Thursday, May 24, 2018
News Roundup

Hernando resumes demolition of unsafe buildings

SPRING HILL — For neighbors in one corner of the East Linden Estates neighborhood, the blight created with an explosion in July 2012 finally ended with a bulldozer on Monday.

Just as the residents had gathered two years ago to watch the blaze rise dozens of feet into the air at the once-stately Florian Way residence, several looked on as the charred and abandoned house was razed.

It will be an increasingly common sight in Hernando, as the county has recently revived a long-dormant program to demolish unsafe buildings.

"The house is already down,'' Gail Kaczmarczyk said just before noon.

She was outside watching on Monday morning when Signature Construction arrived to start the demolition.

"We're just happy it's over and done with," Kaczmarczyk said, though she also wished it had happened sooner.

She lives just two doors down and still remembers her house shaking and the high flames on the day of the explosion. But since the fire, there has been almost no activity to clear the burned-out structure from the neighborhood of large homes and well-manicured yards.

Kaczmarczyk started sending emails to the county. Then she was lucky enough to find the county's new building official, Jim Friedrichs.

Several months ago, Friedrichs returned to his old job in Hernando after spending 11 years in Milwaukee. He found a lot had changed, including that the county had stopped its unsafe building abatement program because of lean budgets in the past several years.

But the need for tearing down unsafe buildings had not gone away.

During last summer's budget discussions, county officials agreed to put $150,000 into the program this year. That is more than 10 times the amount set aside in each of the previous two years.

Friedrichs was realistic about what can be accomplished.

"That $150,000, that's going to disappear relatively quickly,'' he said. "I've got six more in the hopper right now'' to demolish.

That will likely consume this year's entire allocation.

Still on the waiting list: 80 buildings declared unsafe.

Funding has been an issue for some time. When the building boom was ongoing, the building department could generate enough funds to pay to demolish condemned buildings, explained George Zoettlein, assistant county administrator for budget.

When things went bust, the building department, which generates its own revenue and pays its own bills, had to drop the program. The county's general fund was tapped for minimal demolition the past two years.

Friedrichs hopes that a practice he learned about in Wisconsin can be adopted here, and he has turned the idea over to the county's legal department for research. Currently, after the county demolishes a building, it bills the owner for the cost. The owner usually does not pay, so the county places a lien against the property. The county collects when the property sells.

Currently, the county is awaiting more than $194,000 in uncollected and unpaid demolition fees.

In Milwaukee, the assessment is charged as part of the property tax bill, which often results in a quicker repayment.

"It would really be nice if we could collect these monies more timely to be able to pay for more demolition,'' Friedrichs said. "That way it wouldn't be such a drain on the general fund.''

Friedrichs has brought another idea from Milwaukee to consider. Ron Pianta, the assistant county administrator for planning and development, is looking into an abandoned building registry program. Once a building goes into foreclosure, it could be placed in a database. That way the county can keep track of it, and "there would be more eyes on the address,'' Friedrichs said.

"It's a baby step, a way to keep our finger on the pulse,'' he said.

Meanwhile, Friedrichs will move forward with the ongoing unsafe building demolitions.

He said his criteria for picking projects is simple. It's based on complaints from the public, and the East Linden Estates house was an easy choice because it was in a nice neighborhood especially affected negatively by the burned-out house.

"An unsafe building in a neighborhood of that type, it depresses property values. It brings in bad things,'' he said. "It's a cancer in a neighborhood.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

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