Failure to enforce code violations frustrates residents

Print Print
Marcia Nelesen
Sunday, June 30, 2013

— When does a 30-day order to repair property turn into nearly 1,200 days and counting?

When it concerns the property at 173 S. Jackson St. in Janesville, apparently.

Residents in the Fourth Ward have had enough with the delays.

They contacted the media and council members and put the blame on city staff.

Neighbor Burdette Erickson figures the house—with its boarded windows and decaying structure—represents thousands of hours of staff and neighbor time since 2010.

Over the last several years, the neighborhood group has met 39 times with representatives from the city, Erickson said. Members who gathered recently said they were frustrated and angry.

"The solution is so simple," Erickson said. "Just enforce the codes the council created."

Work orders are issued when inspectors deem a structure unsafe or unsightly. An order typically gives owners 30 days to fix problems.

Now, neighbors worry the lovely Victorian home is too far gone to save.

Margaret Zweifel of Janesville owns the property. Calls The Gazette made to her and to her representative, William Perkapile, were not returned.

Acting City Manager Jay Winzenz acknowledges the city dropped the ball on the house, mostly because staff tried for so long to work with the property owner.

Now, he has switched tactics, Winzenz said. Every day the property is in noncompliance represents a separate violation ranging from $25 to $500 a day, he said. The city attorney is establishing the first date of violation and then will file the complaint in Rock County Court, Winzenz said.

The amount the owner would pay if found guilty will be determined by a judge or jury.

In November 2005, for example, K. Andreah Briarmoon was convicted by a jury of 518 violations—one per day—of failing to provide two safe exits from a second-floor apartment.

The jury awarded a fine of $25 a day for a total of $13,075.

"Basically, the clock is ticking, and it would be in the best interest (of the owner) to get the repairs made as soon as possible," Winzenz said.

The experience with this house has led to changes at City Hall, including a shift in duties among departments and a call for better record keeping. Possibly, the council will be asked to weigh in on how aggressive the city should be with property maintenance issues in the future, Winzenz said.

Winzenz believes this house is an anomaly, and he said he has little defense for the slow pace of repairs.

"I don't think three years is appropriate," Winzenz said.

"I think we need to be more aggressive than that in bringing these issues to conclusion."

History of home

In 2010, Sheryl Inman, property maintenance specialist with the city, issued a work order to the owner of 173 S. Jackson St. to repair many building violations. The order gave the owner 30 days to:

-- Replace the front porch

-- Replace the stairs and supports on the back porch

-- Fix cracks in the foundation

-- Fix windows covered with plywood

-- Fix visible holes in the roof deck and soffit.

-- Repair one garage and tear down another

The garage was demolished in June 2010.

A new order to correct was issued in October 2011 by Gale Price, manager of building and development services. It was based on the original order to correct. Identical orders were issued in January 2012, March 2012, June 2012 and November 2012.

Recently, four planks of wood showing the outline of a future front porch were the only sign of repairs.

The owner has paid some money for her inaction: $200 in reinspection fees and a $515 citation when she agreed in court that she hadn't met the city's requirements.

Another eight citations are outstanding for holes in the roof, lack of stairs, foundation holes and broken windows.

A letter in May 2013 informed the owner that the case would be referred to prosecution by the city attorney if she didn't comply with the orders by June 10.

Still, neighbors continue to wait.

Kurt Linck said those who live in the Fourth Ward eventually realized: "We've got a homeowner who knows they can get away without fixing their property."

Neighbors believe the bigger issue was city staff that allowed the owner to continue to be irresponsible, and they specifically mentioned Price.

Erickson said the inaction is "pulling in the opposite direction" of the millions of dollars the city pours into other parts of the Fourth Ward.

Besides hurting the area's aesthetics, neighbors said they know from experience that run-down homes attract a criminal element.

City answers complaints

Price agreed the rate of improvement to the home is "ridiculously slow."

"That property's been a problem for us," he acknowledged. "We have not got a very responsive owner there."

In hindsight, the city could have done things differently, Price said.

"Here's a situation where progress wasn't being made, and we should have followed up a little more diligently. It's a fair concern."

Follow-up could have been better, and that comes back to his management, Price said.

Price said he has many other responsibilities, such as site and building plan supervision for new construction. He made a mistake by not recognizing earlier that he didn't have the time needed and should have designated the responsibility, he said.

Winzenz's new approach might get more attention, Price said. The city will file the case in court and will ask for a fine every day there is a violation. That compares to Price taking the time to write a ticket every day, he said.

Other factors come into play, though, and one is a change in philosophy put forth by former City Manager Eric Levitt, Price said.

"Eric didn't want us to be heavy-handed," he said.

Price recalled a period in the early 2000s when "we were accused of jumping directly to the bulldozer, and the community reacted to that." The city, for example, tore down Briarmoon's carriage barn.

The council afterward directed staff to tone down its aggressiveness, Winzenz recalled.

"If you think about the pendulum, it swings the other way," Price said.

Winzenz agreed that Price has been overwhelmed with other duties. He also agreed Levitt was a strong believer in property rights.

Winzenz said the property at 173 S. Jackson St. has once again changed the way the city does business.

"What I'm hearing now is that maybe we swung too far to that side and that maybe we need to move back a little bit more and be a little bit more aggressive in getting these issues taken care of," Winzenz said. "That's going to be my approach on this particular property henceforth."

Winzenz restructured duties, leaving a building's structural issues in the neighborhood services department rather than moving a case over to building services, which Price heads.

A worker in neighborhood services, Kelly Mack, is now in charge of the Jackson Street home.

"The expectation for all of our inspectors is to follow up and make sure the repairs have been taken care of within the timeframes that property owners are given," Winzenz said.

"There's a lot of follow-up, and sometimes we can't get there right after the expiration," Winzenz said. "We try to get there as soon as we can."

The goal is compliance, and staff does give an owner extra time if he or she is making earnest progress, he said.

Winzenz is also requiring timelier recording of cases because he could not provide an average resolution time of orders to correct.

Staff sometimes waits weeks to input data into the computer system Winzenz said. That is the date recorded when a case is closed, not the actual date of resolution.

"People have to remember that we cannot force somebody to maintain a house in the condition we would like that house to be maintained," Winzenz said.

"We can only force them to maintain in compliance with our code, which doesn't mean that all of those architectural features are going to be preserved.

"Property owners are really pretty much free to do what they want with properties," Winzenz said.

Meanwhile, neighbor Kurt Linck said the Jackson Street house is at a tipping point, but the potential and beautiful architecture are still there.

"It would be next to impossible to replicate a home like that," he said.

"Once it's gone, it's gone."


Last updated: 7:50 am Monday, July 29, 2013

Print Print