lvhouse_120What does a Town Board do when a house within its borders is a clear danger to the community, but the elderly owner refuses to or can't afford to pay for its demolition?  He lives in an adjoining house on the property, which he will lose if the Town starts proceedings by posting the older house as condemned.  Town officials don't want to take his property from him, but fear liability that will cost taxpayer money if they don't do something.  What do they do?

"Last summer when I saw their little table with the umbrella and the chairs right next to it, I thought this whole thing could fall right down on these two people," Town Supervisor Kathy Miller said. "And then they'd probably sue us because we didn't take it down."

In Wednesday's Lansing Town Board working session Building Inspector Lynn Day asked for the Board's guidance on how to procede with a collapsing home at 210 Ludlowville Road.  He presented two photographs.  In the first, taken in 2010, he had written a note that said, 'House real poor shape'.  No note was necessary on a picture taken this year that shows a collapsed roof with heavy damage to the second floor.  Miller summed up the conundrum.

"I remember when I was a kid we had an old abandoned house in our neighborhood," she said.  "We went in there all the time.  We loved that old house.  That is the problem."

Day said that a tree had fallen on the house, speeding its collapse, and noted that the ground floor has collapsed into the basement.  Town law requires that the cost of demolition plus 50% be charged to the property owner if he does not remove the structure within 60 days after it has been posted.  If the Town has to pay for demolition the charge is added to the owner's next tax bill.  But Day said that cost is likely to be much higher than normal because the house has asbestos siding that must be removed by qualified experts.

"Back in 2010 I sent this gentleman a letter him about our unsafe building law.  he totally agreed," Day said.  "He came in and got a demolition permit.  He held it for a year, then came back.  He is still renewing his permit.  But unfortunately he is older and he has told me he is not going to do it.  He's just going to let it fall in."

Day was hesitant to post the house without board guidance because he doesn't want the owner to lose his property, including his current home.  But he said the structure has deteriorated to the point where proceedings need to be started.

"If we post it we've got to act on it," he said.  "The other thing is, too, that we have another one right here in the middle of town that's not in this bad a shape, but it's getting close.  At some point we've got to act on that, too."

Krogh agreed.  He advised that the Town has little choice if it doesn't want to be held liable for future injuries from the further collapse of the house.  He explained there is a legal theory called 'the attractive nuisance' that could result in a judgement against the Town if it doesn't act.

"It's beyond dispute that that's an unsafe building," said Town Attorney Guy Krogh.  "It's a big pile of debris.  It just happens to have the structural capacity to kill."

lvhouse_beforeBefore: in 2010 the house was deemed to be in poor enough shape that the Town notified the owner it had to be demolished. The owner paid for a demolition permit, but did nothing more.
lvhouse_afterAfter: only four years later the roof is gone and the floors have collapsed into the basement. Demolition is complicated by asbestos siding.

"Presumably you are saying it's a hardship case," said Councilwoman Ruth Hopkins.  "Are there social services that work with people with hardship cases like this so that they don't lose their property?

Day said he talked to a not-for-profit group to see if they would be willing to help, but they said they could not because of the cost of removing the asbestos.  Board members were also sympathetic to the homeowner, asking Krogh's advice on their options, which they hoped would not result in evicting the owner from the house next door.

"You can bring criminal proceedings, civil enforcement proceedings. Assessing a fine isn't going to remediate the harm," Krogh said.  "If you have to use public money to remediate the risk, so kids that decided to play paintball in the neighborhood are the ones that get killed, there is a process by which that money is recovered.  It is either a petition to the Supreme Court that establishes a judgement, which is a lein against property, or you assess it pursuant to the procedure in the local law.  It becomes assessed with the next tax bill.  To the extent that it is not paid it will go through tax foreclosure within the next two years."

Board members asked whether he could subdivide the property to save his current home if the collapsing house and property is foreclosed on, but Day said it can't be subdivided under Town law.  Supervisor Kathy Miller asked whether the owner could stay in his home if the Town had a lein on the property.  Krogh explained that a section of municipal law could extend the lein for up to 20 years, but if the property isn't sold the Town is out the money.  He said the size of the lein would make it probable that the courts would not transfer the title for 20 years.

Miller asked what the Town's liability is if the Board does nothing.

"That's an open question.  Liability is whatever a judge or jury says," Krogh said.  "Code enforcement is not ministerial. It's discretionary.  You can't be compelled to do it, so the question is the nature of the risk, the obviousness of the potential harm, the amount of time you had notice of the issue, whether or not you made progress.  Overall a building that has shown that much deterioration in that short a period of time... I think you have to act.  Otherwise you do risk liability.  You can't just turn your eyes from a known public danger.  Legally that might not hold weight.  Morally you're definitely not on the high road."

Councilman Doug Dake asked whether the owner understands the Town is trying to help him.

"I've talked to him several times about it," Day replied.  "He is insisting that he will not pay any money up front."

"We're in a pinch," Dake said.  "I think we post it."

The rest of the board agreed.  Day said he would post the property after first explaining to the owner what he is doing and why.  The Town Constable will accompany him.

Photos courtesy of The Town of Lansing