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Demolition by Neglect: Does Davenport Have “the Stomach for the Fight”? - Page 2 PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 03 February 2011 05:33

Tools in Theory

Like Davenport, Rock Island has struggled with demolition by neglect. A few years ago, said city urban planner Jill Doak, “we were definitely facing these issues with some of our landmarked buildings – long-term deferred maintenance ... – and our existing codes were not handling it.”

At the same time that the city was exploring whether to draft an ordinance specific to demolition by neglect, it was also looking at adopting a property-maintenance code – an ordinance that applies to all properties in the city, and requires owners to properly maintain their buildings. Complaints – typically health-and-safety issues such as broken windows or holes in a roof – trigger property-maintenance-code enforcement, and owners can ultimately be subject to fines, court orders, and liens against their person and property if they don’t make repairs.

Rock Island adopted its property-maintenance code in 2005, and Doak said it made it unnecessary to adopt a demolition-by-neglect ordinance. “This ordinance, we felt, was going to not protect only historic properties but all properties,” she said.

She added that the city has prevented several demolition-by-neglect situations through the code. “In a typical ownership situation, I think it’s a good tool,” she said. “The property-maintenance code is ideal.”

But Thomas G. Ayers, Rock Island’s chief building official, stressed that enforcement of the property-maintenance code requires coordination and will: “It takes competent, aggressive legal support ... .”

Moline similarly applies its property-maintenance code to all properties, and economic-development manager Patrick Burke said he thinks the city has used it to effectively avoid some demolition-by-neglect issues.

But a property-maintenance code can’t address all problems. Rock Island officials said an absentee owner can make enforcement difficult. And if a property owner doesn’t have the financial resources to make repairs, there’s little that can be done. “All these things [repairs] cost money,” Ayers said. “If you don’t have the money, you don’t have the money.”

Davenport, like Rock Island, has a property-maintenance code that applies to all structures. But there are differences.

Warner said Iowa courts are likely to side with owners on property-maintenance issues, and they’ve been generally unwilling to let cities fine owners for each day of a code violation (as the city code presently allows). That, he said, renders the property-maintenance code an ineffective tool in Davenport. “There seem to be tools there in theory,” he said. “In practice, they don’t work.”

The biggest difference, however, might be one of aggression. Rock Island officials fully support using that code to try to prevent demolition by neglect of historic structures, while in Davenport there’s a clear reticence. As Boom said: “A lot of what we need is currently in the city code,” but there hasn’t been a desire to enforce the code.

For Davenport Fire Chief Mark Frese, it’s an issue of fairness and property rights. While his department conducts regular inspections of rental properties, enforcement of the property-maintenance code with owner-occupied or vacant properties is a complaint-driven process, as in Rock Island. But he said he doesn’t think it can be applied equitably in neighborhoods where “everybody’s house is suspect as far as needing some attention. ... We struggle with complaint-based because oftentimes the validity behind the complaint comes into question because of what generated it. Is it truly an eyesore to the neighborhood, or is it truly a battle between the homeowner and the next-door neighbor? ...

“How do you build that compliance factor into something that is not enforced [uniformly] across the city? It’s almost impossible to do. ... How do you build something that is fair and equitable to everybody involved?”

Furthermore, he said, the property-maintenance code raises issues about the role of government in terms of private property. “When you own a piece of property ... does the government have the right to come in and tell you what to do?” he asked. “That’s a difficult issue. ... Home ownership is a right that we have in this country. I think part of that ... is we have to live within the codes and the regulations and things we have in the city, but we have to be very careful on how we walk in and intrude on somebody’s freedoms. ...

“I certainly don’t like strong-arming people,” he added. “I think what that does is it creates a very bad relationship between government and the people.”

That makes it sound as if Frese would oppose enforcement of the existing property-maintenance code with historic properties. (He did note that he would follow any city-council mandate: “They’re my bosses. I’d have to support it.”) However, the fire chief said that under certain conditions, he would be more supportive of a property-maintenance code specific to historic properties.

Assuming that the sale or transfer of a historic property included some notice to the incoming owner about the designation and the legal obligations related to it – something that doesn’t happen now – Frese said a historic-property-maintenance code makes more sense than the current situation.

“An ordinance that allows us to react is much better than trying to find one that’s currently on the books and apply it to historic homes ... ,” Frese said. “If you’re going to tag ... an ordinance specific for historic properties, that would give us the leverage to do those things to prevent demolition by neglect.”

Flynn said on January 12 that a property-maintenance code for historic properties is not presently one of the ideas staff is studying. “We at this point haven’t had any discussions about distinguishing historic structures from the rest of the properties,” he said. “That’s not to say that it couldn’t be done ... . We recognize that there are additional responsibilities of owning a historic property, but I think there’s a concern about being too onerous ... . The idea is to not have basically two sets of standards: one for historic properties and one for the run-of-the-mill property down the street. ... There’s a concern about fairness.”

Warner said the city has lacked “the political will to ... treat historic property different than a non-historic property that might be next door or a block away or two blocks away.” Furthermore, aggressive enforcement of the property-maintenance code might require that taxpayer money be used to make repairs, and Warner said that liens to cover the cost of repairs make it more difficult to sell a property.

Ultimately, Warner said, how the current property-maintenance code is applied and whether a separate maintenance code is used to target historic properties “are the big policy questions that the [city] council gets to answer.”

Boom said he believes a larger discussion – addressing all abandoned properties and not just demolition by neglect of historic properties – will happen after staff recommendations are delivered to the council. “I’m waiting like everybody else,” he said.

For his part, Mayor Gluba is also taking a wait-and-see attitude. In written responses to questions, he supported increasing penalties for intentional damage to historic structures and developing infill standards for historic neighborhoods. Beyond that, he deferred to staff instead of offering additional ideas.

But he rejected the suggestion that the current city code could be used to prevent demolition by neglect. “It isn’t a matter of better enforcement,” he wrote. “There are limits to what we as a city can require of private property owners, and appropriately so.”

Gluba also hinted that he wouldn’t have the stomach for an aggressive approach to preventing demolition by neglect: “There is a limit to what government can do, both in terms of our legal authority and financial resources.”

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