The topic of blighted properties and how they are addressed by city officials has been one of rather heated debate recently.
From social media to local café’s and coffee shops, one need not travel far to stumble across a conversation related to a razed property, a property under review or a property with orders to raze as well as various associated opinions.
Unfortunately, hand in hand with opinions are some misconceptions as to how the process of addressing blight is carried out.
The “eyes” for the city in locating and addressing blighted properties, is that of Zoning and Building Inspector Darin Pagel.
However, as Pagel, City Administrator Dave Johnson and City Attorney Tom Hayden explain, Pagel’s job description consists of much more than “snooping around”; as one community recently alleged.
“As part of Darin’s routine duties, he does tour the city on a random basis. That is correct” Johnson states.
“But there is much more to his role than just driving around looking at buildings and homes.”
“This time of year we are looking for issues related to yard cleanup as well.” Pagel adds.
“Part of my designated duties is addressing issues such as trash or refuse in yards. A large majority of folks do a great job in keeping their yards tidy. But then there are some other folks who have tires, scrap, car parts and so on laying around. That is the sort of things which needs to be addressed.”
Pagel also mentions complaints from third parties being significant as well.
“Like Dave said, I do tour the city on a random basis, but I would say a majority of properties we investigate have been based on complaints from third parties. More often than not the complaints come from neighbors or other people in the area. But also on occasion receive information from law enforcement.” Pagel explains.
Another misconception Pagel touches on, as he begins to explain the process of addressing issues, is that of how and when he may enter a home for inspection.
“First and foremost, I need probable cause to enter a home. Probable cause to believe there is a risk to health and safety of the habitants of that home. The first step is to make contact with current resident or residents and/or a property owner. In the case of refuse or trash being an issue in a yard, then we will post a 5 business day garbage cleanup notice. The five day notice translates to five business days, which allows for weekend to accomplish the cleanup.” Pagel explains.
As Johnson adds, a vast majority of residents are completely cooperative with the requests and notices. However, others aren’t as cooperative and will challenge the notice.
“There have been times when some community members have refused to comply, as they feel an issue doesn’t exhist” Johnsons explains.
“In turn we have had to itemize for them what needs to be done such as removing the old tires from their yard, or the junk car, car parts or trash bags strewn around their property.”
According to attorney Hayden, if a resident of property owner does not comply with notices given by the city, the street department is contacted to clean up the property and then bills the property owners. The bill then places a tax lien against the property. The same process also applies to lawn care and snow removal.
The process changes a bit when issues of exterior maintenance or blighted property arise.
In terms of exterior maintenance, Hayden and Pagel indicate the first step is issuing a Notice of Non-Compliance to the property owner. The notice then itemizes the issues needing addressed. Common items include peeling or needing paint to roofs in need of repair such as hanging or missing shingles.
Missing siding is another common issue Pagel mentions.
“Pending on the time of year, we allow anywhere from 3-6 months for folks to correct issues.” He adds.
“Our ultimate goal is to achieve compliance. If we are seeing progress or a resident is showing an effort to make progress, we are more than happy to give an extension for the completion of the corrections.”
Pagel is also quick to mention criteria for allowing an extension.
“We are more than happy to give extensions, but we have to have criteria in place to assure some aren’t simply trying to request an extension to delay things or take advantage. For instance, if I am asking someone to fix a window issue, and they ask for a six month extension, that just wouldn’t happen. Progress must be evident and the extension must fit the work requested.”
If compliance is not achieved by issuing a notice, the second step is sending a letter to property owners. The letter allows another 30 days from the expiration of the original order, for necessary changes to be made.
At the end of 30 days, a citation is issued for Violation of Municipal Exterior Maintenance Code. The citation entails the property owner being billed the amount of $99.60 per day until necessary corrections are made.
“Folks are given an initial appearance date” Hayden explains.
“Even at this point, we are still willing to work with people and work something out. If they show up for court we are still willing to work out an arrangement! Like Darin said, our ultimate goal is to achieve compliance! We would rather avoid fines and paperwork and just have corrections made to keep our community attractive.”
“I want to emphasize here that a majority of folks in our community are in full compliance” mayor Bill Bialecki adds.
“They do a fine job in maintaining their properties, but in turn expect the city to hold others to minimum standards.”
In terms of blighted properties, Pagel states the process is basically the same but with a few different steps.
“Just as with yard cleanup and exterior maintenance, the process typically starts with a complaint. Sometimes the complaint comes from tenants, others come from other property owners on condition of a building or home,” the 24 year veteran inspector explains.
“At that point I will take a look to see what condition the building is actually in. I will then compare the estimated cost of bringing it into compliance to the assessed value of the building. If cost is over 50% of the assessed value, then we have the ability issue an order to raze, as
dictated by state statute.”
The process Pagel explains came to fruition on Wednesday April 8th, when he received a neighbor complaint of a home in the downtown area.
“It’s a very nice looking house” Pagel adds.
“I guarantee a vast majority of people in the community drive past this home on a daily basis and would never guess in a million years the home is in as bad of shape as it is. This house is definitely a candidate to be razed, there is just no way anyone would be willing to clean and fix it, for any price. But nonetheless, the house is a good example of what some community members deem as a property that is perfectly fine.”
“From the outside, it would be hard for anyone to understand why this house would need to be razed. Then you step inside and the reason is staring you in the face.”
Bialecki and Johnson credit the current common council members and other officials for the success of the city’s successful campaign against blighted properties.
“It is the resolve of the current city administration and council members to address the longstanding issue of blighted property in the city.” Bialecki states.
“I just can’t stress enough the impact properties like this have on our tax rates. If your tax base loses value due to a blighted condition, tax rates and cost of services increase. I don’t think a lot of folks understand that. I just can’t emphasize that enough!”
“We all want our taxes lowered and increase industry and commerce in the city” Pagel adds.
“But when new business is looking at Merrill as an option, they are also looking at housing stock. Even though the property they are looking at may be in good shape, they are also looking at properties around it. If surrounding properties aren’t in good shape, that can be a huge factor.”
“We have a council that knows things have to change.” Bialecki explains.
“That is evident by the five year strategic plan we have in place. As a whole, council members are supportive or what we are doing”