Director of Building Development Services Nick Heatherly took up the discussion about nuisance abatement and code enforcement at today's Council luncheon.
Heatherly said there are 13 specific criteria which can garner a building the designation of a dangerous building under Chapter 26, Article III of the City's Municipal Code. It only takes a violation of one of the 13 criteria to make a building eligible for such a designation. Chapter 36 Article X can also be used as a code enforcement mechanism.
A building doesn't have to be physically dangerous in order to be posted as a dangerous building. Even a new building, on which construction has stopped, can be designated as such. The building, Heatherly said, doesn't have to be vacant either.
Under a dangerous building designation, Heatherly said they can't cut utility service, however, they can take other actions, including possession through eminent domain.
Before an official notice is delivered to a property owner, a notice (letter) of dangerous, blighted and nuisance building on an owner's property is delivered notifying the owner there has been a complaint filed, either by a member of the community or by a City Inspector and if the code violation(s) are not abated it could result in the building being designated as dangerous, and that a hearing "could result in the City taking action to correct the violations." The notice also advises the building owner to check with the City's permit counter, as permits will be required for much of the work.
City attorney Dan Wichmer said, oftentimes, when notice is delivered to a building owner, that is when the City Council will hear from them in a public meeting or through individual phone calls.
"They will lean on you guys and make you feel bad." Wichmer said.
Heatherly had, earlier, pointed out that if City officials and staff are not allowed to enforce the code or are instructed to make exceptions, they do not know whether to follow or take seriously the ordinances the Council has approved.
Over the years, Heatherly said his department has also noted some areas the ordinances could be "tweaked" to improve their ability to take action.
Following is the process followed under Chapter 26, as listed in a document Heatherly provided:
1. Receipt of complaint or observation by Inspector while performing other duties.
2. Letter of Condition (LOC): Not the official notice - a letter is sent to the apparent owner/occupant that gives them notice of something that appears to be in violation. A copy of the form letter is attached. Typical time frame allowed to abate is 10-days.
3. Posted as a Dangerous Building: Inspector places a placard on the structure/property; property is inspected again for compliance with the LOC, if not property is posted. 1-day.
4. Title Search is performed to identify the owner and all interested parties. This is the step in which the City has first incurred an outside expenditure. 5 to 10-days required depending on complexity of records and how much research is needed.
5. Notice to Abate: This is the official notice to abate to owner and all interested parties; 10 to 30-days from date of posting to prepare and send by way of certified mail; each case is allowed 45-days to abate the nuisance.
6. Notice of Hearing: Sent at same time as Notice to Abate - explains to parties that should they not abate the nuisance as prescribed in the Notice to Abate - then a hearing will be held which has to be at least 10-days after the expiration of the time line to abate the nuisance.
7. Hearing: The Administrative hearing officer (typically the Director of Building Development Services) will hear the evidence from both parties at the hearing - a decision is not made at this time - the hearing officer has up to 30 days to make a
final determination and issue the Findings of Fact; typically the F of F is completed and mailed within a week of holding the hearing.
8. Findings of Fact & Conclusion of Law: Final order to abate - gives the owner one more chance to correct the violation - must be at least 30-days in length in order to permit owner time to appeal; each case is evaluated for what would be considered
an appropriate amount of time to realistically abate the nuisance - could range from 30-days to 6-months.
9. Owner has right to appeal the final determination issued by the Administrative Hearing Officer to Circuit Court. If this occurs, the enforcement action is "stayed" until the Courts make their ruling. We have cases that have taken as much as 3 plus years to be resolved if the case is appealed.
10. Abatement: Either the owner has taken steps to abate or the City will now begin procedures to physically enter the property to abate the nuisance. This process can take 30 to 90 days or more depending on the specifics of the cases.
11. Remedies: The City has the authority to enter into contracts with persons engaged in the business of repairing, securing, demolishing buildings or use eminent domain to abate the nuisance.
The code does provide us with the authority to take action more quickly should "..an immediate danger to the health, safety, or welfare of any person exists..". A hearing is still held after providing at least 24-hours of notice to the owners. In some cases we have taken action prior to the hearing in order to ensure that the safety of the community is protected."
Heatherly said, since July 2002, the City has had over 1,600 cases involving dangerous buildings.
The process under Chapter 36 Article X is as follows:
1. Notice of violation is given: Notice must state the applicable code section(s) being violated and provide a time frame in which compliance is to be achieved.
2. Inspector files a complaint: The "complaint" is to request that the Administrative Hearing Officer have a hearing to listen to evidence concerning an order or decision of an administrative official. The "complaint" has to state the relief being sought or proposed and the reasons for granting it.
3. Title Search is performed to identify the owner and all interested parties. This is the step in which the City has first incurred an outside expenditure. 5 to 10-days required depending on complexity of records and how much research is needed.
4. Notice of Contested Case: The Administrative official (inspector) mails the notice of the hearing to all interested parties. Must provide a minimum of 10-days, "..except in cases where the public morals, health, safety or interest may make a shorter time reasonable."
5. Depositions and Subpoenas: Both parties have the authority to cause witnesses or documents to be subpoenaed.
6. Hearing: The Administrative hearing officer will hear the evidence from both parties at the hearing.
7. Findings of Fact & Conclusion of Law: Final order to abate - gives the owner one more chance to correct the violation - must be at least 30-days in length in order to permit owner time to appeal; each case is evaluated for what would be considered an appropriate amount of time to realistically abate the nuisance - could range from 30-days to 6-months.
8. Owner has right to appeal the final determination issued by the Administrative Hearing Officer to Circuit Court. If this occurs, the Administrative Hearing Officer has the authority to "...stay the enforcement of the order or may temporarily grant or extend relief, or deny or withhold relief while the matter is being appealed."
9. Remedies: "The Hearing Officer shall have the authority to order that all permits issued by the City including business licenses, occupancy permits, and utilities may be withheld, suspended or revoked for all or part of any premise, structure or building in which the violation of the code is occurring..."