The city is preparing to follow a new procedure for dealing with unsafe homes and properties after the Columbus Board of Works unanimously accepted a recommendation to demolish a home in the 400 block of 12th Street.

Fred Barnett, the city’s code enforcement officer, told Board of Works members at a meeting recently that an inspection of the home located at 417 12th St. showed internally and externally that it is beyond repair. The cost of attempting to renovate the structure would likely outweigh its value, so Barnett brought a recommendation to the city to vacate, condemn and demolish the home.

Although Board of Works members voted in favor of Barnett’s recommendation, demolition of the 12th Street home will not be immediate. Instead, the case will be sent to Bartholomew County Superior Court, where a judge can decide to make a judgment or send the case to trial.

The judicial review element of the home-demolition process is the result of a set of reforms Barnett and Mayor Jim Lienhoop have been working in recent months to implement.

Story continues below gallery

Previously, Barnett said he had to rely on a combination of state and municipal codes to determine the best course of action to deal with unsafe, blighted or slum properties.

Based on the procedures outlined in state and city codes, Barnett said he developed a clearly defined procedure that spells out the steps the city should follow when trying to determine if a property should be vacated and demolished.

A review of the city’s demolition process began after a city contractor razed a Columbus home in February 2015 without any record of a demolition order being affirmed for the property.

In a previous interview with The Republic, Lienhoop said that he wanted Barnett’s procedures to include a third-party review element from outside of City Hall to ensure that the process the city follows is accurate and fair. Superior Court is meant to serve as the independent reviewer.

City attorney Alan Whitted said the statute regarding home demolitions allows Board of Works members to have the final say on the fate of a property. However, adding a judicial-review step is meant to ensure that the city has a level of accountability that is above and beyond the basic requirements and that homeowners are given an above-adequate level of due process.

Barnett first became aware of the home at 417 12th St. in January 2015, and official notices were sent to the homeowner, Max Lemley, multiple times in the following months notifying him that the property was in violation of unsafe home and public nuisance laws.

However, Lemley failed to bring the property into compliance with municipal codes after receiving the official notices, Barnett said.

On April 27, Barnett said he and representatives from the Bartholomew County Health Department and the Bartholomew County Technical Code Enforcement Office entered the home with an inspection warrant to review the property.

Their inspection found an extensive list of violations inside the home, including a leaking roof, piles of trash, exposed wiring, exposed gas cans and piles of cat feces, among other problems, Barnett told Board of Works members.

The exterior of the home had similar issues, such as problems with the foundation, windows and roof, he said.

Lemley said he has rented the home out for the past 30 years and that there are currently tenants living there.

But based on the inspection and the estimated worth of the home, the code enforcement officer said the best course of action would be to vacate, condemn and demolish the structure.

Mary Ferdon, executive director of administration and community development, said that the city does not take making such a recommendation lightly.

While Ferdon said she understood that property owners have rights, she also said the city has an obligation to act in the best interests of the neighbors who live near unsafe or blighted homes.

Ferdon also said she had given Lemley the option of participating in the Indiana Blight Elimination Program, a program that awarded the city $760,000 to purchase homes deemed necessary to demolish. Participating in the program would have given Lemley the opportunity to still get some money out of the property, but Ferdon said he ultimately chose not to opt in.

Local resident Harry McCawley said he recently purchased the home at 427 12th St., which is across the alley from Lemley’s property. McCawley said the home in question poses a safety risk to neighbors, especially if the exposed wiring were to cause a fire and cause a reaction with the chemicals stored in a neighboring dry cleaning business.

McCawley said the home lowers the property values of the rest of the neighborhood and is a black eye for the city.

But Lemley told Board of Works members that he had been in contact with buyers who were interested in purchasing the house, which was appraised for about $60,000.

John Counceller told board members that he was one of those interested buyers and that if he were able to purchase the home, he would find an economical way to rehabilitate it and continue renting it out.

However, Lemley said the IRS currently has a lien on the property, which is preventing him from closing a sale on the property. He said he is working to get that lien released and thinks that he is close to a resolution with the IRS.

Although the board voted to accept Barnett’s recommendation to vacate, condemn and demolish the home, Whitted said there is a still a possibility to reverse that course of action.

The next step in the process would be for Whitted to file an official complaint, which would require a response in 23 days. Then, the court could choose to make a judgment or send the case to trial, a process Whitted said would take four to six months.

If Lemley’s property is brought into compliance during that time, then Whitted said the demolition could be canceled.

How the policy works

City code enforcement officer Fred Barnett has developed a set of procedures the city must follow when dealing with unsafe, blighted or slum properties.

The procedures call for Barnett to send multiple official notices to property owners when their properties fall out of compliance with municipal codes. The procedures also allow Barnett to do inspections of unsafe properties and to call in additional departments to complete their own inspections, if necessary. Finally, property owners have the right to a hearing before the Columbus Board of Works before the city votes to condemn and demolish a home.

The newest portion of the procedure calls for a judicial review process to be implemented. Whenever a home is recommended for vacation, condemnation and demolition, the city will send the case to Bartholomew County Superior Court, where a judge can either make a judgment or send the case to trial. If the property is brought into compliance while the procedures are being followed, then a demolition order can be reversed.

Author photo
Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.