Purpose Is To Deal
That Pose Health,
BY SARAH GREGORY
A Standards Review Board to conduct hearings concerning Greeneville properties deemed unfit for human occupancy will be formed as a result of action Tuesday by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.
An amendment to the Town's Property Maintenance Regulations ordinance passed on second and final reading by a 3-1 vote.
First Ward Alderman Keith Paxton voted against the measure.
STANDARDS REVIEW BOARD
The amendment to the Property Maintenance ordinance creates a board comprised of three volunteer citizens to conduct hearings related to properties labeled by the Town's Building Inspector as unfit.
The measure does not change the current standards upon which findings of unfitness are made.
The measure is for the purpose of dealing with properties that pose safety or health hazards. The amendment does not pertain to aesthetic issues, Town officials have emphasized.
That point is one that was repeatedly clarified by Mayor W.T. Daniels, City Administrator Todd Smith, and Building Inspector Jeff Woods during the public hearing, and the discussion concerning the first and second readings of the amendment.
The Standards Review Board, which is to be comprised of citizens who are knowledgeable in fields such as construction and architecture, will also hear appeals to such findings of unfitness.
RECOVERY OF FUNDS
Essentially, the amendment will allow the Town to recover taxpayer funds spent to bring unfit properties to a suitable level for habitation (if possible) or to demolish properties that cannot be fixed at reasonable cost.
If the Town undertakes repair or demolition because the property-owner does not, the amendment passed Tuesday will allow a lien to be filed against the property with the County Register of Deeds.
Daniels, Smith, and Woods said they receive calls at Town Hall almost daily from neighbors of properties in question.
Daniels, Smith, and Woods have also repeatedly said that the majority of properties that are the subject of complaints are completely abandoned, and in many cases are owned by individuals who do not reside in the area.
Woods gave a brief slide presentation in which he showed some examples of unfit properties.
Example properties shown did not have any windows in window frames, were badly overgrown with grasses, weeds, and trees, and had issues in terms of structural integrity.
Woods noted that the houses were particularly hazardous because of their potential to be used for drug activity or because they could pose hazards to homeless individuals who seek shelter in them.
Woods said many of the properties being used by homeless individuals are structurally unsound and, in many cases, are fire hazards without smoke alarms.
FIRE CHIEF SUPPORTS
Greeneville Fire Chief Mark Foulks addressed the board briefly in support of the amendment.
Foulks said that fires in structures that are in such a poor state of repair are a particular hazard for firefighters.
He also provided an example in which an abandoned structure quickly became fully engulfed in flames. That structure, he said, ended up burning through a number of fiber-optic cables that ran above it.
Foulks said that the abandoned structure, which likely was valued at less than $10,000, ended up costing "hundreds of thousands, maybe millions" of dollars in loss and damages after disrupting Comcast cable and Internet service to a large portion of the area.
Discussion among board members primarily related to clarification of what the purpose of the amendment was and the fact that it allows the Town to recover taxpayer dollars spent on repair or demolition.
A motion to accept the amendment on second and final reading passed with Aldermen Sarah E.T. Webster, Darrell Bryan, and Buddy Hawk voting yes. Paxton voted no.
In an e-mail sent to The Greeneville Sun, Paxton commented on the reasoning behind his vote against the amendment.
Alderman Paxton was asked in a follow-up interview about the basis of his objections to the amendment.
He said that his concerns were based on the fact that he builds and remodels houses, owns rental properties, is a business-owner, and has lived in downtown Greeneville his entire life.
He stated in an email that "I feel with the expressed opposition of property maintenance codes in past from Greeneville residents and the presentation presented to the board of only pictures of abandoned dilapidated homes beyond repair, the property maintenance code should only be used for only properties that are beyond possible repair," Paxton said.
"A few of the pictures presented to the board contained buildings with overgrown vegetation and piles of trash, which is against laws Greeneville already has in place," Paxton's e-mail stated.
"This new maintenance code adds more laws. Not only the outside of the homes, but now the inside of the homes will be looked at," he continued.
Another of Paxton's concerns related to the financial impact of the Town's undertaking repair or demolition of properties.
"If lawyer fees and demolition fees and court fees add up to $10,000 to $50,000 per home, and if the home has a mortgage, Greeneville is still second in line to make its money back on the sale of the land," Paxton said.
"Small lots when auctioned off might sell for $4,000 or less, leaving Greeneville with a debt of $6,000 or more per house. It wouldn't take long to put Greeneville in a financial burden," he said.
BUILDING INSPECTOR RESPONDS
The Greeneville Sun contacted Building Inspector Jeff Woods to clarify how the ordinance will be enforced.
The ordinance, Woods said, "has nothing to do with the inside of homes" and is designed only to address "unsafe, dilapidated structures around town.
"We're not going to go and look at anybody's home on the inside. Definitely not. That's not our intention.
"Our intention is to get some of these properties cleaned up that we're having constant calls about rodents and homeless people and reports about drug activity," he said.
Woods confirmed that the criteria used in determining a structure to be "unfit" have not changed as a result of the new amendment.
The criteria are outlined in the 1997 Standard Housing Code, which the Town adopted a number of years ago.
Woods said the code does address property maintenance issues such as overgrown lots and trash.
The Town also does have separate ordinances pertaining to those issues as well.
The reason for having separate ordinances pertaining to overgrowth and accumulation of garbage, Woods said, is that a structure with overgrowth or piles of trash may not be abandoned or in an unfit state of repair.
Complaints about those situations go through the office of Town Environmentalist Debbie Smith.
"This property maintenance ordinance is basically just to help the Town in the process of collecting on our cleanups," Woods said.
"Right now, if we put a lien on a property and we have to demolish it or clean it up, we're at the bottom of the list to get paid. Doing this puts the city second in line either behind taxes or the state, and we can collect money on our liens," he said.
The new amendment, Woods said, "provides the opportunity to form a board to look at these properties.
"We're going to give the property-owners the chance to fix the properties if they can be fixed. If not, the Town can move forward toward taking care of them as our budget allows."