City proceeds to secure abandoned, flooded properties

A city contractor will begin work this coming week to address safety issues on three abandoned, flooded properties. That workload is expected to increase over the summer.

City building official Mitch Flanagan told the Minot City Council’s Public Works and Safety Committee Wednesday that 81 certified letters were sent to property owners in a first round of mailings to order abatement on nuisance properties. Receipts for only 41 of the letters came back, indicating about half of the property owners could not be located.

Flanagan said owners have five days after receipt to make the abatements before the city will send work orders to its contractor. In cases where there are no signed receipts of the letters, the city also will be writing up orders after five days.

That process has started with the contractor prepared to begin work on the three work orders. The city plans to send out about another 15 work orders next week, Flanagan said.

Inspections are revealing that owners of abandoned properties have been getting busy, too.

“We are seeing a big clean up out there,” Flanagan said.

The city conducted initial inspections on about 340 properties in May. Since then, there have been follow-up inspections that removed some properties from the list due to demolition or that downgraded the urgency to non-emergency. Acting on a prioritization list, the city will be sending certified letters ordering abatement to about 14 additional property owners next week.

Initial abatement actions are focused on structural and unsafe conditions, such as clean up of debris, fencing, boarding windows and securing access.

In cases where the city has its contractor do the work, property owners are assessed for the cost.

Council member Dave Lehner warned that levying an assessment doesn’t guarantee payment. Should the city incur abatement and possible demolition costs on properties that eventually fall into the city’s hands due to unpaid taxes, the city is unlikely to recoup the costs plus back taxes through sale of the lots, he said. Those costs are likely to be far above lot values, he explained. The result will be spreading of the costs to all Minot taxpayers.

“It’s going to be very expensive. I just want everybody to realize this. It’s one thing to take care of all of these,” he said. “In the long run, it’s going to cost everybody in the city, not just the people in the flood plain.”

Cindy Hemphill, finance director and acting city manager, added that the city already is having to carry those costs until owners pay. Special assessments are levied annually, and demolition costs can be assessed over 10 years.

The council has approved spending $73,000 from the sales tax major projects fund on abatements. The committee voted Wednesday to recommend the council put another $300,000 from the emergency fund toward the abatements.

Shaun Sipma, a leader in a citizens group that has rallied to have so-called “zombie” homes cleaned up, said it’s a necessary expense.

“What other options do we have at this point other than to go forward in the direction we are going? The answer is, we don’t have a lot of other options,” he said. “This is going to be expensive. We are aware of that.”

Lehner agreed.

“I don’t think we have any other choice other than proceed with what we are doing,” Lehner said.

The city has chosen to use its nuisance ordinance to take action against abandoned properties because the five-day time frame for owners to respond results in quick turn-around.

The city also has an ordinance that would allow for criminal prosecution of owners who maintain dangerous buildings. The penalty is up to a $1,500 fine and/or 30 days in jail, with each day of the nuisance counted as a separate offense.

Acting city attorney Kelly Hendershot said the city is leaving the option open to pursue criminal prosecution on a case-by-case basis if necessary in the future. But she noted it has drawbacks.

In these cases, the city would have to involve police in investigations and cannot prosecute unless a defendant can be served with a summons and complaint. In some cases, the city doesn’t have current addresses to ensure service.

Owners would have 90 days rather than five days to complete remedial work. After that time, the city may enter the property and conduct the work or demolition, assessing the cost against the property.

Owners have the right to appeal and to receive a jury trial and possibly court-appointed defense counsel. Hendershot said if the court imposes a fine but doesn’t order the abatement, the city is back to where it started.