Editor’s Note: Each week in the month of July, Crossett’s mayoral candidates will each answer a question about an issue that has been posed by one of the other candidates. By participating in the print forum, the candidates get a chance to discuss issues that they think should be a priority while giving the public a chance to understand how they will approach leading the city. The answers are presented as written by the candidates. Candidate David Newberry submitted this week’s question.
Question: What steps would you take to correct or demolish all the abandoned homes in the city limits of Crossett? Please be complete with your steps in following the city codes and necessary laws associated with such a task.
We face a challenge that is growing like a blight across our landscape, not just here in Crossett, but across the country. The City of Crossett is faced with demolishing several uninhabitable structures at a great expense to the taxpayers. These structures aren’t just an eyesore, they are unhealthy as breeding grounds for rodents, pests, and snakes. Vacant properties attract criminals and drug users to an area. Neighborhoods suffer from neglected homes and it diminishes the quality of life while lowering property values and lessens the desire for new development in that area. Many of these owners live out of state and aren’t aware how neglected their properties are.
Unfortunately many property owners won’t, or can’t afford, to rectify the situation and we the tax paying residents of Crossett will pay to demolish and further maintain the properties. The standard code enforcement method is limited in its effectiveness and often takes quite a while to go through the various steps required legally. An alternative method would be more conducive to community. Preserving property owners’ rights, ensuring neighborly relations and restoring the property to a usable shape would be more desirable.
Incorporating alternative methods to remediate neglected properties could help save properties that might otherwise have been destroyed. Early recognition of neglectful conditions could identify properties that might have owners who are experiencing financial hardships and unable to afford maintenance items that would deem a residence unlivable. In a recent grant funding meeting, a citizen mentioned the cast iron sewer hookups that had deteriorated and were leaking sewage under a home, making it uninhabitable. The residents were on fixed income and repair costs were unaffordable due to medical costs. A small grant from a local charity could repair the home and keep it livable.
Habitat for Humanity does more than just build new homes. Habitat’s Home Preservation Program is one such program that our residents could use to repair, save, and restore homes. Its hard for first time home buyers to purchase or build a new home but to repair and restore an existing structure that is salvageable, gives more people opportunities to become homeowners.
Better recognition of problem areas and earlier contact with property owners from City Code Enforcement can increase an owners’ awareness to their responsibilities and their issues to the City. Work with property owners to assist clean up and repairs. If demolition is required after exhausting all possible options for incorporating charity and non-profit groups to make repairs, then remove the structure efficiently. Cost analysis on in house, city demolition crews versus contractor crews to ensure best practice of demolition would determine the best course to take for the many structures that currently need to come down.
I think ridding our home of what has become absolute urban blight is key in bringing the morale of the community up. And bringing our morale up is key to what my process as mayor will be toward the overall goal of making Crossett a destination town.
I have approached current city officials on several occasions asking what I can do to help with the unsightly properties that seem to be growing in number. Their answer every time regarded present ordinances that prevent Crossett from dismantling dilapidated structures with overgrown lawns and shrubbery without a lengthy legal process that works against this endeavour. (Let me pause here to point out that ANY time someone in our community steps forward to help we need to enlist that help. Not explain why their help cannot be used.)
To correct this we have to start at the seed of the problem — the ordinances themselves. I will request our city council members rewrite these ordinances in such ways that they work FOR Crossett instead of against us. What good are these ordinances if they serve as roadblocks to progress? What more are we than road blocks to our own home if we have not called for this rewriting already?
Wrapped up in this issue is also unkempt lawns and facades of inhabited homes. We have a large number of homeowners who are not following ordinances regarding unsightly property. Once again, an issue I have discussed with present city officials who tell me the ordinances, when utilized through our county courts, are not being upheld by officials at that level.
If that is the case, I will invite these county officials to Crossett and take them on a tour to show them what their alleged unwillingness to levy proper punishment is doing to our home. I will ask them what we, Crossett, need to do to help make sure our community is being held accountable for its own cleanliness. Because when you work toward a goal and meet it, you feel ownership and will take care of it from then on.
This urban blight is not your problem, her problem, his problem or their problem...it is OUR problem. And WE all need to pitch in toward fixing it. As mayor I will be very willing to lead this cause with a tenacity that will only lead to a better face to put forward for Crossett. Now grab a shovel, and let’s take back our town!
Neglected or abandoned properties are compromising the heart and pride of Crossett. These properties are a nuisance for their neighbors and an eyesore to all. The city has made code enforcement a priority, but there is more work to be done. I have learned while collaborating with the Arkansas Municipal League, other mayors, and councilmen, that Crossett is not the only city fighting this issue because the current laws hinder cities from efficiently cleaning up towns. I plan to make cleaning up Crossett a priority, but when addressing this it is important to understand the legal process.
The city addresses these issues in Municipal Code Section 5.04.02-07. First the building official declares a property unlawful. Then notice must be given to the homeowner by a certified letter or hand delivered via law enforcement.
This can be difficult, because many properties are owned by non-residents making it hard to locate the owner. If notice is attempted and fails, the notice requirement can be met by publishing an ad in the newspaper for two weeks. Constitutional due process requires not only notice, but that the homeowner have an opportunity to be heard should they object.
Once notice has been properly given and the lengthy due process satisfied, the city can take action. Demolishing a property requires additional notices such as notifying the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality. Compliance with federal and state environmental laws can add expense. For example, if required, an asbestos test could add $500 to $1000. Abatement of asbestos is significantly more expensive, due to the special requirements of removal or disposal. In 2007, the city paid around $4000 to remediate asbestos before the demolition could continue. Then add to that $3500 to $5000 in landfill fees. Another consideration is that certain environmental fees can be waived if the city agrees to not demolish more than one house per block per year. This can be a necessary cost saver for the city, although it slows down a process that so many people want to see move forward.
After the property is cleaned up or demolished, the city can try to recover their expense by filing a lawsuit for a lien against the property, as provided for in Ark. Code Ann 14-54-903. The city can recover their money if the property is sold or when the lien is foreclosed. A second option is to use a procedure stated in the city code that allows the city to recover their money by having the amount added to the county’s ad valorem tax books and collected as a delinquent tax.
Though the hurdles we must jump are extensive, I will continue to work with our council to chip away at these unsightly properties, as we make improvements across town.
My plans going forward involve communication, organization and focusing on growth as we need more revenue and better laws to combat the problem. First, it is essential that we communicate with our representative and senator to keep them apprised of current challenges. It is time for a thorough review of the laws that have been on the books for many years, and we want to work with our legislature and have a voice as they address the changes. Additionally, we should stay in touch with other local leaders facing this issue.
Secondly we should consider organizing a board of council members, business owners, property owners,and professional advisors that meet monthly to specifically address this problem, including the research and communication it will take to solve it. The board would advise the council leading to better local ordinances that will enable fines to be assessed and collected timely.
Finally economic growth and job creation is key. Bringing in more businesses will increase funds available to remedy this problem. I am determined that we will continue to push through the slow process as we fight for a better and more efficient way to clean up our town.
With reference to the question about property removal or demolition:
We presently have a system in place that would allow the city to get these abandoned homes and overgrown lots cleaned up. We have a code enforcement officer that is responsible for a four-step process:
(1) Making a list and identifying the properties needing attention
(2) Notify the owner of the need to clean up the abandoned building or overgrown lot and why they are being asked to do so. Let them know that further action will be taken if nothing is done
(3) After a given period of time with no response, our code enforcement officer is to issue a citation to the property owner warning them that the city will be taking action if nothing happens
(4) If there is still no response after the given grace period, our city attorney is to file a lien against the property so that the city can reclaim the money spent for the actual clean up or removal
We have a system in place to keep these abandoned properties from existing.
We must do a better job of enforcing the ordinance that we presently have in place.
I think it is very necessary because the appearance of Crossett is very important to the citizens and visitors that come here.
These areas can only get like this if we allow them to be that way.
Crossett, we have a problem. The City of Crossett, according to my own personal viewing of the entire city, has at least 104 abandoned or dilapidated houses. How can a city of just over 2,000 houses have 104 of its houses in a state of decay? A great question being asked by many people, especially those who live next to those houses. If you want to know what it’s like, ask William Ashby on 13th Street or Dorothy Grimes on 10th Street. They both used the word “horrible” to describe their plight. Both told of bugs and snakes that come from the abandoned houses around them, and they can do nothing. Their continued complaints to the city seemingly go unheard. With me as Mayor, that will change.
So, what can we do as a city? Follow the rules! The City of Crossett adopted codes many years ago that give it the authority to act on these abandoned and dilapidated houses. The following city code, Property Maintenance Code under section 11.52.01 adopted the 2003 International Property Maintenance Code as its standard to follow, and it has all the “teeth” the city needs to enforce the issue at hand.
I personally read all the city codes and the aforementioned International Code. Section 108.1.1 of the code defines unsafe structures as one that is found to be dangerous to the life, health, property or safety of the public or the occupants of the structure by not providing minimum safeguards to protect or warn occupants in the event of fire, or because such structure contains unsafe equipment or is so damaged, decayed, dilapidated, structurally unsafe or of such faulty construction or unstable foundation, that partial or complete collapse is possible. All of the sections of this document give absolute authority to the City of Crossett to act accordingly and demand repair or demolition of these disintegrating houses. The good news is that in the last year our city engineer, Jeff Harrison, has demolished 25 houses and hopes to do the same this coming year.
There is a legal process which the city must follow, and it is a nasty process for all involved. But the abandoned houses, such as the one next to William Ashby or the three across the street from Dorothy Grimes, are also very nasty.
Registered letters have to be mailed, filings with the District Court and liens against the property with the County Assessor and County Clerk all have to be made, so it is indeed time consuming, and expensive.
I was asked by the Editor to state whether or not I considered the removal or repair of these homes necessary. I say to all the residents of Crossett, ask the people that live next to these 104 houses if it’s necessary. Ask the other neighbors who live across or down the street to see if it’s important to them. I am on their side. Repairing or removing these houses is more than necessary. Read my Open Letter to the Residents of Crossett (paid advertisement, p. 5, Vol. 82, Issue No. 5) for a more complete answer to this problem.