Wednesday, February 15, 2012
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City reviews proposed ordinances for abandoned properties

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[February 15, 2012]  John Lebegue, city of Lincoln building and safety officer, has been working on revising some of the city ordinances. The additions or modifications would in the end give the city greater power to force owners of abandoned properties to take better care of them.

HardwareTuesday evening he presented to the Lincoln City Council a variety of options on how to do this and asked for the council's guidance on what direction he should take for some new ordinances.

He said he had done a great deal of research on what is done in other cities regarding abandoned properties and has come up with some good ideas for Lincoln.

The first of those would be directed toward properties that are boarded up. These abandoned buildings are ones where the windows are broken or doors missing, and the owner has tacked up plywood to cover the openings, then gone no further in making repairs.

Lebegue said one of the city ordinances he had reviewed included setting a time limit on how long a property can stand boarded up. In the ordinances he's reviewed, he found a specific time limit of six months.

Lebegue said he liked this ordinance because there were emergency cases, such as after fires or storm damage, when boarding up openings to a building is needed as a temporary measure. He noted that when this happens, the property owner has full intentions of making the needed repairs but needs some time to get it done, and he thinks that should be allowable.

However, if a building stands boarded up for over six months, then it would be in violation of city ordinances, and the property owner could be cited for nuisance violations and fined accordingly. Lebegue talked about imposing an initial fine of $500 and then adding $25 per month each month thereafter. He said the result would be that the fines would add to the property owner's financial burden to a point where he or she would be forced to either make the repairs or demolish the building.

Another approach Lebegue introduced was that of a registration and fee for allowing an abandoned building to remain standing. He said this was being used by the city of Danville. The process is that the owner pays an annual fee for having the property. Lebegue said the drawback to this would be locating the owners of these properties and collecting the fee.

Lebegue said he also wanted to define an abandoned building that is uninhabitable. He noted that no running water and no plumbing make a house uninhabitable, and as such it should be considered a nuisance.

Lebegue said that change alone would have given him more power in the situation that came up recently with a property at 1020 Broadway.

He explained that with this change, it would be made clear that an owner cannot leave a home in an uninhabitable condition.

He also noted the ordinance should reflect the effect an abandoned home has on a neighborhood. He said such language would strengthen the ordinance.

In Bloomington, Lebegue said the city has three options on dealing with these abandoned properties. First, they can go for prosecution, conviction and an assessment of a penalty. The next option is to go for a court order to allow the city to abate the property, tear it down and then place a lien on it. The third option is to get a court order to force the owner to take action. He said that in the final option, if the defendant did not act, he or she could then be held in contempt of court and placed in jail.

He also noted the city had pursued a similar course with one homeowner. The process had gone on in excess of three years, and the homeowner had been placed in jail on more than one occasion.

Lebegue said another option could be to seek a personal judgment, something similar to a small-claims judgment against the owner. He said the personal judgment would be in place of a lien, which in most cases is not effective because the city is generally at the bottom of the list of liens when property sells.

Moving away from abandoned properties, Lebegue said he also wanted to incorporate into the nuisance ordinance statements regarding furniture left outdoors. In regard to this, he was addressing situations where indoor furniture such as sofas or recliners is purposefully left outside for use by the resident.

He said simply, "If it is not designed for outdoor use, it should not be outdoors."

Another topic Lebegue addressed was property owners with multiple abandoned properties. He said he had seen examples where those owners faced heftier fines.

When the council began discussing Lebegue's presentation, Alderwoman Melody Anderson said she was definitely in favor of larger fines for owners of multiple abandoned buildings.

She noted: "We do have several owners with multiple abandoned properties. I like that if they're abandoning or walking away from these properties, the impact will be larger to them."

Anderson also asked about the six-month window for boarded-up or uninhabitable houses: Would the count begin when the ordinance was passed?

City attorney Bill Bates said it would, so there would be no retroactive measures.

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Bates also reminded the council that the violation of a nuisance ordinance would not make the problems go away. What it would do would be to impose very hefty fines on violators. The result would be leverage against the person to the point it was so expensive to keep the property that they would have to tear it down.

He said the only way any city can force a demolition of a building in the state of Illinois is to petition the circuit court for demolition. He said that did not require an ordinance change; that rule is in place right now.

The problem is that if the owner does not do the demolition, the city may be forced to, and the city does not have the funds available to do this. Anderson pointed this out, saying the demolition could be on "our dime," to which Bates said yes, it could. But the fines from the nuisance order would be on the owner, and if the owner decided to demolish, then that, too, would be on him or her.

Bates also said there was a work-around for the six-month rule in the case of the Broadway property and others like it, that if they are uninhabitable, the city can immediately call it a nuisance for that alone and begin action against the owner right away.

Alderman David Wilmert expressed that he was in favor of including the six-month rule for boarded-up homes for the sake of responsible homeowners who intend to make the necessary repairs but need some time to get it done.

Alderman Jeff Hoinacki was reading through the handouts from Lebegue and commented on a condition for the registration of an abandoned building. He noted that in registering an abandoned home, there was a clause in the agreement that forced the owner to consent to inspections of the building.

Lebegue said in some cases that clause would be very helpful to him. He noted there are cases when a building doesn't look all that bad from the outside, but inside it is a disaster. He said right now, he can't get inside a building to see what is going on there.

Bates also commented on the manpower enforcing any of these changes is going to take. He wondered if the city was prepared for that.

"You'll need people to enforce this, to collect fines and fees and to register them," he said.

Snyder asked Lebegue which of the methods he preferred. Lebegue said he was looking at the six-month window over abandoned home registration. He said he didn't know that they could get the properties registered because he didn't know that he would be able to locate the owners.

He also noted he liked the fine structure that was tougher on owners of multiple abandoned properties. He said he had an example on Sherman and Pekin of three abandoned houses in a row, all owned by one person. He said the stiffer rules for multiple abandoned properties would have a benefit there.

Alderwoman Marty Neitzel asked if these changes would put teeth in the city ordinances to help accomplish what homeowner Pat Moos has asked the city to do.

Lebegue said the changes would offer some distinction as to what that house is and would allow the city to take the owner to court.

"It is not a magic cure for the problem, but it is a step," he said.

Alderman Tom O'Donohue said he didn't have a preference as to what the city chose, but they had to choose something.

"We have to try something," he said. "What we are doing now is nothing."

Bates also said that in the specific case of Pat Moos and the property on Broadway, the only thing that is going to make Moos happy is demolition, and imposing fines isn't going to do that.

O'Donohue said he agreed, but he noted at least it was a start and, "while it doesn't give us the sharpest teeth, it does give us something to chew on him (the property owner) with."

At the end of the discussion, Lebegue said he was going to put together a list of 10 to 12 homes in the city and bring back to the council examples of what can be done with his proposed ordinance changes.

The last comment came from Neitzel, who expressed appreciation to Lebegue for the work he has done on this. She said it was very detailed information and very impressive.


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