by KATE SHUNNEY
The time has come to move ahead with rules about dilapidated buildings in Morgan County or drop the idea, Commission president Joel Tuttle said last week.
“It’s time to do it or not do it,” he said during a April 4 commission meeting. “If we’re semi-happy with it, let’s set dates on a public hearing.”
“There are a lot of people out there who are for the ordinance for obvious reasons and those against it because of fears it would infringe on property rights,” Tuttle said.
The county hired attorney Richard Gay to review and revise a proposed set of rules drafted by Commissioner Ken Reed last year.
Gay said he is a “very staunch believer in private property rights” and rewrote portions of the dilapidated building ordinance to make sure there is a fair process for dealing with property complaints.
He also made changes so the proposed ordinance wouldn’t conflict with the existing county subdivision ordinance and salvage yard ordinance – the other major land use rules within Morgan County.
Gay said the draft law now fits the powers granted to the county to deal with the public nuisance of a dilapidated, unsafe or dangerous structure.
“You can drive out Route 9 or in the middle of town to see buildings that meet the definition of a public nuisance,” said Gay.
A final draft of the ordinance isn’t available for review yet, but Gay said the draft sets out a process for dealing with structures that pose a risk or harm to the public.
A committee including a county engineer, health department official and fire official would accept property complaints, meet to determine if the complaint should be pursued, then inform a property owner of the complaint. The committee would work with the property owner to evaluate the structure, determine a course of action and a timeline for repairs or demolition.
In cases where a property owner disputes that the structure is unsafe or poses a public risk, the ordinance sets out an appeals process that involves both the County Commission and courts.
Gay said the rules include the key elements of notice, hearing and appeal.
Under the rules, a property owner who refuses an order from the county to fix or tear down an unsafe building could be forced to do so or forced to pay for the county to do so.
“The goal is not to go out there and tear down buildings,” Tuttle said. “My goal is to tear down public nuisance, public safety hazards.”
Commissioner Bob Ford said there isn’t money for the county to pay for demolition of buildings right now. He proposed the county earmark half of the real estate transfer tax revenue to cover costs.
Gay said the ordinance allows the county to file a lien against a property owner who doesn’t repair or tear down a nuisance structure. The property owner either pays the county back for their costs or the county can sell the property in question, said Gay.
Tuttle said the process to field complaints and come up with a plan of action for nuisance properties will be slow under the ordinance.
“You’d be hard pressed to tackle more than two or three per year,” Tuttle said.
No public hearing on the ordinance has been set, but county officials said they expect to set those dates this month. A final draft of the ordinance will be posted on the county government website for review before any public hearings.