Thursday, June 17, 2010

Graves: Allowing condemned buildings to stand costlier than demolition

The cost of allowing condemned buildings to stand is far higher than the cost of demolishing them, according to a recent memo to Cincinnati City Council from Department of City Planning and Buildings Director Charles C. Graves III.

The memo is in response to a March e-mail, submitted to the office of Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, from Paul Willham, a historic preservation consultant and author of the Victorian Antiquities and Design blog.

In his e-mail, Willham said that he believes that there's a conflict of interest on what he describes as the City's "Nuisance Board", claiming that those on the board are in direct supervisory positions over the very inspectors who bring in building code cases.

According to the Cincinnati Municipal Code, the Chief Building Official designates a hearing officer to determine if condemned buildings should be demolished. That officer listens to testimony from the Police Department, the Fire Department, a certified property manager, a building inspector, the property owner and others with a financial stake in the property, neighbors, community groups, and other members of the public during the decision making process.

Owners are able to appeal the decision to the Board of Building Appeals and, failing an appeal, the building enters the hazard abatement process.

This process is outlined in the Ohio Building Code, Graves said.

"It is also economically infeasible for the City to employ a Public Nuisance Hearing Examiner with no other responsibilities such as supervision of inspectors," he said.

Willham also said that the total assessed value of properties ordered demolished since the beginning of 2010 was more than $6 million, representing a loss of nearly $207,000 in property taxes.

"Most of these properties will sit as vacant lots for decades, meaning millions of dollars of tax revenue will have to be made up for by the rest of us, and we the taxpayers will pay to have those vacant lots mowed and cleared of the inevitable dumping that comes," he said.

But Graves also that Willham failed to consider other variables.

"The communication considers neither the loss of property taxes due to the devaluation of surrounding properties where the condemned buildings are situated, nor the loss of citizenry who refuse to live near condemned or dilapidated buildings," he said.

Willham's final argument was that the City should establish a land banking system, giving property owners the option of donating their properties instead of facing demolition.

"The city could spend some of the monies they would normally spend on demo on basic stabilization, and the properties could then be resold to a qualified buyer or neighborhood groups with protective covenant that the properties be restored and owner-occupied," he said.

Delinquent taxes could be forgiven and permit fees waived under such a system, Willham said.

Graves said that doing so would be largely impractical, given the fact that no money exists for land banking.

As for stabilization, Graves said it costs substantially more than demolition and "does not guarantee the building's return to usefulness".

"Limited stabilization of condemned buildings is currently being performed on a case-by-case basis," he said. "Stabilization remains a viable option for historic properties where no demolition permit can be issued, or for buildings with structural interdependence such as common walls."

Graves did say that money for land banking could become available if Hamilton County chooses to form a County Land Reutilization Corporation, a power granted to 41 Ohio counties with the signing of Substitute House Bill 313 in April.