Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part series on the process used by the city of Urbana to address nuisance structures.
According to a description of the duties of the city of Urbana’s Nuisance Division, found on its website, “A small number of house demolitions is an important part of maintaining a healthy and safe city.”
Tearing down dilapidated structures found to be in violation of the city’s nuisance code, however, can be difficult, city officials state.
To begin with, when it comes to keeping structures from reaching a state of disrepair, funding issues have kept the city’s hands tied from a policy standpoint, Community Development Manager Doug Crabill said.
“Most citizens are probably not aware that the city does have a nuisance code, but not a property maintenance code,” he said. “A property maintenance code in cities that have it is essentially a code that requires a homeowner to maintain their home to a minimum standard involving general maintenance things like keeping paint on the house and repairing the roof. If you have a property maintenance code, a community can write up an order requiring that the work be done, which keeps properties in good shape.”
Crabill said creating and enforcing a property maintenance code would bring extra costs to the city since it would require “a whole other level of staffing, resources and management.”
While the city’s nuisance code is primarily used to keep properties free of tall grass, junk vehicles and garbage, there are three references relating to the upkeep of a structure. They are as follows:
•The continued vacancy of a structure or building resulting in lack of reasonable or adequate maintenance of the building or structure and grounds.
•A vacant building or structure which is open and not secured against unauthorized entry.
•A building or structure, or any portion, member, appurtenance or ornamentation thereof, which is likely to fail or become detached, dislodged or to collapse and thereby injure persons or damage property.
“We deal with the trash and weeds all the time, but when it actually comes to the structure of the building, that’s the biggest challenge that we have,” Crabill said, adding if a structure is found to be in violation of the city’s nuisance code, in most cases it’s not sufficient grounds for demolition.
“If a building is discovered to be open, the simple solution to that is if it’s a door hanging open, the door gets closed. If a window has been broken out, the window gets boarded up,” he said. “If a portion of a building is likely to fall or become detached, like if a piece of downspout is hanging off the side of a house, the removal of that downspout would solve the problem of that particular issue being a nuisance.”
If a condemned sign appears on a home within the city, it doesn’t mean the structure is destined to be razed, city officials confirmed.
“’Condemned’ doesn’t necessarily mean it’s structurally unstable or ready to fall apart,” Director of Administration Kerry Brugger said. “It just means it’s not able to be inhabited. Generally, that means they don’t have water or, in the winter, they might not have heat.”
Crabill added homes that have been labeled as condemned were done so by the Champaign Health District, not the city.
“A property can be condemned for a long period of time,” he said. “All it means is someone shouldn’t live in the home. It doesn’t mean the home just can’t sit if there are no structural issues.”
Reaching the demolition stage
Before the city can legally act on a structure it deems to be a nuisance, it must first submit to the property owner a notice to abate the nuisance within 10 days of receiving the notice (property owner can request an additional 30 days).
“The property owner has rights, too, in this situation, so we can’t violate their rights,” Brugger said. “We have to go through the proper process.”
Since the nuisance code states a property owner found to be in violation has the right to appeal the city’s decision through the Board of Nuisance Appeals and then if desired through the Champaign County Court of Common Pleas, Brugger said, the city wouldn’t pursue abating the structural nuisance through demolition without first obtaining documentation from two particular county entities.
“The county building regulations and county health district are the two agencies that really have the clout from a safety and health standpoint to address building conditions,” Brugger said, adding all the city’s building regulations have been contracted out to Champaign County Building Regulations since January 1999. “We try to get everything we can to help substantiate our position.”
If the recipient of the notice to abate a nuisance structure fails to either comply, file a timely appeal or loses the appeal, the city’s nuisance code states, “the director of administration shall take whatever action is reasonably necessary to abate the public nuisance.”
If that action involves the tearing down of a dilapidated structure, the city is then faced with another issue – funding such an endeavor.
“The challenge is if you are going to carry out an enforcement, you have to have funds available to abate the nuisance,” Crabill said.
Editor’s note: Part two of this two-part series will examine how grant funding has helped the city demolish over 20 nuisance structures since 2010 and how the city plans to deal with these nuisances in the future.