County adopts ordinance to regulate unsafe structures

by Kate Shunney

County officials approved a new law on Wednesday that created the Morgan County Building Enforcement Agency and set the rules under which the agency can force the repair or demolition of unsafe structures in the county.

In a 2-1 vote, with Commissioner Bob Ford voting no, the Morgan County Commission adopted the Morgan County Unsafe Structure and Property Enforcement Ordinance on August 15.

The law doesn’t apply to any properties inside the town limits of Bath or Paw Paw.

Commissioners held two public hearings about the ordinance – on May 9 and May 15.

The law went into effect immediately, but will have no force until the six members of the Enforcement Agency are picked and appointed by the County Commission.

The agency will include a county engineer, a county health officer, a fire chief from a county department, the county’s litter control officer and two members of the public at large.

Morgan County’s sheriff will serve as a non-voting member of the board and will enforce the orders of the Morgan County Commission as they relate to the building ordinance.

Under the ordinance, the Enforcement Agency will meet monthly to receive and evaluate complaints about dilapidated and unsafe structures within the boundaries of Morgan County.

The agency can vote to dismiss complaints about a building or dwelling being unsafe, or to investigate a complaint.

Members have the option to create a plan with a property owner to remedy any issues with their property. In the absence of cooperation from a property owner, the agency also has the power to petition the County Commission to force the repair or demolition of a property.

The ordinance also allows the County Commission, in those cases, to get reimbursed for making those repairs or tearing down a structure by opening a civil action in Morgan County Circuit Court against the property owner.

The 20-page ordinance sets out all of the steps the Enforcement Agency must take to gather information about a property that is the subject of a complaint, and inform the property owner of the proceedings about the building.

If the Enforcement Agency asks the County Commission to force the repair or demolition of a structure because of unsafe or unhealthy conditions, the property owner can — within 10 days of notice from the agency – demand a hearing before the County Commission to fight that step.

On request, county officials must hold a hearing where property owners can present evidence or be represented by attorneys. If commissioners vote to force repairs or demolition of a structure by a certain date, property owners can be fined $50 per day for not complying. That fine can be added to the cost of repairs or demolition in cases where the county seeks a lien against property owners in Circuit Court. The court can “order and decree the sale of the private land in question to satisfy the lien,” the ordinance says.

In cases where a property owner can’t be reached to answer a complaint about their building, the agency must twice publish a legal advertisement ahead of time stating their intention to fix or tear down a structure.

The new law also allows the county to recoup some costs of cleaning up debris at a property by making a claim against fire insurance policies for that property. The structure must be deemed a total loss in order for the county to get money for debris removal, the ordinance says. Under the law, the county can release a lien against insurance proceeds if the property owner cleans up the property within a reasonable amount of time.

The final section of the law says any decision of the County Commission under the ordinance can be appealed to the Circuit Court.

In voting against the ordinance, Commissioner Ford said he would be a hypocrite to vote for the rules because of his personal philosophy about property rights. He said he genuinely appreciated the effort of Commissioner Ken Reed to research and prepare the law.

Ford predicted the rules would generate grudge complaints against properties.

“I’ve seen that kind of thing – this county is spiteful as hell,” he said.

Commissioner Reed said those kinds of complaints will probably happen, but the enforcement agency and commission can deal with them under the ordinance.

“The question is, do you want to do something or not?” Reed said. He said again that tackling eyesore structures in Morgan County was the number one request he had when he ran for county office.

“This is a start and it’s the best we can come up with,” Reed said. “Ultimately it goes to the county commissioners, who are elected officials, so they’re accountable.”

Sheriff K.C. Bohrer asked if drug houses could be dealt with under the new ordinance – properties where a landlord repeatedly rents to drug dealers and allows illegal activity.

Reed said the county would probably need to create a separate ordinance to address that.

“We’ll start with encouraging compliance. Enforcement will come later,” said Bohrer.

The new ordinance does, however, say that properties contaminated by the manufacture of methamphetamines are included in the definition of unsafe structures.

The ordinance includes language about properties that are an “attractive nuisance” – places that are “a harbor for vagrants, criminals, criminal activity.” Unsafe structures are also defined as those that present a “substantial risk of fire, building collapse or any other threat to life or safety.”

Provisions in the law say properties can only be inspected for unsafe or unsanitary conditions, “not for the purposes of criminal prosecution or gathering evidence for use in any criminal charge or proceeding unrelated to the unsafe or unsanitary condition of the structure.”

Copies of the new ordinance are available at the Morgan County Commission office and on the county government website under the County Commission menu.