News Column

Hundreds of abandoned properties await demolition funding

June 7, 2014

By Susan McCord, The Augusta Chronicle, Ga.

June 07--The May 20 defeat of Augusta's latest sales tax referendum had a hidden downside -- cutting proposed funding for one of the city's most pervasive problems.

Planning and Development Director Melanie Wilson said she pushed for the first time to include in the tax package funds for demolitions, some $4 million that likely would have leveled nearly all the known derelict, abandoned and otherwise nuisance properties across Augusta-Richmond County.

Instead, the problem properties -- homes and occasionally businesses whose owners have died, disappeared or simply given up, leaving behind a trail of unpaid taxes, vandalism, disintegration and overgrowth -- remain, accompanied by drops in neighborhood property values and a lack of interest from developers.

"If I was a businessperson coming in a new area, I don't think I'd like (that)," said hairstylist Jackie Boone, who recently relocated her shop, Naturally Jack'd, to Eve Street in Harrisburg.

Out the window, Boone said she'd seen construction workers who she thought were fixing up a Jenkins Street duplex. A few months later, the building's windows are boarded and a spray painted skull and crossbones warns all not to enter.

A former mill village, Harrisburg has its share of blight and abandoned properties, but the problem spares none but the newest of Augusta neighborhoods.

In all, some 284 individual properties on 148 different city streets across five ZIP codes make up the current "public officer" list, meaning they're at some stage of the lengthy legal process required to tear them down, according to a list provided by Augusta's codes enforcement manager, Pam Costabile.

Progress toward more demolitions has been made, though the number is up from a year ago when there were only 160 open cases. But without additional funding, the demolitions will stop after crews complete approximately 36 demolitions authorized for $200,000 by the Augusta Commission in March.

The demolitions, Phase 1 of what Wilson said was a $3 million undertaking to rid Augusta of blighted properties, are set to begin this week, according to Rob Sherman, the deputy director for the department's Development division.

Among the city's worst areas are the historic Laney-Walker and Bethlehem neighborhoods, south and east inside the old city limits.

Tony McClendon was cutting the grass Friday at a newer home in Laney-Walker's Hopkins Street, which has five houses on the demolition list. McClendon said he's grateful he lives in the Pepperidge subdivision, where only a handful of bank-owned properties are in a state of serious disrepair.

"When I'm down here in the city, it's ridiculous how many buildings are" nuisance properties, he said. "They're not even boarded up. Kids come through here."

Demolishing even the smallest residence can prove costly, as each site must be tested for and cleared of hazardous material such as the asbestos, which is common in older structures, Wilson said. The typical structure costs from $5,000 to $7,000 to demolish, while larger homes may cost $15,000, she said.

Burned houses, another unsightly but common presence on the list, require even more work as hazardous materials must be removed by hand, bagged and disposed of differently, according to Wilson.

As the cleared, vacant lots increase in number, "the hope is that you get enough synergy going in, having a big enough area demoed" that a developer might purchase the site from the city land bank and return it to the tax rolls, she said.

The biggest challenge for the department is tracing ownership of the properties, which might have been passed down to heirs by owners without a will.

Even if the city completes the 284 demolitions, the city has already identified another 250 structures likely to require action.

Despite the addition of codes enforcement staff, it is often difficult to force an absent or impoverished property owner to make improvements to prevent a property from deteriorating further, particularly in property rights-friendly Georgia.

"The problem is people having the money to deal with it," Wilson said. "If no funds are available, you're just citing someone and taking them to court."

One of those properties could be a Parkway Drive residence that Isaiah Daniels has watched deteriorate since his elderly neighbor's death several years ago.

At first, her heirs came by the Highland Park residence occasionally to cut the grass, but now the hedges have grown into trees and "at night, you can see all different kinds of critters in the backyard," he said.

The property has already been through one tax sale -- Tax Commissioner Steven Kendrick's approach when taxes are unpaid -- but Daniels said he hasn't seen anyone tend to the property in years, besides a city crew that cut the grass once.


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Source: Augusta Chronicle (GA)

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