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Abandonment issues: LaFollette has its hands full dealing with empty houses

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By Dwane Wilder

LaFOLLETTE—What’s left of more than 50 dilapidated residential homes sits in a cardboard box tucked away in a closet at the codes enforcement office of Stan Foust.

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The box, about the size of a miniature filing cabinet, contains paperwork related to the condemnation and destruction of dwellings inside the city limits. They were homes deemed structurally unsound and unsafe for humans to occupy.

“Within the past year, we took down 58 residential structures,” said Foust. “It’s down to seven we’re still having to deal with. Out of those, two owners are deceased. We asked council to have the city attorney file probate on them. The other five are going to be cited into municipal court.”

It’s a recurring problem, according to Foust, who cites an example of ongoing cases that can sometimes take years to resolve.

“The owner lives in Soddy-Daisy and paid the city $800 (in 2007) to go in and clean the property off, and they were supposed to go back in and rehab it,” said Foust. “It’s practically impossible to get ahold of them.”

Foust finally tracked down the owner of the property at 410 West Fir St. on Jan. 16 at Soddy-Daisy and cited her to city court for a March 6 appearance. He plans to ask city judge Wes Hatmaker for the structure to be taken down and the two acres of property cleared.

Clearing the property includes cutting grass and brush on overgrown lots and removing abandoned vehicles. Property owners have 10 days to address issues once notified by the codes enforcement office.

“The house is dilapidated, and it got to the point where it is not salvageable,” said Foust.

If the property owner doesn’t comply, Foust said the structure can be removed and property cleared at the owner’s expense. The cost of tearing down a structure can be between $3,000 and $5,000. Demolition is usually done “in-house”, with the public works department providing most of the manpower in the past. The time frame for demolition of a condemned home is seven to 14 days once all the paperwork is signed. If two or three owners are involved, it may take 30 to 120 days to get through the judicial process.

LaFollette Public Works Director Jim Mullens said Environmental Protection Agency rules permit condemned structures to be taken down and all building materials buried on-site, provided that nothing is built back on top of it.

“As long as nothing is removed from the property, the EPA says you can do that,” said Mullens.

In the event an owner is deceased and there are no heirs to probate the property, a lien can be placed against it. A prime example is the house at 211 N. 5th Street, where Cindy Lee lived until a fire last spring destroyed the inside of the dwelling and forced her to seek shelter elsewhere. A few months later, she passed away with no heirs to the property.

“Nobody wanted it,” said Bill Waddell, president and general manager of WLAF/TV 12, whose studios are located directly across the street from the Lee house. “Her mother, Nora Lee, died and left it to her.”

Waddell said the home was a total loss, beyond repair, and Lee had no homeowners insurance.

Not longer after the fire, vagrants looted what was left of the home’s contents. It also became a haven for prostitution and drug activity.

“Anything of any value was taken out of the house, and probably a lot of things with no value, as well,” said Waddell. “It was pretty well ransacked. It’s bad, because people have been going in and out of there. It’s bad for the neighborhood.”

LaFollette attorney Reid Troutman said the average length of time to probate a property is six months from start to finish.

“There’s a 120-day mandatory waiting period before you can close,” said Troutman, who the city has asked to file petition for involuntary probate the Lee home as well as the Perry Kempt property at 408 West Walden Street.

Once the probate is filed, Troutman said the court appoints an administrator of the estate, which is usually the county clerk and master. A legal notice about the property will be published in the local newspaper for potential heirs to come forward and make a claim to the property.

Criteria for a home to be condemned is if it will cost 50 percent of the value of the dwelling to bring it up to code. Foust said city workers can remove a house, or the property could be sold with a dwelling left standing and an agreement that the structure is taken down by the new owner to comply with LaFollette building codes.

“The worst part about it is all the paperwork, getting it signed and all the legal issues,” said Foust. “If you have more than one owner of a piece of property you’ve got to have all the owners here.”

There is a three-year waiting period for unpaid taxes. After that it goes to the clerk and master’s office to be listed in a delinquent tax sale. When the property is sold, the previous owner has one year to pay the back taxes and 10 percent of what they paid at the auction to redeem it.

“So, you’re actually waiting four years before you can do anything,” said Foust.

Then there are homes that have been quarantined by the police because of methamphetamine production. Foust said he is handling four such cases now and had 20 at one time. One house on West Prospect has been shuttered for six or seven years because it was contaminated by meth.

“The city is going to have to prepare a new ordinance for these meth structures,” said Foust. “If you have one to sit that long you are just inviting people to come in and steal the copper (from HVAC units).

“It’s an everyday thing that we’re out in those neighborhoods looking and constantly monitoring complaints by neighbors,” said Foust. “If you don’t have zoning, you’re fighting a losing battle.”