08/12/08 — Mount Olive sets sights on houses that are on town's 'demolish' list

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Mount Olive sets sights on houses that are on town's 'demolish' list

By Steve Herring
Published in News on August 12, 2008 1:39 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- For some people, the ramshackle house at 126 Patten St. is a visual blight, but for Candra Capers of Clinton it is her family's homeplace.

While she lacks the financial resources to complete renovations to the house all at once, she has been steadily working to save it from the town's growing list of demolished buildings.

News-Argus/Steve Herring

Mount Olive Town Inspector Danny Keel inspects the tangle of weeds and vines growing along and inside this dilapidated house at 124 E. Williamson Street. The house is among three that the town plans to demolish.

"I am trying slowly, but properly, to get the work done," she told Mount Olive commissioners at their Aug. 4 meeting.

Ms. Capers' effort is one that town officials would like to see more property owners emulate.

The town has worked for several years to clean up blighted areas of town, razing buildings no longer deemed fit for use. On average, three to four structures are demolished each year by the town.

At its last session, the board awarded contracts totaling $25,650 to Terry Holloman of T.H. Construction of Mount Olive for the demolition of houses at 110 Slocumb St., 124 E. Williamson St., 106 E. Kelly St. and 104 Short S.

The contract calls for the demolition of the houses, asbestos testing/removal and grading of the lots.

Town Inspector Danny Keel said the house at 106 E. Kelly Street has been removed from the list to allow the property owner an opportunity to renovate it.

Also during the meeting, extensions were granted to several property owners, including Ms. Capers.

In each case, progress was being made to renovate the properties, Keel said.

However, the town would prefer not to be in the demolition business at all.

Mount Olive takes a hit two ways where demolition is concerned -- not only is it costly, it takes a bite out of the town's tax books as well.

Demolition costs the town anywhere from $4,000 to $10,000 depending on the size of the structure. It could be even more if a larger structure is involved.

"We try very hard to encourage property owners to maintain their houses and lots, but sometimes, as a last resort, we don't have any option but to take a house down," town Manager Charles Brown said. "We take an asset off the tax books (with demolition) so it hurts the town both ways to have to demolish the house, but in some instances there is simply no other way to go. Somebody who maintains their house and works on their lawn and keeps their property looking good simply does not deserve to live next to a piece of property where the owner does not do that."

The town places a lien on the property for the cost of the demolition. The lien must be paid off before the property can be sold.

However, it is a rarity for the town to collect, Brown said.

"If they don't care enough about it to maintain it, they're not going to sell it," he said.

Also, more often than not, the cost of taking the dwelling down exceeds the value of the vacant lot, he said.

It can be a long, drawn-out process, sometimes lasting for years.

Brown said that in some cases people will do a little work to a structure, getting extension after extension, but making actual little progress overall.

Better communication is needed between the property owners and the town, he said.

The picture often is complicated by the property being owned by heirs who live out of town and who sometimes might not even be aware of the issue, he said.

"It is not unusual for us to have problems finding the owners," Brown said.

The process normally starts as Keel travels about town identifying properties that appear to be dilapidated.

"I normally send a letter to property owners to get them to do something with it," Keel said.

Keel said the public is generally more interested in a building's exterior appearance.

"I look at both," he said.

Keel said the interior is just as important to him because he has to grant approval before a structure can be rented out or used.

Sometimes the property owner contacts Keel and proceeds to work on the property while in other cases, they "just ignore (the letter)."

"In some cases, they come to the board, request and get time, but then do just enough to make you think they are doing something and then they don't do anything else," Keel said.

"If they show some type of effort, that they are doing something then the town board works with them," he said. "It is much better for the town for the house to be standing and the town collecting taxes instead of it being a vacant lot for somebody to have to keep mowed. In a lot of cases if the house is town down the lot is too small for anything else to go back on it so it just sits there idle and is no good to anybody."

Keel gives the property owner 30 days to begin work. After the 30 days, and if no progress has been made, the information is turned over to town attorney Carroll Turner who writes a letter of nuisance and cites the property owner to the town board. The property owner is sent a certified copy of the letter.

"Once it is cited to the board, in most cases they (property owners) come to the board," Keel said. "That gets their attention, a letter from an attorney. They come to the board meeting and of course they ask for time and 99 percent of the time, and if they have some kind of plan together, the board will give them time. A lot of times when they come to the town board they have already started some type of repair."

Usually, the town board honors Keel's recommended extension of anywhere from 30 to 90 days.

Even if no one shows up about the property, the town normally allows another 30 days. If no progress is made after that time Turner drafts a public nuisance resolution for the town board that can then order demolition. A notice of the town's intent to demolish the property is advertised in the newspaper.

The demolition can take place 30 days after the public notice.

"They are given time, lots of time," Keel said.

Good communications between the property owner and town is vital, Keel said.

"We don't mind working with anybody, but we have got to have some cooperation from the property owner," he said. "If a property owner does not show any interest in the house then the town has all the right in the world by state law to tear it down."