neighbors’ property values.
Piontek said the problem of dilapidated or unsafe buildings is not unique to Washington.
The city has the following procedures for complaints of rubbish and junk as well as unsafe structures.
For junk and rubbish, the property is inspected and owners are given a written notice to correct the problem in a reasonable time and bring the property up to compliance as well as a right to appeal.
The property is then reinspected and if the issue is still not resolved, police are then notified and lastly, the property owner is issued a code violation.
For unsafe structures, a property inspection takes place after the complaint is made. If the inspection finds it to be unsafe for living, a notice of condemnation is issued.
The property owner is then given a written notice which includes reasonable time to demolish the structure or make it compliant with the code. Owners also get a right to appeal.
After a certain period of time if nothing is done, the property is reinspected and the city can demolish the building. The demolition costs become a lien against the property.